It is a mystery that has baffled scientists for centuries: how were the ancient Egyptians able to preserve some of their greatest pharaohs perfectly for millennia?
Now, 3,000 years later, a British scientist believes he has cracked the code to one of the last great secrets of the pharaohs and has overseen the successful mummification of a British donor’s body to prove it.
The results turn much accepted wisdom about mummification on its head and a feature-length Channel 4 science documentary about the process, Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret, will be broadcast on Monday, October 24th.
Dr Stephen Buckley, a chemist and research fellow at York University, has spent 19 years trying to discover exactly how the ancient Egyptians preserved bodies so perfectly and work out how to replicate the process used on the ‘best of the best’ mummies during the 18th dynasty ‘Golden Age’ of ancient Egypt.
Working with archaeologist Dr Jo Fletcher, Buckley has studied scores of mummified bodies and analysed the chemistry of tissue samples.
Now his theory has passed its ultimate test after a team of experts, including world-renowned forensic pathologist Professor Peter Vanezis, used Buckley’s method to mummify a donor’s body at Sheffield’s Medico Legal Centre.
“I’ve come up with fantastic new insights that tell us a very great deal,” says Stephen Buckley. “What I was able to do was to look at things in quite a different way, and in doing so get information that perhaps people had missed. It’s turned current understanding, including my own, completely on its head.”
Alan Billis, a taxi driver from Torquay in Devon who died in January 2011 at the age of 61, has become the first person for three millennia to be mummified like Tutankhamun, the pharaoh who died in 1323BC aged around eighteen and whose magnificent tomb was discovered in 1922.
Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Alan read a news story about the Channel 4 mummification project and decided to donate his body to the experiment after his death. His decision has the full support of his family and he appears in the documentary alongside his wife, Jan.
“I was reading the paper and there was a piece that said: ‘volunteer wanted with a terminal illness to donate their body to be mummified’,” says Alan Billis in the documentary. “People have been leaving their bodies to science for years and if people don’t volunteer for anything nothing gets found out.”
Jan Billis was surprisingly unfazed by her husband’s news: “He just said, I’ve just phoned someone up about being mummified. I said, you’ve what? Yes, I’ve phoned up someone about being mummified. And I thought here we go again. What’s going to go on now? It’s just the sort of thing you would expect him to do…”
Stephen Buckley’s two-decade-long quest to uncover the secrets of Egyptian mummification has seen him transform his own kitchen into an embalmer’s laboratory.
Using modern technology, including a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer, he has identified the materials Egyptian priests would have used – such as salt, beeswax, natural oils and resins.
Dr Buckley has experimented in a shed using over 200 pigs’ legs, which are a close substitute for human tissue, to find the exact process used by ancient priests to preserve their pharaohs’ bodies for eternity.
He even recreated the desert conditions of Egypt in this shed using a heater and de-humidifier. Having replicated the results in the lab, the chemist believes he has found the formula to mummify a body indefinitely. But the ultimate way to verify the theory was with a human volunteer.
In 2003, Stephen Buckley and Jo Fletcher made a major breakthrough in their search for the secrets of 18th dynasty mummification. Studying X-rays of three particularly well-preserved royal mummies in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, they noticed unusual ‘snowflake-like’ structures in the flesh.
It was a clue that was to lead Buckley to unlock the secrets of the peak of Egyptian mummification during the 18th dynasty.
“The 18th dynasty was the zenith, the very height of ancient Egyptian culture,” says Jo Fletcher. “The pharaohs at that time – such as Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun – literally ruled the ancient world.”
Mummification was designed to prevent decomposition, and allow the bodies of the pharaohs to live on for eternity and provide a home for their souls. Egyptian embalmers had been perfecting the process for thousands of years, passing the closely-guarded secret through the generations – and 18th dynasty mummies are the best preserved of all.
But the secret was lost in history. Now Buckley believes that the ‘snowflake’ structures are the key to the mysterious rite.
To prevent the body’s decomposition, Professor Peter Vanezis and the team at the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre started by removing Alan’s internal organs – including the intestines, liver, stomach and lungs – through a four-inch incision on the left side of the body, just as the Egyptians would have done.
The Egyptians believed it was vital that the heart must stay in place and the other organs were preserved in Canopic jars. The body cavity was then sterilised with alcohol and re-packed with small bags of linen to restore its appearance.
