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Mummies & Bones as Television Stars December 2, 2004
by Mark Rose

New documentaries and a series focus on human remains, from Jane McCrea, a Revolutionary War figure, to a possible son of Rameses II, to mummies around the world.

There's a constant flow of television programs showing researchers investigating the dead. Typically there is a hook, such as identifying the remains or trying to determine how the person died. In general, they feature an archaeologist teamed up with forensic specialists. That's true of three new shows that are either being broadcast now or will air in the next week. The History Channel is carrying Buried Secrets of the Revolutionary War and the Discovery Channel has Rameses: Wrath of God or Man and Mummy Autopsy, both of which are part of what it calls "Egypt Week."

Jane McCrea's tomb in Fort Edward, New York, is the subject of an archaeological-forensic investigation on the History Channel. Re-enactors in Revolutionary War gear portray soldiers at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. (History Channel) [image]

The story of Jane McCrea is told in Buried Secrets of the Revolutionary War, which, despite not being a large-budget production, is very good. McCrea was killed in July 1777 while being taken by Indian allies of the British to General Burgoyne's camp. Two versions of her death were told at the time: she was murdered by the Indians; she was hit by a musketball fired at the Indians by a colonial soldier. However she died, she was then scalped. McCrea's death helped alienate people from the British cause, possibly contributing to a surge in recruits that ensured an American victory at Saratoga in the fall. After an initial burial, Jane McCrea's remains were moved and reburied twice. In the first case, she was reinterred with Sarah McNeil, with whom she had been captured by the Indians (McNeil survived). But the historical records are unclear if she was buried near, above, or literally with McNeil. During the second, in 1852, it was reported that some of McCrea's bones, including her skull, were purloined as souvenirs. So, there are the questions: how did she die? is there any of Jane McCrea in Jane McCrea's burial?

The exhumation of Jane McCrea was carried out by archaeologist David Starbuck, who is the featured scholar in the show. Also appearing are historians, a forensic anthropologist, a DNA expert, and descendants of both McCrea and McNeil's families. Many of the bones, including a skull, are of an older woman. Fewer of them belong to a younger woman. There's no skull for that individual, and no evidence for cause of death. The remains could be a mix of Jane and Sarah's bones. Surprisingly, the DNA analysis of bone samples reveals the presence of three individuals. Comparison with DNA from a direct descendant of McNeil shows that the older woman is indeed Sarah McNeil. But there's no direct maternal descendant whose DNA could confirm that the younger remains are McCrea's, though that is almost certainly the case. And the third person? Likely a stray bone from another burial that was accidentally brought along during the 1852 reburial.

Although not all the questions are answered, Buried Secrets of the Revolutionary War does a good job of outlining the issues, going through the evidence, and reaching what conclusions can be made. The show makes considerable use of re-enactors portraying colonial and British troops at the Battle of Saratoga, but doesn't overdo it and these scenes are effective (it helps that these are very serious re-enactors). The scene of McCrea being scalped, however, makes a few too many appearances and is in a couple of renditions rather graphic. But overall, this is a good show and worth watching (it is now being carried on the History Channel; check you local listings).

[image] Overlay of re-created profile and skull from KV 5. Kent Weeks, who is studying the tomb, believes the skull might be of Amun-her-khepeshef, Rameses' first-born son. (Discovery Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

Bones from Egypt's Valley of the Kings are a sure-fire attention getter, but a big budget and lots of computer-generated images are not guarantees of a great program as the Discovery Channel's heavily promoted Rameses: Wrath of God or Man shows. Here, what could be an interesting, if less ambitious, documentary about trying to identify the human remains from KV 5 is hijacked by the biblical tale of the plagues and Exodus. The two threads--bones and Exodus--are followed by Kent Weeks (excavator of the tomb designated KV 5) and Charles Sennott (a Boston Globe reporter).

Sennott travels up and down Egypt like a junior detective looking for clues about Moses, the plagues, the Exodus, etc. A brief review is not the place to argue about whether such things happened; suffice it to say that after showing scholar Israel Finklestein say there's no evidence for it in the archaeological record, the program assumes that it and the plagues did happen and took place in the reign of Rameses II. Moses, who is shown as an adherent of the Atenist religion, kills Amun-her-khepeshef, Rameses' first-born son and commander of the army, in hand-to-hand combat during the flight from Egypt.

Sennott's investigation includes some pretty silly stuff, a low point being when he inquires if an encrustation of natron on the mummy of Merneptah, another of Rameses sons and his eventual successor, could be salt from the Red Sea, deposited when the waters overwhelmed the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites. How the Egyptologist asked that question kept a straight face is beyond me. Another problem with this production is the repetitive use of re-enactments and computer-generated biblical plagues. Not only are they over-used, they are at times confusing. For example, Moses is shown at an age of around 60 years confronting a youthful Rameses, while shortly before he is shown as a child playing with Rameses' son Amun-her-khepeshef. Rameses lived a long time, but he wasn't ageless. The scenes of Nefertari and Rameses making love might have come from another program, perhaps with the title Spicey Sex Lives of the Pharaohs, or something like that.

