Last week we met Mumab, the modern-day ancient Egyptian mummy, and learned a little about what he is up to now.  To recap, he is now on permanent loan to the San Diego Museum of Man and is currently serving as the centerpiece of their new exhibit, Modern Day Mummy: The Art and Science of Mummification.

Since that article ran, the Museum of Man has kindly provided Em Hotep with some photos from the exhibit, so we are returning the favor with a closer look at the exhibit itself.  We will also take an in-depth look at the story behind one of the displays—Ronald Beckett’s trip to New Guinea to help a village set up a program of better mummy maintenance.


Modern Day Mummy:  The Art and Science of Mummification opened at the San Diego Museum of Man on June 10, 2011, just in time for the Seventh World Congress on Mummy Studies just across town at the University of San Diego.  The two events had more in common than mummies and a chance to enjoy the Southern California weather.  Aside from promoting general awareness about the field of mummy studies, both the Congress on Mummy Studies and the Modern Day Mummy exhibit addressed the practical, ethical, and social issues that researchers often face while working in the field.

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The Modern Day Mummy exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man

Mummies are not always very mobile.  Even something as simple as moving a mummy from one part of a museum to another can be a logistical ballet, and conducting mummy forensics often involves transporting a mummy from a museum in one country to a medical center in another.  But what do you do when a mummy won’t budge?  What if, for practical or cultural reasons, the mummy has to remain in situ?

But before we get into these issues, let’s check back in with Mumab, the star of the show.


Multimodal Imaging: One Layer, Probe, and Photo at a Time

Fortunately, sometimes the mummies are willing to cooperate with researchers, and Mumab is probably the best sport of all.  One of the best tools for paleoimaging—the science of using medical and industrial imaging tools to collect images of cultural remains and artifacts—is CT scanning.  CT scanning, also called CAT scanning, is a type of x-ray imaging that takes multiple cross-sectional pictures of a body or artifact allowing it to be viewed it in layers.  CT scans are non-invasive, do not require that a mummy be unwrapped, and can even take detailed images of a mummy that is inside a sarcophagus.

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CT scanning in mummy forensics (Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum)

Mumab’s display at the San Diego Museum of Man includes a full-size recreation of a CT scanner, along with interactive controls that allow visitors to get a feel for what it is like to perform their own analysis of a mummy.  One of the last things Mumab’s creators did was take a full set of CT scans of the mummy and those images have been incorporated into the interactive display to complete the experience.

The controls for the simulated CT scan are much simpler than in real life, but as visitors explore Mumab’s body layer by layer they get a pretty good sense for how CT scanning allows researchers to diagnose the person under the wrappings, how they might have lived and died, and how the process of mummification both preserved and changed the body.   The video portion of the display uses tomography—a way of using  x-ray and other types of imaging to allow you to visually “move” through a body or object—to reconstruct Mumab using his actual CT scans.

CT scanning is only one of several means of paleoimaging, and the Modern Day Mummy exhibit introduces us to the three most common types used by mummy researchers.  CT scanning falls under the category of radiography—image collection that utilizes different ways of x-raying a subject to get a comprehensive view of its internal structure.  CT scanning and conventional radiography help researchers understand what is going on “under the wraps.”   Combined with tomography software, radiographic images allow you to take a virtual tour of a mummy.

An endoscope is one of the more portable tools for mummy forensics (Courtesy Linda Bartlett)Another type of paleoimagery is endoscopy.  Endoscopy simply means to look inside of something, but more technically it refers to the use of an endoscope, a tool that allows a lens to be inserted into a body via a rigid or flexible probe.  The lens can either connect to an eyepiece, a camera, or a tomography computer.  Endoscopes are more intrusive than radiography, but they are also more portable, making them very useful in the field.     Also, whereas radiography requires tomography software to simulate a 3D view of a body, an endoscope allows you to examine the inside as it actually appears.


Conventional photography is still one of the most important tools in the field (Courtesy of Isawnyu)

Conventional photography is still one of the most important tools in the field (Courtesy of Isawnyu)

The third tool in the paleoimagery toolbox is simple conventional photography.  Photographs provide the most basic means of collecting visual data and cameras are generally the most portable of the three primary tools for paleoimagery.  Photography has been an element of field work practically since the invention of the camera, and is useful for everything from documenting artifacts to surveying the entire site.

