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The case of the mummified cowboy: follow two detectives as they unravel the truth behind a mysterious American mummy.

Sylvester was an outlaw in the old Wild West. Legend has it that he was cheating at cards when a bullet to the abdomen swiftly ended his con game. Oozing with blood, the cardshark climbed onto his horse to escape. But the wound was too much for Sylvester. Eventually, he toppled off his horse, landing facedown to die in Arizona's Gila Bend desert. According to legend, that wasn't the end of Sylvester. The scorching desert sand quickly blanketed his body, dehydrating (drying) him overnight, and turning him into a mummy, of preserved body.

Was Sylvester's story true--or just a tall tale? Scientists Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue weren't sure. So the stars of the National Geographic Channel's The Mummy Road Show, a program in which the duo uses science to crack mummy mysteries, set off to investigate.

CLUE 1

HE'S TOO HEAVY

Sylvester's final resting place is a glass cabinet at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, a tourist stop in Seattle, Washington. But before landing there in 1955, the mummy was a sideshow star.

A century ago, people flocked to sideshows to ogle at oddities like two-headed snakes and bearded ladies. Mummies were also a huge draw. But what really lured audiences were the amazing stories behind the show's features. As Ron Beckett says, "Who would pay to see a mummified accountant? Not me. I'd want to see a bad man shot and dried in the desert." So he wondered: Was Sylvester's desert death merely a phony tale crafted to draw in the curious?

"He's no desert mummy," says Ron at first inspection. He, along with Jerry Conlogue, has studied many such mummies in Pena. Sylvester is too shiny and heavy--about 100 pounds. "Sand, particularly alkaline (highly basic, of not acidic) sand, works like a sponge and draws the liquid out of the body." Since the body is up to 65 percent water, a real desert mummy should weigh about 20 percent of what the person would have weighed. That would have put Sylvester at a scale-tipping 500 pounds! Not likely. Also, when there's a lack of moisture, the skin should be dry. "Sylvester looks like polished wood," says ferry, "as if he was covered in varnish."

CLUE 2

HE HAS GUTS

Since the team couldn't cut up a prime tourist attraction, they had to devise unusual techniques to peer inside Sylvester. Luckily, both are professors at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where they use X-ray (electromagnetic radiation, or energy waves) technology to peek inside human patients.

For these two globetrotters, who frequently hit mummy hangouts like cramped tombs or wild jungles, traditional X-rays are impractical. "Taking an X-ray at the doctor's office is just like taking a snapshot with a camera. The film needs to go through a developer before the image comes out," says Jerry. "But in the field, going to the doctor's office is as inconvenient as dropping the film off at Wal-Mart." His invention: X-rays on Polaroid photographic film.

"X-ray imaging works like photography," says Jerry. "But we use a more powerful light." X-rays and visible light are both forms of electromagnetic radiation. But X-rays have a shorter wave-length (distance between the crests, or tops, of two waves). That means X-rays have a higher energy than visible light. In fact, X-rays are so powerful they can penetrate the body--that is, until they meet bone-building calcium atoms (smallest particles of matter). The bones absorb some of the strong rays, so they show up in the pictures. By using a weaker kilovolt (measurement of X-ray strength), Ron and Jerry can spy internal organs.

Sylvester's X-ray Polaroid surprised everyone. He's real! Sylvester has organs. "A fake mummy wouldn't need organs," says Jerry. Intrigued to know if Sylvester was really shot to death, Jerry X-rayed for a bullet. He found one--not in the abdomen, but lodged near his collarbone. Still, things didn't add up. Why is Sylvester so heavy? What else is inside his body? Unfortunately, X-rays produce flat, two-dimensional images. The mummy detectives needed 3-D images for a clearer view. So they carted Sylvester away for more tests.

CLUE 3

HE'S IN GOOD SHAPE

The crew drove to a medical lab at the University of Washington for a computed tomography (CT) scan. They placed Sylvester on a tray that glided him into a tunnel-like machine, There, a thin X-ray beam rotated around the body to make "slices" of computer images. Sylvester was photographed in 5-millimeter (0.2 inch) slices--604 sections in all. "It's like a loaf of sliced bread," explains Jerry. The slices stacked up to display a 3-D X-ray view of Sylvester on a screen.

The shocker: All of Sylvester's organs are intact. Bumps on Sylvester's head, which the team assumed were cysts, turned out to be buckshot shrapnel (fragments of ammunition used for hunting). The metal bits had lodged in Sylvester's face, but they didn't kill him--skin grew over the slivers and healed the wounds. Why didn't Sylvester seek surgery? "I guess he was keeping a low profile," says Ron.

So Sylvester could have been on the run and shot to death. But was he really mummified in the desert?

CLUE 4

HE DIDN'T FALL APART

Ron was eager to take a real look at Sylvester's well-preserved insides. But like Jerry's X-rays, he needed a method that wouldn't disrupt the body. So he whipped out an endoscope, a thin, flexible lighted tube used to examine internal organs.

First, Ron had to find an opening. Carefully inserting the endoscope inside the bullet hole, he snaked the instrument down through the stomach. He examined Sylvester's spleen and liver. "They're in incredible shape," says Ron. Before Sylvester was returned to his glass case, the duo sent a small tissue sample to a lab for analysis. And results confirmed their suspicions--desert sands didn't mummify Sylvester. He was embalmed (prepared for mummification) inside and out with an arsenic solution.

