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What Is It Really Like to Dig for Mummies? We Asked an Egyptologist

*Spoiler alert* she has entered ancient Egyptian tombs and lived to tell the tale

Tom Cruise in the latest film of The Mummy, standing in a dark room with a sarcophagus behind him

(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Mummy is rising yet again. The latest instalment of the franchise hits theatres this weekend—and judging by the trailers, we can expect plenty of uber creepy undead villains and misunderstood mummies unleashing havoc on the modern world. Classic.

Tom Cruise is stepping into Brendan Fraser’s 1999 role as the devilish explorer/treasure hunter, delving deep into the tombs of the pharaohs and disturbing their slumber (why can’t anyone just leave them be, amiright?!). And of course, once he finds ancient remains, all hell breaks loose and threatens the very existence of the world. Like I said, classic.

The premise, which originally started as a 1930s horror film and was revived in the 1990s with Fraser and Rachel Weisz, is by no means new. In fact, according to Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner, associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at the University of Toronto, the idea that the ancient Egyptians had powers and knowledge that surpasses modern society existed off screen as well.

“The idea that there’s hidden knowledge—and that it’s accessible to Westerners, but that Westerners don’t quite understand it fully and they don’t really understand its power—that’s an idea that goes way back, like to even the ancient Greeks.” She adds that fearing mummies and talking about them like ghosts actually began with ancient Egyptians. “They themselves were not entirely comfortable with the idea of perfectly preserving the body, but it’s uncanny to them too.”

Pouls Wegner has done her own digs in Egypt, and discovered more than a few ancient human remains, so we caught up with her to find out what searching for mummies is *really* like—and whether she believes in those dreaded curses.

Archeologist Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner on a dig in Egypt

(Courtesy of Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner)

How realistic is the film’s portrayal of Egyptian digs?

The Mummy films from the 1990s were recapturing the golden age of Egyptology, the period in Victorian England when the British were over there digging things up and they were competitive with the French and the Germans and the Italians. They were competing with each other for who’s going to find the most important thing or the biggest thing. It’s portraying that sense of unlimited possibilities, that there’s immeasurable wealth lying beneath the sand and it’s just a question of digging to find it. That excitement and optimism and endless possibility is still a part of Egyptology—there’s still so much to know.

So if I were to visit a real dig today, what would that look like?

Things are a lot more systematic, we don’t dig without recording every phase of the digging anymore. In the early days, they were interested in exposing the walls and the writing on the walls, they talked about cleaning or clearing tombs. Now, we might be much more interested in what’s on the floor, what’s in those deposits. It’s about figuring out what activities took place in there and to do that, we would study the deposits, the built-up over the floor of the tomb or the floor of the temple or the exterior around the exterior of the temple, garbage stuff, which gives us a lot more information.

One of the things that The Mummy films focus on is this idea of ancient Egyptian curses. When you’re on digs, do you have conversations about curses or are those a concern at all?

Haha, no, not really. Most Egyptologists don’t take that too seriously. There are curses inscribed in ancient Egyptian tombs. They’re actually what would we call an address to the living, so they say things like: “You who passed by this tomb, stop, and say a prayer for the person who’s soul is here” or “Anybody who disturbs this tomb, I will ring you up like a goose.”

Does it ever give you, for a lack of a better term, the heebie-jeebies when you read those messages on the wall?

Not so much because I feel that I’m respectful towards the remains, we study them and learn what we can from them, and then we bury them. And actually when I do disturb an intact burial, I do say a prayer and I may not know the name of the person but that’s what they hoped, that by remembering them, you’d allow them to continue to exist. So I approach it respectfully. I’m not after gold or loot, I’m not trying to steal stuff that was buried, I just want to learn about them, so I feel that doesn’t maybe put me at risk.

Speaking of looting, one of the other things that’s really prevalent in the franchise is this idea of grave robbers, and archaeologists losing artifacts to thieves. Is that an actual concern while on digs?

Yeah, and actually it’s sad that the aftermath of the Arab Spring and some current developments in Egypt have really made grave robbing much more prevalent. Part of the reason for it is that people feel disenfranchised, they feel disconnected from the government and they see the antiquity not as their own heritage but as something that’s controlled by the government.

When you’re working at a site, what is your relationship with Egyptians and the local communities, given that you’re kind of digging into their ancestry?

I’ve been at the same site in Egypt since 1993, so I have a really close relationship with the villagers now. They’re kind of my second family, they’ve know my son from the time he was a baby until now—he’s 16. We employ large numbers of villagers in our work so I feel like we’re really a big part of the community and I respect their views. Sometimes we find something—like a hobble, which a tool to stop goats from kicking—and the locals might immediately recognize what that is and I might not because I come from a different cultural setting. So, I learn from them just as much as they learn from me and they do feel connected to the material.

In your work, have you uncovered mummified bodies?

Hundreds. My first dig, I was excavating a 10m by 10m, and I think we found about 50 mummified bodies. But they weren’t all complete, they’re all bits and pieces but probably 50 individuals in that one, which is crazy. Every time you encounter a fragment of a mummified individual, you have to document it, and photograph it, and take samples, it’s a very labour intensive process. So you see what I mean about the density, there’s a lot of mummies, and some of them are just perfectly preserved. You can see their hair and fingernails and children, it’s really just amazing to think how old they are and how perfectly preserved.

Photo of The Mummy from the latest film

(Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

In the latest The Mummy film, the main mummy is Ahmanet, who, according to the film’s description, is a betrayed Egyptian princess who is entombed under the desert for thousands of years. Is any of that linked to real Egyptian history?

Ahmanet? No, it could be a real name. Ahmanet is the name of a goddess in the creation story, so it is an Egyptian name. There might be princesses who have Ahman in their name, but they were probably not referring to one specific Egyptian princess or queen, it’s probably a fictional person that they’re referring to.

Finally, The Mummy franchise has been going on for years, but what do you think these films do for the audiences understanding or awareness of ancient Egypt?

It’s easy to dismiss them because they’re factually inaccurate, but I think they’re great because they get people excited about studying ancient Egypt. People can distinguish between a documentary about ancient Egypt and this kind of drama, but they keep the excitement alive and that’s great. I’m all for it. We think of ourselves as being very different from the ancient Egyptians, but when you really look at it, they were also scared by the mummies and they created fictional stories about them too. I see it as part of a link to the past which is great, I love to see people think about what we have in common with these people who lived so long ago.

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