The Museum of Man exhibit has plenty of conventional photography to show the role of the camera in mummy forensics, as well as the CT scan simulation for exploring Mumab in depth.  There is even an endoscope visitors can inspect.  The exhibit demonstrates that each of these tools offers a different mode of examining and imaging the mummy.  They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, but when used together in a complimentary fashion they provide the most complete means of analysis.

Called multimodal imaging, this varied approach allows researchers to gain a more complete picture of what is going on inside a mummy.  Conventional photography is good for documenting the site and its contents, but it really only shows us what a mummy looks like from the outside.  X-ray and CT scanning allow us to see what is going on inside, but only in 2D.  Endoscopy allows the researcher to explore the contour of hollow sections of the mummy, but is limited to what is directly in front of the lens.  But in combination, these three tools allow a mummy to be explored in detail, inside and out.

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Multimodal imaging allows radiography and endoscopy to be combined into tomography software to produce a 3D fly-through of a mummy (Courtesy of Berkshire Museum)

This is all well and good, but what about those situations where you can’t deliver the mummy to the CT scanner, when practically all of the analysis has to take place in the field?  This brings us to another display in the Modern Day Mummy exhibit and introduces us to the work of Drs. Ronald Beckett and Gerald Conlogue, the men who literally wrote the book on paleoimaging.


Moimango—Another Modern Ancient Mummy

If Mumab shows us what mummy forensics looks like in the lab, then the display labeled “A Mummy Whispers” takes us about as far out in the field as you can get, all the way to the little village of Koke in the region of Papua, New Guinea.  The scene is a life-sized diorama that shows a mostly skeletal mummy sitting in a chair.  On one side of the mummy a modern-looking man is preparing to insert an endoscope, while on the other side a not-so-modern-looking man is examining the mummy using more conventional means—his eyes.

The scene actually recreates an important moment in mummy forensics history.  The fellow on the right is Dr. Ronald Beckett, who could rightly be called one of the founders of the field of paleoimagery.  The fellow on the left is Gemtasu, the chief of the village of Koke.  The fellow in the center is Moimango, Gemtasu’s father.  Aside from showing how researchers have developed strategies for conducting sophisticated mummy forensics in the field, this diorama represents a wonderful story that touches on all aspects of the Modern Day Mummy exhibit:  the ethical, the practical, and the social.


Ron Beckett, Jerry Conlogue, and the Emerging Field of Paleoimagery

Dr. Ronald Beckett

Dr. Ronald Beckett

Ron Beckett began his professional life in 1977 as a respiratory therapist and supervisor at Tucson General Hospital.  It was during this time that he began teaching endoscopy at Pima Community College, and his practical experience with respiratory/pulmonary specialists led to him making his own contributions and refinements to endoscopic procedures. In 1983 he moved to Rhode Island where he started the Respiratory Care program at the Community College of Rhode Island.

Dr. Jerry Conlogue

Dr. Jerry Conlogue

Beckett continued to explore new ways of applying endoscopy to pulmonary research and applications, and served as the Chairman of the Department of Cardiopulmonary Sciences and Diagnostic Imaging for 23 years at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. In the mid-90’s Dr. Beckett developed an interest in mummy research.  With the encouragement of Dr. Jerry Conlogue, a colleague who shared his interest in mummies, Dr. Beckett realized that endoscopy could provide a new dimension to analyzing mummies that radiographic imagery alone could not offer.

Drs. Beckett and Conlogue perfected their methods with animal mummies such as this cat at the Yale Peabody Museum

Drs. Beckett and Conlogue perfected their methods with animal mummies like this cat

In 1996 Beckett and Conlogue began testing methods of radiographic and endoscopic imaging on mummified remains, which led to an opportunity to put their techniques to work analyzing Peruvian mummies at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia.  Back in Connecticut they continued their work with human and animal mummies at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and became regular presenters at the annual meetings of the Paleopathology Association.  It was also at this time that Beckett and Conlogue began to define the methodology of multimodal imagery.

They continued to refine their methods of data collection using the various tools of radiography, magnetic resonance, and endoscopy, and laid the foundations for what would culminate in their 2009 book, Paleoimaging:  Field Applications for Cultural Remains and Artifacts.  But as paleoimaging continued to develop as a discipline, Dr. Beckett realized that there was an increasing need for ways of conducting research in the field rather than in the lab, so he and Dr. Conlogue began looking for ways to take the lab to the mummies.

It seems they found their niche, and soon Drs. Beckett and Conlogue were in high demand worldwide.  When mummy paleoimaging required a home visit, Beckett and Conlogue were the doctors-on-call.  But in 2008, Ron Beckett received his most unusual invitation ever.


