Mummifying Alan

Sorry for the pun, couldn’t resist. Channel 4 is known for pushing the envelope of taste in the pursuit of educating their viewers, from the “Joy of teen sex” to “Sex education show” to simply “Sex! the musical(Cumming 2012*) however one area they always resort to is History. They have shows like Time team, which portray a Roman Britain where everyone has a villa and Roundhouses were everywhere to Many one off’s.

One such one off is the topic of this post. Ask anyone to describe Ancient Egypt and the one thing that comes out is “mummies.” Yes despite irrigation and building wonders that have withstood the test of time, we think of them as wrapped up dead people that have a habit of coming to life and hunting Rachael Weiss.

In this show we were introduced to Alan, a 61 year old taxi driver with terminal Lung cancer and the “Star” of the show. The entire show revolved around the art of mummification, an art which our previous understanding was consigned to one testimony. After the discovery of Queen Tye an 18th dynasty mummy extensive scientific testing revealed a rather odd anomaly. When the body is “Dried” the belief was the body was buried under Natron salt, which would absorb the moisture from the body. However Xrays of Tye showed clear salt crystals inside the body, a feat that would be nigh on impossible if she were just buried.

Instead the mastermind behind this experiment,Stephen Buckley, had reverse engineered a new process for mummification, and this is where Alan comes into it.

Alan answered an advert for someone with a terminal illness. Buckley had carried out numerous experiments with the cast offs from the local butchers. First Alan went through the normal Egyptian practice of having his internal organs removed except from the heart. Then, to the dissapointment of everyone who knows the mummification process. His brain was left in his body, since the Tye Xrays also revealed the existence of the brain.

Then, against the norm, Alan was lowered into a bath of highly concentrated natron salt water for 30-35 days. While the idea of dehydrating a corpse using water seems odd, when it came to remove him, the water had gone from clear to blood red, the salt had drawn all the liquid out and except for where the sesame and cedar coating Alan was treated with to preserve the skin from the solution, Alan started to resemble a mummy. Following a quick sealing up in the ears nose and mouth to prevent insect infestations it was time to wrap him.

His widow was very pleased with the result, and to their credit the show avoided going down the tasteless Channel 5 route and treated Alan with the utmost respect and dealt with it sensitively. Rarely does a documentary involve a corpse (C4 experimented with Gunter Von Hagens with a rather positive result) And on the whole the show was very interesting and the Voice overs from Alan added a lot of humour, the section where his wife remarks “It’s alright for him sitting in his bath, I’m the one having to cope” was touching and funny added the human side to the scientific side and a personal touch to what could have been a very different documentary.

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