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Campus News
     
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
September 20, 2004
Volume 40, Number 2

Student Research
Outside the Box > > James Murrell, Ken Nystrom

Discovery Channel's 'Mummy Autopsy' stars UNM students
By Greg Johnston

Ken Nystrom and James Murrell examine an Egyptian mummy in Turin, Italy, with Dr. Lidia Pedrini. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Productions.

Talk about getting wrapped up in your work.

For a summer like no other, two UNM graduate students traveled to several exotic worldwide destinations to be filmed for “Mummy Autopsy,” a new Discovery Channel television series that will premiere Dec. 5.

James Murrell is in the second year of doctoral studies in Organization Learning and Instructional Technology at the UNM College of Education. He trained as a radiologic technologist. Earlier in his career, he traveled with a group to South America to perform x-rays of the remains of native Andean mummies.

Ken Nystrom is nearing completion of his doctorate in biological anthropology at UNM. He teaches biology at Albuquerque TVI. Jane E. Buikstra, Nystrom’s faculty advisor, was contacted by the show’s producers earlier in the year and recommended him as one of the five mummy investigators selected for the television show. Coincidentally, Murrell was also chosen.

The show’s creators say that their aim is to “put flesh on the bones” and to recreate the lives of the long dead. Two biological anthropologists, two forensic anthropologists and one radiologic technologist were chosen for roles. Investigators were paired off for each of 13 one-hour episodes filmed. Murrell and Nystrom worked together on two episodes.

“My primary experience has been with South American mummies, so it was really exciting to see Egyptian mummies for the first time in Italy.”

James Murrell, College of Education Graduate Student

“My job was to try to answer some of the fundamental questions that were raised about the mummies,” Nystrom said. “Like who they may have been, what they may have done and how they may have been mummified.” Nystrom conducted his work in Greece, Italy, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

“The oldest mummies in the world are from the south coast of Peru and the north coast of Chile,” Nystrom said. “There was an explosion of buying and selling Egyptian mummies in the late 1800s and early 1900s, resulting in a worldwide distribution. My primary experience has been with South American mummies, so it was really exciting to see Egyptian mummies for the first time in Italy.”

For “Mummy Autopsy,” Murrell hit the ground running in mid-May in London and spent only nine days home during his hectic summer schedule. He eventually returned to UNM on the first day of classes, after having been awake for more than 25 hours following his final investigation in Rio de Janeiro.

The mummy experts examined scars, burns, and clothing and looked at body stature and tooth wear. Samples were collected for DNA testing and carbon dating. Strontium isotopes were used to determine the mummy’s origin. Murrell said strontium naturally occurs in soils, which becomes incorporated into teeth. So teeth were removed and sent to local labs for testing.
Investigations were conducted without cutting the mummies open. X-rays helped determine age and sex. CT scans were used to look at organs that were left in the body to determine the presence of pathologies, any trauma and to provide noninvasive information about mummification techniques.

Investigations were conducted without cutting the mummies open. X-rays helped determine age and sex. CT scans were used to look at organs that were left in the body to determine the presence of pathologies, any trauma and to provide noninvasive information about mummification techniques.

The series was conceived and produced by Atlantic Productions, based in London. Nystrom said the producers worked hard to maintain the scientific integrity of the investigations. However recreations of perceived historical events were also filmed for the show.

“Archeology, excuse the pun, can be a little dry,” Nystrom said “We’re trying to recapture a little bit of how these people actually lived to give the audience something they may not have seen before.”