Mummy Maintenance… 1,000 Feet Up, On a Cliff, In the Rainforest

The Anga are a collection of people in New Guinea who are divided into tribes according to dialect, with these tribes being further subdivided into local clans.  Some of these clans practice their own unique form of mummification, and it was from the leader of one of these clans that Dr. Beckett received his strange invitation.  Gemtasu, an Angan leader at the village of Koke, needed help developing new ways of preserving and maintaining the village mummies.

Mummies watching over the village from 1,000 feet up (Courtesy Healing Seekers)

Mummies watching over the village from 1,000 feet up (Courtesy Healing Seekers)

The Koke mummies, unlike those of Egypt, are not placed in a tomb or otherwise removed from the realm of the living.  To the contrary, they are placed 1,000 feet up in chairs on a cliff overlooking the village.  On certain occasions, the mummies are brought down from the cliff to participate in village life.  The people of Koke do not have a concept of an afterlife that is separate from the natural world, and their spirits are believed to wander the forest and interact with the living through their preserved bodies.

Gemtasu was concerned about the condition of one mummy in particular, that of his father, Moimango.  Like his father, Gemtasu planned to be mummified after death, so he wanted to leave a legacy of better mummy maintenance for his descendents.  Gemtasu learned about Dr. Beckett and his work through their mutual friend, the photographer Ulla Lohmann, and invited him to come to Koke to see what could be done to repair and better protect their mummies.

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Ronald Beckett and Andrew Nelson describe their project with the Koke villagers

For Ron Beckett, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.  Not only would he be able to try new means of mummy forensics and in-the-field paleoimaging, he would have the chance to study mummies in a cultural context where the living directly interacted with their preserved dead.

The fascinating thing about the Anga mummies, Beckett said, was that they were still a part of village life, not ancient artifacts as they are in Egypt. In fact, “We were actually introduced to the mummies as if they were living people.” (Source:  New Haven RegisterVillage mummy ritual withstands test of time)

But it would also involve new challenges.  Not only would there be the obvious cultural considerations, Beckett would also be facing new environmental conditions.  New Guinea is extremely humid, the exact opposite of traditional mummy territory.  How did they create these mummies in such a moist climate?  And the idea of leaving the mummies exposed to the elements a thousand feet up on a cliff was just asking for trouble.  Everything seemed counterintuitive to what he knew about making and preserving mummies.

Another challenge was sustainability.  The people of Koke would not have access to the sorts of materials a museum curator might use to restore a mummy, so Dr. Beckett would have to learn how to make use of the materials the Angan people could easily obtain and then train them in how to use these resources with their mummies.  Success meant learning three things about the mummies:  how they were made, how the people of Koke interacted with them, and how to restore and maintain them using indigenous materials.


Smoked Body

One of the first questions Dr. Beckett confronted was how mummification occurred in a place as humid as New Guinea.  Natural mummification was pretty much out of the question.  Anything that dies in the rainforest is reclaimed by nature pretty quickly through scavenging and decay.  But even artificial mummification would pose challenges.  Preserving a body is a race with the devil to remove all the moisture before decomposition can take hold, and rainforests are not known for their aridity.  But the Anga found a way.

A smoked body mummy. The reddish tint comes from a layer of ochre clay which is added in the final stages (Courtesy of Ulla Lohmann / National Geographic)

A smoked body mummy (Courtesy of Ulla Lohmann / National Geographic)

The Anga call their mummification technique smoked body, pretty much for the same reason we call smoked turkey “smoked turkey.”  Food meats are smoked by placing them in a confined space with a wood-burning fire.  The fire dehydrates the meat and the smoke creates a high-acid environment that discourages bacteria.

The ancient Egyptians packed bodies in natron for similar reasons—to draw out moisture and change the chemistry of the body in a way that prevented bacterial spoilage, except natron lowers acidity rather than raises it.  Either way, what works for pork and pastrami works for people.

You may recall from the previous article about Mumab, the modern ancient mummy, that the Egyptians embalmed their mummies in a special tent called the ibu tent.  Dr. Beckett learned that the Angan people have a special hut that serves the same purpose—a safe, controlled environment for dehydrating the body.  But the similarities pretty much end there.