However, Stephen Buckley and Jo Fletcher’s study of the 18th dynasty mummies contradicts one of the facts that every schoolchild knows about mummies – that the brain was removed through their nose.
That was often the case, but around half of the 18th dynasty royal mummies retained their brains and the shrunken remnants can still be seen in X-rays of the skulls.
The next stage was vital if the mummification was to be successful – removing the body’s water: “The drying of the body – desiccation – was a crucial part of the mummification process for the Egyptians,” says Stephen Buckley.
The key ingredient is a form of salt unique to Egypt – natron. It was widely used by the Egyptians for washing and cleaning. It is almost as caustic as bleach and its use to dry mummies was described by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in 450BC.
Herodotus, who was writing 800 years after the 18th dynasty, says that mummies should be covered in natron salt to remove the water. But dry salt would not produce the mysterious ‘flakes’ that Buckley and Fletcher spotted in the best-preserved specimens. It would also leave the mummies emaciated as the water was drawn out by osmosis.
Instead Buckley believes that the 18th dynasty mummies – the pinnacle of the Egyptian embalmers’ art – were placed in a bath of salty water (as some early translations of Herodotus suggested), with the salt gradually transforming the body’s skin and body fat and leaving the tell-tale ‘snowflakes’ of salt.
“Of course the idea of a natron bath, a salt solution, sounds mad,” says Stephen Buckley. “Because you’re actually using water to dry out a body, so it does sound so counter-intuitive.”
Jo Fletcher believes the use of water had special significance for the ancient Egyptians: “It’s rebirth, it’s new life, it’s resurrection, it’s living forever. All the symbolism associated with birth, not just rebirth but actual physical birth is all bound up in this amazing technique. The dead were being reborn into the next world, just in the same way we are born into this life.”
Water would usually accelerate decomposition, but the natron solution is different. In fact, it is so caustic that it could take off a layer of skin. But Buckley, followed Herodotus’s reference to an Egyptian trick – protecting Alan’s body with a coating of natural ingredients, including sesame oil and beeswax.
Once covered, Alan’s body was left in the natron bath for over a month – the strength of the natron solution and the time in the bath were something that took Stephen Buckley years of scientific trial and error – and the Egyptians possibly hundreds of years – to perfect.
Next Alan’s body had to be dried out in a special chamber to replicate the high temperature and low humidity of Egypt.
Finally the mummy was wrapped with linen bandages – in the same way as the pharaohs – to allow drying to continue, keep the limbs intact and keep out light and insects. And Alan’s mummy received a special visit from wife, Jan, who wanted to see him and leave some favourite photographs and his grandchildren’s drawings.
After the completion of the three-month process, mummification has been judged a success.
Stephen Buckley is happy: “It’s good, it looks good to me. There is plenty of salt in the tissue and the density here suggests that it’s salt and it’s starting to come through. So this does show exactly what you get when you use a natron bath and this clearly shows that a natron bath can preserve the brain. I think he’s on the road to looking very much like the best of the best of the 18th Dynasty in 3000 years’ time.”
Forensic pathologist Professor Peter Vanezis is also pleased after inspecting Alan’s mummy and looking at scans: “The skin itself has this leathery appearance which indicates that he has become mummified all over. It makes me very confident that his tissues have been mummified correctly and in a very successful manner.”
Forensic anthropologist Professor Bill Bass, an expert on human decomposition, who set up the famous Body Farm in Tennessee, is impressed by the preservation: “Something has slowed down the decay process because If you called me to say how long has he been there… I’d say maybe 3 days at the most. He’s in good shape.”
Alan’s mummy will stay at the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre until the end of 2011, after that it is hoped it will continue to be studied by scientists researching ancient Egypt, mummification and decomposition.
The mummification research may also offer an alternative to preservation of tissue with formaldehyde, which has been found to be carcinogenic.
Jan Billis is happy with the process: “I’m the only woman in the country who’s got a mummy for a husband. It’s strange because I would never have thought it but every single day I think about him. I wonder what he’s doing now, laying there.”
But Alan Billis, dubbed ‘Torquay’s Tutankhamun’, has only one regret: “Shame I’m not gonna be around to see it, isn’t it? I’d like to have seen that because I like documentaries.”
Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret will be shown on Channel 4 on Monday, October 24th at 9pm. It is made by Blink Films, produced by Laura Jones, directed by Kenny Scott and executive produced by Justine Kershaw and Gillian Mosely.
More details about the programme can be found at: http://channel4.com/mummy