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Image: Mummified leg
AFP - Getty Images / Channel 4
Experts work on the mummified leg of former taxi driver Alan Billis. A TV documentary has chronicled the mummification procedure, which uses the recipe developed in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/18/2011 1:41:12 PM ET 2011-10-18T17:41:12

Researchers have turned a former British taxi driver into an Egyptian-style mummy, with television cameras tracking every step in the process.

The results will be on view next Monday in "Mummifying Alan: Egypt's Last Secret," a documentary airing on Britain's Channel 4 television.

The show's producers chronicled the months-long procedure of preserving the body of Alan Billis, a 61-year-old retired taxi driver from Torquay in Devon, applying the techniques that the ancient Egyptians used on Tutankhamun.

Billis, who earned the nickname "Tutan-Alan," was terminally ill with cancer when he volunteered to undergo the procedure. He had the backing of his wife Jan, who said: "I'm the only woman in the country who's got a mummy for a husband."

The main scientist behind the experiment is Stephen Buckley, a chemist and research fellow at Britain's York University. For years, Buckley has been studying the preservation techniques that the Egyptians used during the 18th Dynasty. Alongside archaeologist Jo Fletcher, Buckley analyzed tissue samples from mummified bodies and finally put his findings to the test on Billis' body at Sheffield's Medico-Legal Center.

"I've come up with fantastic new insights that tell us a very great deal," Buckley said in a Channel 4 news release. "What I was able to do was to look at things in quite a different way, and in doing so get information that perhaps people had missed. It's turned current understanding, including my own, completely on its head."

The modern-day mummification isn't completely unprecedented: In 1994, Egyptologist Bob Brier and Ronald Wade, director of the Maryland State Anatomy Board, mummified a medical cadaver using ancient Egyptian techniques. But Buckley wanted to study the effects of a particular recipe thought to have been used on the "best of the best" mummies — and so he put out the call for a donor.

Alan Billis had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer when he read a newspaper article about the experiment. In a video clip recorded before his death, Billis said he was instantly intrigued, and he called up the project's leaders to volunteer.

Image: Alan and Jan Billis
AFP - Getty Images / Channel 4
Alan Billis and his wife Jan sit at home in Torquay in 2010. Alan died of cancer since this picture was taken and was turned into an Egyptian-style mummy for a scientific experiment (and a TV documentary).

"If it doesn't work, it's not the end of the world, is it?" he told the documentary team. "Don't make any difference to me, I'm not going to feel it. It's still bloody interesting."

He said his main regret was that he would never know how the experiment turned out: "Shame I'm not gonna be around to see it, isn't it? I'd like to have seen that, because I like documentaries."

During his studies, Buckley used a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer and other instruments to identify the materials that were used by the priests in Tutankhamun's day, including beeswax, oils and resins. He went on to conduct a series of experiments using more than 200 pigs' legs as a substitute for human flesh. Buckley even rigged up a research shed where he could re-create the desert conditions present in ancient Egypt.

When Billis died in January, a medical team removed most of his organs — including his lungs and intestines — through a 4-inch incision on the left side of his body. The cavity was then sterilized and padded with linen.

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Buckley went against the traditional wisdom that the Egyptians removed the brain of the deceased through the nose. He acknowledged that the procedure was often used, but noted that around half of the 18th Dynasty royal mummies retained their brains. In some cases, the shrunken remnants of the brain can still be seen in skull X-rays.

After the removal of the organs, the body's moisture content was removed using a caustic salt from the region, called natron, which was described by Greek historian Herodotus in 450 B.C. — 800 years after the 18th Dynasty. The scientists immersed the corpse in a salt bath for more than a month to draw out the water. To protect the skin from the harsh salt, it was covered in a layer of oils.

The body was then wrapped in linen, protecting it from light and insects. His wife made a visit to the scene, leaving favorite photographs and drawings by his grandchildren.

After three months of drying, the process was judged to be complete.

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"The skin itself has this leathery appearance which indicates that he has become mummified all over," said forensic pathologist Peter Vanezis, who was part of the team behind the experiment. "It makes me very confident that his tissues have been mummified correctly and in a very successful manner."

Buckley was pleased with the results of the natron bath, particularly the preservation of the brain. "I think he's on the road to looking very much like the best of the best of the 18th Dynasty in 3,000 years' time," he said.

Jan Billis, the widow of "Tutan-Alan," said she was also pleased by the outcome. "It's strange, because I would never have thought it, but every single day I think about him," she told Channel 4. "I wonder what he's doing now, laying there."

Brier, the Egyptologist at Long Island University's C.W. Post campus who was involved in the 1994 experiment, said the mummy he worked on is still "dead and well," and currently on display at the San Diego Museum of Man. He said that continued research into the mummification process was a "valuable thing," but questioned the propriety of revealing the identity of the mummy's donor.

"You wonder why they personalized it," he told msnbc.com. "It's more like reality TV than research."

Channel 4 said the experiment had a scientific purpose and had not been done for sensationalism. The scientists believe the results may help in developing an alternative to formaldehyde in the preservation of tissue.

The body will be kept at the Sheffield Medico-Legal Center until the end of the year, and the researchers hope it will be used for further study into mummification and decomposition.