The mummification hut works like a smokehouse and on the same principles.  A fire within an enclosed environment desiccates the body and keeps the humidity moving outward.  The smoke serves a dual purpose.  As mentioned above, it raises the acidity level on and around the body, but it also keeps insects out of the hut, and insects serve an important role in breaking down dead organic material.  To help speed the dehydrating process, the body is punctured with bamboo knives and the deceased’s relatives massage the tissues around these wounds, literally “milking” the bodily fluids out.

Also unlike the Egyptians, the Angan people do not remove the entrails from the torso.  These soft and wet organs are the first to begin decomposing, so the Angans developed another means of draining the body which Dr. Beckett delicately refers to as an anal spigot.  A bamboo tube is inserted into the sphincter to allow the fluids to evacuate.  The procedure is very effective, allowing the Angans to mummify their deceased with their organs intact.

An Angan mummy in situ (Courtesy Healing Seekers)

A mummy in situ (Courtesy Healing Seekers)

The bodies are mummified in an upright sitting position in the chair they will eventually occupy on the cliff face.  Once they are fully dried out they are covered with a layer of ochre, clay that is high in mineral oxides, giving them a reddish color.

The ochre serves a ceremonial purpose, but also helps protect and preserve the mummy.  The entire process takes about 30 days.

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A trip up the cliff to visit the Koke mummies (courtesy of Healing Seekers)

The next question Dr. Beckett had to address was how the villagers interacted with the mummies.  He knew that sitting on the cliff face, exposed to the wind and sun, had to take its toll.  But what other experiences did the mummies have to endure?  Periodically they were brought down from the cliff to the village, and that had to involve some risk.  But when Dr. Beckett saw the way Gemtasu acted with his father’s mummy he knew that the people of Koke were serious about finding new ways to care for their preserved dead.

Gemtasu and Moimango after repairs (Courtesy Ulla Lohmann / National Geographic)

Gemtasu and Moimango after repairs (Courtesy Ulla Lohmann / National Geographic)

It wasn’t so much the reverence with which the mummies were treated—that was to be expected.  The mummies were their way of communing with their dead ancestors, so they would obviously be treated with care.

It was more the way Gemtasu seemed to combine his veneration with a pragmatic concern for the condition of the mummy.  Andrew Nelson, an anthropologist who accompanied Beckett on the project, observed of Gemtasu:  “It’s clear he was connecting with his father at some level and he was clearly inspecting the mummy to see if there was any deterioration since the last time” (Source).

The Koke villagers were not just interested in repairing and maintaining their mummies, they wanted to continue the tradition of mummification.  But they were also open to innovation, which was why Ron Beckett had been invited to their village in the first place.  He was there on a mission of mutual gain and mutual respect.  He wanted to learn from the Angan people, and they wanted to learn from him as well.  It was an ideal situation for success, despite the environmental challenges.

The Koke villagers wanted a better way of repairing and maintaining their mummified ancestors (Courtesy Ulla Lohmann / National Geographic)

The Koke villagers wanted a better way of repairing and maintaining their mummies (Courtesy Ulla Lohmann / National Geographic)

All that remained was to find ways to repair and maintain the mummies that were sustainable.  By working with the Angan people, obviously the best experts regarding their own resources, Dr. Beckett found local substitutes for the materials he used to restore mummies back home.  He learned, for example, that a resin used to secure arrowheads also made excellent glue for repairing the mummies, and in addition, was a natural insect repellant.

Ron Beckett ended up making two trips to Koke.  He was successful in helping Gemtasu repair his father’s mummy, as well as helping the people of his village learn new ways of maintaining their dead ancestors.  For his part, Dr. Beckett not only learned about Angan customs and practices regarding mummification, he was able to test and refine new ways of conducting forensics and paleoimaging in the field.  But of equal importance, he showed that by working with the local people in a respectful way and treating their deceased with dignity, it was possible to have a mutually beneficial relationship.


Meanwhile, Back in San Diego

A sarcophagus from the Museum of Man collection (Courtesy Lindsay Holmwood)

A sarcophagus from the Museum of Man collection (Courtesy Lindsay Holmwood)

Mumab and Moimango, for all their differences, still have one thing in common:  they are both examples of artificial mummification.  Recall from the Mumab article that there are two types of mummification:  natural, which occurs without any sort of intervention, thanks to environmental conditions, and artificial, which is any sort of mummification that requires human agency to ensure preservation.  Both Mumab and Moimango are mummies that were created by design, and pretty recent ones at that.  Mumab is about sixteen years old, Moimango is about fifty.