The bones from KV 5 are what's really of interest in this show, but there are lots of unanswered questions about them. They come from a pit dug into the floor of chamber 2 in KV 5, which is near the tomb's entrance. In addition to a cow foreleg (which had been mummified as a food offering) the pit yielded the skulls of three males, beneath which was the fully articulated skeleton of another male. This individual, it should also be noted, had his arms crossed in the pose seen in many of the royal mummies. In his book KV 5: A Preliminary Report (2000), Kent Weeks suggested that all four individuals might have been brought from chambers deeper in the tomb and been redposited here by looters in antiquity.

The show, at least in the advanced copy reviewed here, does not make it clear which of the four individuals Weeks believes is Amun-her-khepeshef, nor why he believes it is that prince in particular. Weeks is shown pointing out an inscription and relief near the entrance of the tomb naming Amun-her-khepeshef and showing him being led before Osiris, god of the underworld. Presumably that is the connection. If so, does that that means Weeks now suspects the body was originally buried in the chamber 2 pit? A skull fracture that happened around the time of death (whether it was the cause of death can't be proved, but it looks likely), might link with the prince's role as army commander--possibly he was a battlefield casualty, suggests Weeks.

Father and son? Re-created faces show Rameses II and an individual whose skull was found in KV5, the tomb of Rameses' sons. (Discovery Channel) [image]

Much of the time devoted to the bones is taken up with the examination and facial reconstruction done by Caroline Wilkinson. In a particularly interesting segment, we see Wilkinson and her assistant looking at a comparison of the heads of the supposed Amun-her-khepeshef, two of the other KV 5 skulls, and Rameses (from his mummy). Wilkinson points out that the proportions from eyes to nose and nose to chin are very close in Rameses and the other two skulls, but that the supposed Amun-her-khepeshef skull is much shorter nose to chin. Then she says that they all are long viewed in profile and have long, thin faces. She concludes "they do look to be of a type, certainly." The narrator says there's a "high statistical probability" that all three are from the same family. I wish that Wilkinson had made her conclusions more clearly (not that I don't trust the narrator). For example, does "look to be of a type" mean immediate family, extended family, or something else? Is the difference in proportions significant or not?

This is important for two reasons. First, no DNA analysis was carried out, so one way that a family connection might be proved was eliminated before it was tried (success in recovering a usable sequence not, of course, guaranteed). Second, Weeks stated in KV 5: A Preliminary Report that "It is possible that chambers 1 and 2 of KV 5 together originally constituted a small Eighteenth Dynasty tomb that was later usurped and enlarged by Ramesses II." Are the skulls and the near complete articulated skeleton from chamber 2 all of 19th Dynasty date, the dynasty of Rameses II? If the shape of the supposed Amun-her-khepeshef skull doesn't quite match the others, could he be earlier (assuming it is from the skeleton)? There's no mention of radiocarbon dating the bones, which potentially could clarify this.

Who the gentlemen from the pit in chamber 2 are is an intriguing question. It's unfortunate that so much of this show is spent chasing the plagues and Exodus instead of going into more detail about the bones. Weeks is reportedly working on a publication of these remains, and I look forward to seeing his full presentation of the evidence and his interpretation there. Rameses: Wrath of God or Man will be broadcast Sunday, December 5, 9:00-11:00 ET/PT.

Chasing down mummies around the world seems to be the goal of the new Discovery Channel series Mummy Autopsy. When I saw the opening of the first episode I was concerned that it would be very sensationalistic and low in science content: think of the images that might accompany the announcer's recitation of "Sacrifice...Plague...Murder..." But I was wrong. While not without problems, this episode--divided into the investigation of an Egyptian mummy in Scotland and the naturally mummified body of a nineteenth-century Chinese immigrant from Peru--was pretty good. (My only quibble was that the re-enactment of the immigrant received far more time than needed).

[image] John Schultz and James Murrell get acquainted with a patient in an episode of the new series Mummy Autopsy. (Discovery Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

The series sends "MIs" (mummy investigators) around the world to examine assorted mummies. The whole team includes Tiffany Tung (biological anthropologist), Ken Nystrom (physical anthropologist), James Murrell (radiologist), John Schultz (physical anthropologist), and Heather Walsh-Haney (a forensic anthropologist). In this episode, Heather Walsh-Haney and James Murrell work on the Eyyptian mummy, while John Schultz teams up with Murrell for the Peruvian one. Presumably the others will appear on other cases during the series. The program has a nice feel to it. It isn't overly manicured--much of the time it is unrehearsed, the camera rolling as Walsh-Haney inspects the mummy's skull or as Peruvian pathologists saw into the unfortunate immigrant's abdominal cavity. And there's plenty of science: from strontium analysis to see if the Egyptian, possibly a 17th Dynasty queen, was in fact from Nubia (she wasn't), to the determination of what caused the immigrant's demise (a parasite acquired during quarantine). Listening to the scientists discuss the cases is very interesting. Hopefully the Discovery Channel will continue the series in the same vein: it's a little rough around the edges but it is entertaining and informative (Mummy Autopsy premiers on Tuesday, December 7, 9:00-10:00, and will occupy that time slot through January).

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America