On Sunday, a new Channel 4 documentary is being broadcast on the topic of “The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy”. The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun apparently shows signs of having burned — which as you may have guessed somewhat defeats the goals of mummification. The documentary claims as its focus the findings of one Dr. Chris Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society, and his bag of magical tricks (a “virtual autopsy” performed via CAT scan and X-ray imaging). The long and short of it is the claim that after mummification, Tut’s body “burned” inside the sarcophagus, leading to the somewhat charred appearance of the mummy.
That’s all well and good, and I look forward to seeing the show (probably on PBS in the US, like this summer’s “Ultimate Tut” episode of “Secrets of the Dead” from July of this year).
But what interests me today is the way pop-science documentary advertising is spread along news channels (hint: I’m so far down the food chain that I’ve gone meta). So let’s step back for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs of how a fluff piece advertising an upcoming TV show becomes the news du jour in science. That is to say, how do we get from this:
On November 3, three articles came out on the story: The Independent posts “Solved: The Mystery of King Tutankhamun’s Death,” The Telegraph posts “The mystery of Tutankhamun’s tomb takes another twist,” and the Radio Times posts one titled “Mystery of Tutankhamun Goes Up In Flames.”
They’re teasers for the upcoming show. Notable internet fashionistas Tom and Lorenzo call this kind of thing ”pole dancing”: doing the circuit, usually in person, to promote a new film, book, tv show, et cetera. Unfortunately, in the blog world it’s more like a game of “broken telephone”: one blog reports another blog’s story, and another one reports the next’s.
The Independent article focuses on the whole death of Tutankhamun — the supposed chariot accident, the rushed inhumation, the “burning.” The Telegraph story focuses on just one aspect of the show: the mystery of the “burning”. So, fair enough. The show is going to be called “Tutunkhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy”, after all.
The Radio Times article throws the word “flames” into the title. This is a bad move, from a scientific perspective. It’s probably great from a commercial one though.
This leads, the next day, to io9 reporting that “The fire investigators who took part in the study say that embalming oils caused a chemical reaction which ignited the blaze;” the D-brief blog over at Discover magazine reporting “that Tut caught fire after death,” and today over at Gizmodo that “when the linen caught there’d be nothing to stop it from burning hard and bright.”
Nothing except for science.
As anyone who’s ever worked in an archive can tell you, “burning” does not always equal “flames”. Acidic paper “burns” over the course of decades, but it catches fire at 232 C (Fahrenheit 451, that is). But to have fire one needs oxygen, and in a sealed sarcophagus, that isn’t going to happen. The reality is that a chemical reaction probably caused the body to smoulder — plenty warm enough to burn and carbonize flesh (to which anyone who has forgotten about the chicken in the oven can attest) but quite a ways away from the bonfire suggested by the wording of these articles. The pharaoh did not “blaze,” there was no “fire,” and I’d be damn surprised if anything burned “hard and bright.”
What I very strongly recommend you do is go read Dr. Naunton’s blog about the research for the show “Ultimate Tut,” and the way he thinks about science’s relationship to television. I’ve included a clip below, but I encourage you to go read about it yourself.
Finally, “Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy” can be seen on the television show Secret History on Channel 4, at 8pm on Sunday, November 10.
“…subjecting the research to ‘peer-review’, the scientific scrutiny that is required to verify the credibility of academic research, across so many diverse disciplines will not be easy. Of course, much of our story also draws on research which has already been published, such as Steve Cross’ flash flood theory which was published by the EES in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (JEA 94 (2008)), as ‘The hydrology of the Valley of the Kings’. It is very important that we try to publish the rest of the story as well. Television is a vital part of Egyptological discourse and when a film like this generates new ideas and interpretations, or means of presenting them, they should be captured and added to sum total of knowledge in the field in the same way as published books and articles are…”