When you're alive, there's a balance in the pH (acidity level) between your body fluids and the bacteria living inside your gut. When you die, bacteria are no longer kept in check. SO they continue to eat flesh. Flies also hatch eggs on dead bodies and the larvae (wormlike young) devour the flesh. Beetles follow suit. Desert sand mummifies because it deprives bacteria and critters of water, a vital nutritional source. Arsenic, on the other hand, is toxic; it kills anything that tries to eat the body. That's why Sylvester is intact but hefty.

Arsenic preservation started in the U.S. during the Civil War to keep officers killed in battle from deteriorating before having a proper funeral. Sideshow folks caught on and performed the same methods on unclaimed bodies. But the practice stopped in the early 1900s when the embalmers got sick. "There hasn't been a lot of research done on arsenic mummies," says Ron.

Someday Ron and Jerry hope to revisit Sylvester. "We want to date when he died," says Ron. "Or check his poop to learn what he ate." Jerry adds: "Mummies are fascinating because they are eyewitnesses to history."

Q & A with Ron & Jerry

HOW DO YOU MANAGE TO TEACH FULL-TIME AND MAKE A TV SHOW?

RON: We usually film on the weekends. Once, when we were working in Peru, Jerry had to walk through a flood to leave the country. Then he walked straight into class Monday morning--covered in mud. But we love what we do and sharing it with people is a joy.

JERRY: It's hard work. But it's always exciting because you never know what you're going to learn: You answer one question about a mummy, then five more questions pop up.

YOU'VE VISITED HUNDREDS DF MUMMIES. DO YDU HAVE A FAVORITE?

RON: No, we really don't have a favorite. Our favorite mummy is always the one we're working on, and then of course, there's always the next one.

JERRY: And each mummy is like a new friend to us. If we're lucky, we'll get to go back to visit them.

ARE MUMMIES SCARY?

RON: People think of mummies as those terrifying things in horror movies chasing people around. There are no mummy curses! But we do have to be aware of fungus and other things that may be growing on the mummies, Sometimes we even have to wear masks, because inhaling fungus could make us sick. But that's not the mummy's fault.

JERRY: People need to remember that a mummy was once a person. You wouldn't tolerate it if people thought badly of your grandparent.

THEN DO YOU FEEL AS IF YOU'RE DISRUPTING THE DEAD?

RON: No. We work with a scientific objective to prove or disprove the cause of death of to help tell the stories of our ancestors.

JERRY: We usually let the people who invite us set the rules. We need to respect their cultures. For example: In Peru, we participated in a ceremony for the mummies before we started our investigation.

IF YOU'RE NOT SCARED OF MUMMIES, WHAT ARE YDU AFRAID OF?

RON: an unseen snake. When you hear the rattle, but can't see it, you're in trouble.

JERRY: The water. I can't swim. I take showers, not baths.

WOULD YDU LIKE TO BE MUMMIFIED?

RON: I tell my kids to put me in an easy chair in the desert with a battery-powered lamp and a good book when I'm ready to go.

JERRY: That's tough. It's really up to the people who are still alive and if they want to keep me around. Different people have already requested some of my body parts, so I think I'm going to be subdivided.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO STUDY TO BECOME A MUMMY EXPERT?

RON: You can begin by studying life sciences and archaeology or anthropology.

JERRY: And if you're interested in X-rays, contact a local radiology society to see what programs they have to offer. Science only sounds scary because people use big words. Believe me, it's fun.

Did You Know?

* When sideshows peaked in the early 1900s and mummies were in demand, many operators bought fake ones from a catalogue. Cow of other mammal bones were used to form limbs and a rib cage. Some "mummies" were stretched with real animal skin. Many wore elaborate wigs and dress,

* A century ago, there were about 20 patents for arsenic embalming solution. Some called for a staggering 10 pounds of arsenic to preserve one body! Many patent holders were furniture storeowners--they made the coffins and also prepared the bodies. Today's concern: The arsenic from buried mummies could leach into and contaminate drinking water.

* In the late 1800s, American and European explorers shipped a huge number of mummies out of Egypt, "People would pay to go to mummy unwrapping parties," says Ron Beckett. "They were looking for thrills and artifacts. And the bones would be discarded afterward." Such disrespect for the dead and other cultures created a long-term strain with Egyptian officials.

Cross-Curricular Connection

Language Arts/History: Research the history and scientific findings behind a mummy. Then write a script for--or even film--your own mummy detective show.

Critical Thinking:

Today, people have the option of becoming cryogenically preserved, or kept in extreme cold with the intent]on of bringing the corpse back to life one day. Would you want your body preserved in this manner? Why or why not?

To learn more about The Mummy Road Show, check out:

www.ebmedia.com/mummy/home.html

or

www.nationalgeographic.com/channel/mummy/index.html

Students can learn more about how X-ray works at:

science.howstuffworks.com/x-ray.htm

To visit Sylvester, drop by: Ye Olde Curiosity Shop 1001 Alaskan Way--Pier 54 Seattle, WA 98104 www.yeoldecuriosity.com

To help students learn about the different types of mummies found around the world, check out:

school.discovery.com/lessonplans/programs/makingmummies/
COPYRIGHT 2003 Scholastic, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Life/physical science: decay/x-rays
Author:Chiang, Mona
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 17, 2003
Words:1953
Previous Article:Could you survive a desert island?
Next Article:Gross out?


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