One of the older stars of the show is a natural Peruvian mummy, aged at around 550 years.  This particular mummy owes its preservation to the hot and dry climate of Peru.  Natural mummies of this sort can be found from Southern California to Central America, in the Saharan sands of Egypt, and pretty much any sort of desert climate where a body can be desiccated before bacteria and insects can begin their destructive work.

But not all natural mummies come from hot and dry places.  Ötzi the Iceman, a mummy discovered in the Ötzal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, was preserved by being frozen in a glacier.  The Haraldskær Woman, an Iron Age mummy found in a bog in Denmark, is an example of a “bog body”—a natural mummy preserved by perpetual cold, lack of oxygen, and immersion in highly acidic water.  The key ingredients to a natural mummification are a very hot and dry or very cold environment, absence of air circulation, and favorable soil conditions that are absorbent and/or hostile to bacteria.

Shrunken heads from the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador--definitely an example of artificial mummification! (Courtesy San Diego Museum of Man)

Shrunken heads from Ecuador--definitely an example of artificial mummification! (Courtesy San Diego Museum of Man)

There are several more mummies to peruse at the Modern Day Mummy exhibit, including a mummified infant, a mummified hawk, and (as promised!) three shrunken heads made by the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador.

Other displays feature Egyptian tomb artifacts such as ushabtis, info graphics on topics such as honoring the dead and field forensics, and several other hands-on interactive displays.

Besides the CT scan and endoscope, visitors can use magnifying glasses to scrutinize the sorts of bugs and bacteria that help promote decomposition at a kiosk about the process of decay.  Another interesting display allows visitors to actually smell some of the leftover materials from Mumab’s mummification, including natron, frankincense, and palm, lotus and cedar oils.  Then entire exhibit is sensibly arranged, with attractive and informative signage, and works equally well whether you are “following the story” or just jumping around to what interests you.

A visit to the Modern Day Mummy:  The Art & Science of Mummification exhibit will give you a pretty good idea of how mummy researchers collect data from mummies and what sorts of things mummies can teach us about the daily lives of the people they represent—how they lived, what they ate, how they passed their time, and how they died.  You will learn how mummies were made, both intentionally and accidentally, and how researchers are improving the ways they deal with mummies and the people who love them.

There is also a lecture series that accompanies the exhibit.  For dates and topics please visit the official Modern Day Mummy website at the San Diego Museum of Man.

Modern Day Mummy will be on display through March 4, 2012.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.  Tickets are $12.50 for adults, $7.50 for youth (ages 13-17) and seniors (62+) and $5 for children ages 3 to 12.

The museum is at 1350 El Prado in Balboa Park. Visit or call 619-239-2001.


Bonus Videos


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An animation of a CT scan from the Science Museum of Minnesota


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CT scan of Shem-en-Min, a 2,200-year-old mummy (Courtesy of HV Media Group)


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Amazing tomographic video of the CT scan of a crocodile mummy


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CT scanning of a 2,500-year-old mummy named Irethorrou (Courtesy of Stanford Medicine)



Copyright by Keith Payne, 2011.  All rights reserved.

The photographs “mdm00” through “mdm09” are provided courtesy of the San Diego Museum of Man, copyright 2011, all rights reserved.  The photograph Endoscope by Linda Bartlett is in the public domain.  The photographs sarcophagus at SDMoM by Lindsay Holmwood, Museum of Man by Dave Reichert and photographing a mummy in situ by isawnyu are used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.0 License and may be reused under the same provisions.   The following photos, images, and video clips are using in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of copyright law and are reproduced for the sole purpose of promoting discussion and are not used in any way that would inhibit the sale or trade of the originals:  “cat mummy”, from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, all rights reserved; “Ronald Beckett” and “Jerry Conlogue” from Quinnipiac University, all rights reserved; the stills “Smoked mummy 2” and “mummies on a cliff” from the video “Healing Seekers – PNG People of the Mummies” from Healing Seekers, all rights reserved; “Smoked body mummy”, “Gemtasu and Moimango”, and “Mummy repairs” by Ulla Lohmann from  the National Geographic production “National Geographic Explorer:  Lost Mummies of New Guinea”, all rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, July 10th, 2011 at 11:30 pm and is filed under Mummies, Exhibitions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  1. Sadahatama Oba Mage    Feb 15 2016 / 1am:

    Sadahatama Oba Mage

    Modern Day Mummy—The San Diego Museum of Man Takes You From the Lab to the Field

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