Has Egyptologist Ramy Romany uncovered a US presidential conspiracy in Mummies Unwrapped?
Ramy Romany in Mummies Unwrapped
THE ANCIENT PRACTICE of mummification is often only associated with Egypt. Rightly so, we think! We've been there and the museums are full of preserved Pharaohs, thousands of years old and perfectly intact. Though, while the North African country may be the spiritual home of the tradition, mummies were a regular occurrence in South America, Asia and even the USA. In fact it is America, where Egyptologist Ramy Romany arguably makes one of his most interesting breakthroughs in his show, Mummies Unwrapped, airing on Discovery, on OSN channel 500, every Tuesday evening from May 14. During one of the episodes the adventurer-historian delves into whether the US authorities really ever caught Abraham Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth. We spoke to Romany to find out more.
First off, overall, what can you tell us about the new Mummies Unwrapped?
It's a great show. In this season of Mummies Unwrapped, we go all over the world trying to solve mummy mysteries and go through murder investigations and crime scenes. We go to Peru, Mexico, Argentina and of course Egypt, but we even go to Oklahoma and Massachusetts in the United States of America where there are also mummy mysteries.
What kind of mummies do you find in the US?
Well, there was a huge interest in mummies in the United States back at the time when King Tut's was discovered. There was 'mummy mania' where Americans themselves started creating their own mummies using dead criminals. In the early 1900s there was one specific mummy allegedly of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. It toured the country in carnivals, in sideshows and in freak shows and people would pay a dime to go see it. There's a mystery, though. That mummy was of a person that died 35 years older than when John Wilkes Booth was allegedly shot, as the government claims. Now, if that mummy is actually John Wilkes Booth's mummy, it would match up with a theory that John Wilkes Booth got away with murder, and he actually fled, didn't get caught and they shot a different person.
So what I do in the episode is I try to use cutting-edge technology and all the new cool gadgets to try and solve this mystery. One of the things we use is the new technology of facial analysis. We get a known picture of that mummified body, and we get a known picture of John Wilkes Booth and put them together. I don't want to spoil the episode for you, but the results were mind blowing.
Do you think shows like yours are inspiring a new generation of historians?
We have technology now that, from a little hair sample of a mummy that is 3,000 years old, we can tell what that mummy had for its last meal. We can be so specific that mummies can figuratively talk to us and tell us their own story.
What inspired you to get into Egyptology?
I was a lucky kid. I was born in Egypt. I lived in Egypt most of my life in a documentary filmmaking family. My father and then myself, we produced all the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and History Channel documentaries in Egypt. I remember, I was a little child going with my father on all these Ancient Egyptian sites and I was 12 when my name was first listed on the credits of a BBC documentary.
It developed a passion in me of wanting to know my own history and my own ancestors. So I decided to pursue Egyptology and I went and studied in a university in Cairo.
To be honest, as a child, I was completely freaked out by the sight of mummies. And I hope that's normal. If I loved mummies as a child, that would have been very strange. At some point while I was studying, though, I understood that out of all the things the ancients have left us, for instance the Great Pyramid of Giza, all these amazing megastructures, they also left us their own bodies in a form of a mummy which is a time capsule itself. These were the people that built those megastructures.
Do you believe the myths, legends and curses surrounding mummies exist because we have a difficulty dealing with death?
Hollywood movies don't help either! A lot of people still think that mummies are toilet paper wrapped zombie walking creatures. And that, I promise you, is not the case.
Is there any truth in those curses or are they just superstition?
A lot of people do believe in curses because they are literally listed on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs and ancient civilisations' tombs. You go into an ancient tomb for instance and there are specific blocks that surround the sarcophagus. Those blocks list: 'if you get anywhere close to this mummy, you will be choked to death.' So the ancient Egyptians themselves created curses and a lot of people do believe in them.
But I am scientist, so I'm obviously a sceptic. I think a lot of "curses" come from ancient chemistry. Ancient Egyptians were not just superstitious and "magicians". They were chemists. They created mummies that survived thousands of years. That wasn't magic. They called it magic because that's the only translation at the time but they were master chemists and biologists. They knew how to make things. So there are reasons to believe the "mummy curse" is a biologically and chemically created thing.
Did you ever have any close calls when exploring the tombs?
While we were shooting Mummies Unwrapped, I came the closest to death I've ever been. We were filming an episode trying to identify a mummy that we believe could be a figure from the Bible. And while we're filming that, we went into a tomb that hadn't been opened for years. We unlocked the door and the locals would stay away first to make sure there weren't any snakes or any curses. Not believing in curses, we just went straight through down staircases. The tomb was endless. We kept going down and it's quite dusty. And I was breathing it all in. And that day, I was walking back to Cairo and I started not feeling well. The next morning, I had fevers so high. I've never had that high a fever in my life. I was at 107 Fahrenheit and I started coughing blood. They got doctors for me. I nearly died.
I had my wife and my kids with me on that trip. They were freaking out and the doctors tried all the medicines. Finally, four days later I recovered, but it was close. Whether it was a mummy curse or not, something in that tomb got me.
What would your advice be for archaeologists of the future?
One of the biggest contradictions that archaeologists and Egyptologists have is that we want to uncover everything. We want to discover. We want to dig and find the new - find all the ancient archaeology under the sand and dig it all up. But we also have a problem because digging it up is exposing it to the air and potentially contaminating it. Anything we dig up will probably start deteriorating. So we have this internal struggle of whether we dig it up so we can learn and know the mysteries or keep it safe under the ground.
But today, we don't have to have that struggle anymore because the technology is so advanced that we can actually start finding things under the ground without digging them up and knowing about them and keeping them safe down there. It's satellite imaging technology which I used with Professor Sarah Parcak in Egypt a couple of years ago. And using it, we discovered multiple pyramids under the sand.
In Egypt today, all the things you see, we believe that 90 per cent of Egyptian ruins and sites are still under the sand waiting to be discovered. Only 10 per cent of Egypt has been uncovered. Everything else is still down there. So my advice would be to get to grips with the modern technology!