Mummifying Alan

Last night I was sitting on my sofa when up popped someone I recognised. Stephen Buckley from the University of York was on Channel 4 talking about his work on mummification. Earlier this year we published a feature looking at the chemistry of mummification, which is some great background to the documentary. But the program was a bit different, this was putting Buckley’s findings to the test on a real human cadaver. Alan, a taxi driver from Torquay, who had terminal lung cancer. Alan answered a classified ad in the paper and left his body to a rather interesting form of science.

If you’re in the UK or Republic of Ireland you can watch the program here, but if not, what were the highlights? Well there was Buckley’s second lab set up in his kitchen, with a GC-MS, and there was the shed fitted up to mimic desert conditions, where Buckley got through ‘over 200 pigs’ while tweaking his mummification recipe.

The key finding was realising, after looking at x-rays of 18th dynasty mummies, that the bodies had salt crystals in the flesh. That meant that the bodies weren’t packed in salt, but rather pickled in a particular, concentrated brine. The caustic brine used the naturally occurring salt Natron, found in Eygypt and containing sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulfate. Natron is why the chemical symbol for sodium is Na.

The brine got salt right through the flesh, turning it alkaline and inhospitable to bacteria and denaturing decomposition enzymes – you can read the protocol here. The body was then dried, and to fight off the maggots that appeared, the ears nose and mouth were sealed with pine tree resin. Slowly Alan’s body became leathery and firm, and luckily there were no more maggots. I’d love to see follow ups in a few years’ time.

So did you see the program, did you enjoy it? Has it made you, like me, more interested in ancient Eygpt? And would you have volunteered like Alan?

Laura Howes

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