A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
What is it about mummies?" Bob Brier asks in Unwrapped: The Mysterious World of Mummies, a three-part series airing this December on The Learning Channel. The well-known author of two excellent popular presentations of current Egyptology, Brier skillfully demonstrates how mummies and other preserved human remains from Asia, Europe, and South America have both fascinated people in all times and places and have been incomparable source materials for medical, scientific, and religious history. Brier is certainly the right person to present this show. He has a genuine talent for popularizing scientific data and great enthusiasm for palaeopathology--the study of ancient human remains. His own research has culminated in the mummification of a modern human, on view in the series. (See Brier's article on the making of a modern mummy, to be published in the January/February issue of this magazine.)
The first episode, "The ABCs of Mummies," reviews mummy-making in ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, and in the Soviet Union, where V.I. Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, was mummified and became a national icon. Ground zero for our knowledge of mummy preparation in Egypt is the Greek historian Herodotus, who visited Egypt ca. 450 B.C. He describes in some detail three methods of mummification available in different price ranges.
Brier attempts to prove that Herodotus' account of mummification is mostly accurate. The Egyptians themselves never described mummification in writing; the process was probably a secret guarded by the priesthood of Anubis--the god of embalmers. The priests passed knowledge of the process orally to new trainees. Herodotus claims to have learned how it was done and describes the process. He reports that priests removed the brain through the nose with an iron hook. Next they made a short incision in the abdomen with an "Ethiopian" stone, removing the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines. The heart, the seat of mind according to the Egyptians, was left in place. The body was washed with palm wine and packed with linen, frankincense, and myrrh. The remaining parts were dehydrated by heaping solid natron, a naturally occurring salt, over the body for a 35-day period. Finally they wrapped the body in linen and placed it in a coffin. It was now ready for burial.
Brier's own successful attempt to mummify a human verified much of Herodotus' description. Though video footage of the process is brief, it is still not for the squeamish. An interesting result of re-enacting the process was observing the darkening of the skin of the cadaver after 35 days in natron. A CAT scan of the modern mummy showed many points of comparison with ancient mummy CAT scans, including similar damage to the bones of the skull from removal of the brain.
Unwrapped: The Mysterious World of Mummies
Edward Bleiberg is associate curator in the Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art Department at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
First Born," "Body," "Love," "Exodus," "Contact," "Human": what stirring images were evoked by these episode titles for the new Dawn of Man series that aired on The Learning Channel this past August. They were certainly appropriate for a series that we hoped would plumb the accumulated knowledge of human evolutionary studies and bring our ancestors to life via computer re-creations. There is great drama in human evolution--how our ancestors lived and died. And there is also great romance in finding fossil hominids, at least for those not involved in this tedious and uncomfortable work.
Dawn of Man consists of six 50-minute episodes that consider human evolution from the australopithecines to Homo sapiens sapiens. While each episode has positive aspects, a number of production decisions make the series slower, less fun, and less informative than it should be. Too much air time is given to re-creations and dramatic music and too little to the science and scientists. Often we see the same re-creations over and over. The scientists here generally do a good job of explaining their work, though they are not often given enough time to develop complex ideas. And all too often, only one side of paleoanthropology's most contentious debates is presented. This ends up making some of the scientific perspectives sound like ad hoc ideas.
Even within this one-sided framework, the producers miss easy opportunities for disseminating information. No explanatory graphics are used, no phylogenetic trees to identify relationships between hominid groups and time, no maps of dispersal routes, no explanations of tool production. Sites are not always identified by name, nor are scientists until after they have appeared four or five times. Some are never introduced. While we cannot expect popular videos to be chock full of technical information, a little more science would have greatly clarified issues rather than creating misconceptions.
Dawn of Man: Adventures in Human Evolution
Susan Anton is a paleoanthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.