Jan Billis didn’t mind her husband being mummified, but she drew the line at viewing him once the wrapping was ready to be removed.
It was the first time they’d been together since he died. Alan, her spouse of 36 years, had agreed to become a modern-day mummy, donating his body to test a new idea on how the Egyptians preserved their dead.
He had been through a months-long process of cleaning, disembowelling, drying and wrapping, and she entered the room to find his swaddled body on a gurney.
“It wasn’t frightening, it wasn’t horrible, it wasn’t upsetting,” she said in a recent telephone interview from Devon, England. But her composure would go only so far. “I wasn’t quite sure I’d be all right if I saw him unwrapped, so I didn’t.”
The unusual project – the subject of a not-for-the-squeamish documentary called I Was Mummified airing Sunday on the Discovery Channel – hoped to validate a theory on mummification.
Stephen Buckley, a research fellow in the department of archaelogy at the University of York, believed that the ancient Egyptians dried the body by immersing it in a briny solution. The general theory, including at stalwarts of Egyptology such as the British Museum, is that bodies to be mummified were dried through the direct application of a dessicant called natron.
Dr. Buckley said in an e-mail exchange from Egypt that his theory stems from a Valley of the Kings project nearly a decade ago in which x-rays on mummies turned up unexplained white structures dubbed “snowflakes.”
He looked at all available x-rays for mummies and found that these appeared in specimens from the 18th dynasty, when the preservation process was at its most sophisticated.
After scanning scientific reports from nearly a century ago, he concluded the “snowflakes” were natron, and theorized that it would take a bath of the substance for it to penetrate so deeply into the body.
Tests with pig parts and piglets were undertaken but it would take a human subject truly to judge the theory’s validity.
Ms. Billis said her husband was not particularly interested in Egyptology and didn’t care what would happen to him after death, telling her to “dig a hole up the garden and bury me in a box.”
But one day, his terminal lung cancer well advanced, he saw an newspaper advertisement seeking a mummy subject. He was intrigued and called to learn more.
“It’s an experiment,” Mr. Billis said in a press cut of the documentary. “Perhaps it won’t serve any purpose to save a life or anything, but people can still learn from it. That’s what we all strive for, to learn.”
The documentary takes the viewer through a three-month process. Mr. Billis died in January of 2011 and most of his organs were removed through a slit in the abdomen.
The cavity was packed with linen bags, restoring his body’s shape, before he was sewn up. His body was coated with sesame oil, beeswax and resin and then allowed to dry before being immersed in the powerful natron solution for 35 days.
After being removed from the briny bath, he was placed in a heated room with low humidity. The process dried his body out for two weeks, turning his face a greenish-grey hue, by the time he was ready to wrap.
It was a painstaking process, with each limb wrapped individually before the whole body was shrouded. And then he rested for another six weeks.
According to the documentary, it worked. CT scans showed that the body was stable in even its deepest tissue and that there was a “pretty uniform mummification.” Dr. Buckley said that they would continue to study the body, which should go on losing water and increasingly resemble the sort of ancient mummy seen in museums.
“It would have been arrogant of us to have expected to get everything right when the Egyptian embalmers took centuries to perfect their ‘art’," Dr. Buckley said by e-mail. "That we learnt [sic] some of the important nuances... only served to make us appreciate their skills all the more."
In England, the mummy’s widow remains a bit bemused by the whole situation. She said that her husband never really explained why he wanted to do it, but she wasn’t surprised, given his desire to be the centre of attention.
She said she has been to see her husband a few times and that his grandchildren are particularly pleased with his decision. One day she went into the bathroom to see them playing and a toddler wrapped in towels. One of the other children explained, “Granddad is on the floor in the bathroom.”