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Bob Brier is Mr. Mummy - The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 1/4/08

Bob Brier is Mr. Mummy
Egyptologist learned preservation technique by doing

By Tamara Ikenberg
The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky

Ancient Egyptians thought that by carefully and ritualistically mummifying their nobility, they would preserve the pharaohs and their families for the paradise of the next life.

Egyptologist Bob Brier has made mummies his life's work.

Known as Mr. Mummy, Brier is the author of "The Encyclopedia of Mummies" and a Senior Research Fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y. He has searched the Egyptian desert for mummies more than 100 times.

He's coming to the Louisville Science Center tonight to talk about his and colleague Ronald Wade's 1994 project to mummify a corpse using traditional Egyptian methods. Brier has edified our city's citizens before as a visiting professor at University of Louisville. In 1994, he taught a course on ancient Egyptian architecture for a semester. Brier also stars in the Science Center's current IMAX production, "Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs."

The Bronx-based scholar spoke by phone about Egyptian beliefs, middle-class mummies and lookin' good in the afterlife.

Q: What's the origin of the word "mummy"?

A: It's actually a Persian word, and it means tar, pitch or any black sticky substance. Around the fifth century B.C., when the Persians first came into Egypt, they saw mummies, which had tree resin on them to preserve them. They looked at them and said: "mummiya."

How did you earn the title Mr. Mummy?

When I did the mummy project in 1994, National Geographic did a documentary about it, and they gave it the title "Mr. Mummy." I wasn't sure if they were referring to me or the mummy.

How and when did you decide to study mummies?

I was 26. I already had a Ph.D. in philosophy, had another career, and I also played basketball. I had a knee operation, and someone gave me a copy of an Egyptian hieroglyph textbook just to keep my interest while I was in bed recovering. For months, I did nothing but teach myself hieroglyphics. I got into the language and the whole civilization, and then I started looking at mummies. I had attended medical school, so I know anatomy. I realized what all these people were saying about mummies was wrong; they really didn't know how the Egyptians did it. And then I figured it would be interesting to do a mummification.

What were some questions about the process you sought to answer?

How do you remove the brain through the nose? It doesn't sound easy to me. They used this powder to dehydrate the body, called natron, which is basically baking soda and table salt. How much natron do you need to mummify a person? If the whole idea of mummification is to dehydrate the body, to get it really dry, really fast, do you drain the blood first or don't you? The only way to really answer the details of mummification was to actually do it, so we decided to do it.

How did you keep it real?

We wanted to be like the Egyptians. We even worked with tools that were replicas of the ancient tools. We were using copper knives, bronze knives and even stone knives in the operation, so we learned an awful lot about mummification by doing it. We did everything the Egyptian way. We never even X-rayed to see how it was going; we always did what we thought the ancient Egyptian embalmers would do. It was very exciting. It was the first mummification in 2,000 years.

Why did the Egyptians remove every organ except the heart during mummification?

They believed that you thought with your heart. They really didn't know the function of the brain. The heart was the one thing they kept inside the body because you're going to need that to think when you get to the next world to say the magical spells and resurrect yourself. Every other organ, except for the brain, they kept it in jars, next to the sarcophagus. They would keep them, so that literally in the next world, you'd get it all together again. You'll be reassembled magically.

How did Anubis, the jackal-headed deity, become the Egyptian god of embalming?

Jackals have a special digestive system. They can't eat fresh meat. They like pre-digested, rotten meat. So they were seen scavenging in cemeteries, and they became associated with cemeteries; and that's why they became associated with the dead.

When did middle-class mummies arise?

Right after the end of the pyramid building. It used to be only the Pharaohs were going to resurrect, be immortal. At some point, the Egyptian government totally collapsed, during what we call The Old Kingdom, which is when the pyramids were built. When it collapsed, the pyramids were robbed. People went into the pyramids, and they saw these magical spells on the walls the priests had written down to help resurrection. They were called the pyramid texts. And the raiders figured they could be immortal too. Immortality became sort of democratized.

Why did people stop making mummies?

When Egyptian civilization declined, and when the Greeks conquered them, the priesthood wasn't supported, and the religion just died out, and therefore mummification died out. Mummification mainly happened between 2,500 B.C. and around 200 A.D.; almost 3,000 years.

How can mummy DNA aid modern science and health?

We can see how diseases have changed. We can look, for example, at a bacteria like malaria in ancient Egypt, and if we look at the DNA of that ancient organism and compare that to modern malaria, we'll know how it's evolved and we'll know what direction the disease is going in maybe, and we might be able to avoid certain diseases. The bones are the best place to find DNA, because it's best preserved there.

You've been doing Alzheimer's studies and struggling with it. What's the problem?

Usually the Egyptians took the brain out and threw it away when they mummified. They took the brain out of the nose, so it was all kind of liquid and not in good shape. ... I have to find mummies of very poor people who couldn't afford to have their brain taken out, and in addition, the person has to be at least 60 years old for me to look for Alzheimer's, so it's hard. I only have two brains of old people from ancient Egypt, and they have no sign of Alzheimer's.

Why did they have to take the brain out through the nose? Why didn't they just open their heads?

You don't want to really mess up the head. You want to do as little cosmetic damage as possible. You want to look good in the next world.

Reporter Tamara Ikenberg can be reached at (502) 582-4174.

Friday, January 4, 2008