This report includes information from msnbc.com and Discovery News.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Explainer: Chilling tales of real-life mummies

  • Universal

    In "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," Han, the Dragon Emperor, wakes from a 2,000-year-old curse and threatens to plunge the world into his unending, merciless service. Explorer Rick O'Connell and his family battle the resurrected mummy from the catacombs of ancient China into the frigid Himalayas. The movie is pure fiction, inspired by the famous terracotta army that guards the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Real-life mummies have fascinated the public for decades — often with their own horrific tales. Click on the "Next" label to learn about eight of their stories.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • King Tut exposed for the world to see

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    The mummy of King Tutankhamun, the 19-year-old pharaoh whose life and death have captivated audiences ever since his gilded tomb was discovered in 1922, went on public display for the first time in November 2007. He was placed in a climate-controlled box in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Tut's blackened, leathery face and feet, shown here, poke out from a linen covering. CT scans of his body in 2005 ruled out murder as the cause of his death in 1323 B.C. More likely, archaeologists said, was a broken left thigh bone that may have caused a fatal infection.

  • Ramses II's hair found for sale on the Internet

    Ben Curtis  /  AP

    How much is the lock of hair in this photo from the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II worth? According to Frenchman Jean-Michel Diebolt, the answer is about $2,600. He put the locks, along with some linen bandages and resins used in the mummification of Ramses II, up for sale on the Internet. Diebolt's late father, a French researcher, had examined the mummy in 1976 and apparently kept the mementos. Egyptian antiquities officials retrieved the lost artifacts in April 2007. Ramses II ruled from 1270 to 1213 B.C. and is celebrated as one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. His legacy includes some of Egypt's grandest monuments, including the Ramesseum temple complex.

  • Mummy of Queen Hatshepsut found?

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    Queen Hatshepsut ruled ancient Egypt for about 20 years as a female pharaoh after she stole the throne from her young stepson, Thutmose III. But after her death, in 1458 B.C., all trace of her name was obliterated from the records in what archaeologists believe was an act of revenge by her stepson. In June 2007, Egyptian authorities announced the mummy in this picture, unearthed a century ago, is the long-lost queen. The claim was based primarily on CT scans that showed, for example, a gap in her mouth matches a tooth in a jar with her insignia on it.

  • Chinchorro were the first to mummify their dead

    Image: mummified Chinchorro baby
    Ivan Alvarado  /  Corbis

    In the arid coastal stretches of modern-day Chile and Peru, an ancient fisherfolk known as the Chinchorro took the mummification of their dead seriously and spared no one from the practice. They were the first culture known to purposely preserve their dead — the earliest examples date to around 5000 B.C. All members of society, from the elite to children and miscarried fetuses, were mummified. The technique changed over the years, but internal organs were commonly removed and replaced with vegetable fiber and hair.

  • Were Incan children fattened up and sacrificed?

    Natacha Pisarenko  /  AP

    The 15-year-old girl known as "La Doncella," shown here in a photo from a museum in Salta, Argentina, along with a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, were apparently "fattened up" before being sacrificed at the top of the Llullaillaco volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile, according a recent analysis of hair samples found with their mummified remains. In the months before their deaths, more than 500 years ago, their diet shifted from potato to corn and perhaps llama meat — an indication of elevated status. The mummies, called the Children of Llullaillaco, were dressed in fine clothes and given corn alcohol before they were left to die on the 22,080-foot volcano.

  • Ice Maiden found inside Peruvian volcano

    Joyce Naltchayan  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Hailed by Time magazine as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries in 1995, Juanita, the Ice Maiden, remains one of the most spectacular mummies ever found. Anthropologist Johan Reinhard and climbing partner Miguel Zarate uncovered the 12- to 14-year-old girl from the crater of Mt. Ampato, a Peruvian volcano. She was apparently sacrificed by Inca priests to appease the gods sometime between 1440 and 1450. There she froze, her body preserved for 500 years.

  • Oetzi the Iceman murder mystery solved?

    South Tyrol Museum Of Archaeology  /  AP

    How did Oetzi the Iceman, seen in this photo from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy, die? According a story patched together from a pair of detailed examinations published in 2007, the 5,000-year-old mummy most likely took a fatal blow to the head after an arrow lacerated an artery below his left collarbone. Hikers in 1991 discovered Oetzi in the Italian Alps, face down with his left arm across his chest. Scientists believe he fell backwards, but was rolled over by his attacker who pulled out the arrow, leaving the arrowhead imbedded in Oetzi's shoulder.

  • Lindow Man, Britain's best bog body

    Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

    In August 1984, workers cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in northwest England hit upon the well-preserved body of a man, about the age of 25, who died sometime between A.D. 20 and 90. Lindow Man, as he became known, is Britain's best known bog body, one of several dead people kept remarkably intact due to the acidity, cold temperature and lack of oxygen in the bogs. Detailed studies of Lindow Man conducted at the British Museum suggest he died a horrific death. He shows evidence of two blows to the head and a third to the back. He was then strangled with a thin cord that snapped his neck, had his throat cut and was placed face down in the bog. Some scientists suspect this was a ritualistic killing.

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