Leading mummy expert to speak at TMAWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | email@example.com
The field of Egyptology has a basketball game to thank for producing one of the world’s leading experts on mummification.
Bob Brier was in his mid-20s and chair of a university philosophy department when he injured his knee playing basketball and decided to learn hieroglyphics while recovering.
The experience was the start of an obsession with ancient Egypt that has led to pioneering research into mummification practices and investigations into some of the world’s most famous mummies, including King Tut, Ramses the Great and Vladimir Lenin.
Today the 76-year-old is known as “Mr. Mummy,” a nickname bestowed in 1994 when he became the first person in 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver using ancient Egyptian techniques.
Brier and his wife, fellow Egyptologist Pat Remler, will be in Toledo on May 13 to discuss “Myths and Mummies,” a free presentation at 7:30 p.m. at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle.
Brier, a senior research fellow at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, will discuss his research in the ancient Egyptian methods of mummification, while Remler will discuss why the Egyptians’ mythology and religion led them to preserve their bodies.
“Egyptians were resurrectionists. They believed people were really going to get up and go again,” Brier told Toledo Free Press during a call from his home in the Bronx. He was supposed to have been in Libya, but the political unrest postponed his trip. “I’ll be teaching aspects of how to mummify and why they mummified and she’ll talk about the gods and goddesses associated with it.”
People have long been fascinated by ancient Egypt, in large part because of the mummies, Brier said.
“It’s like they cheated death,” he said. “Mummies still look like human beings. So the fascination we have with death I think also attracts us to it.”
The idea to mummify a modern cadaver came as Brier was writing a book on ancient Egyptian mummies.
“I realized there were an awful lot of things we didn’t know and that’s when I said the only way we’ll actually figure it out is by doing a mummy,” Brier said.
The process, which took 70 days — one day to remove the organs and 69 days to dry and mummify the body —yielded several new insights.
Researchers knew Egyptians had removed the brain through the nose, but no one knew for sure how it was done.
“We thought you put in a hook and pulled it out in pieces. Well, that didn’t work at all,” Brier said. “We had to eventually break it down to a liquid and drain it.”
Another longtime mystery solved was why the tables used for mummification were so large. It turns out the process requires about 400 pounds of natron, a type of salt and the bodies had to be completely buried under a pile in order to dry.
Brier said the experience stands out as a favorite in his career.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I think this is really how they did it,’” Brier said. “I felt a closeness to the embalmer, like we were brothers in the same occupation.”
Brier checks on the mummy periodically, looking for bacterial growth.
“He’s been at room temperature for more than 10 years and he’s fine, so we think we did it right,” he said.
Brier, who specializes in paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, studies mummies to understand what diseases were prevalent in the ancient world and how they’ve changed, allowing scientists to better understand those same diseases today.
A new long-term project is looking for evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
“We’re looking at brains of elderly Egyptians to see if they have amyloid plagues on it,” Brier said. “Not every mummy had the brain removed. Poor people couldn’t afford it. We haven’t found it yet — we’ve only looked in a few brains — but it’d be interesting if we found it.”
Brier has amassed a personal collection of Egypt-themed items ranging from historical artifacts to kitsch that fills several rooms.
Yet despite the knowledge gained through his and other people’s research, unsolved mysteries will likely always remain.
“I think we’ll get most of it, but I think there will always be some things that will never be known,” Brier said. “But we can always know more, which is a good thing I think.”
For more information, visit www.toledomuseum.org.