A SCARBOROUGH couple have been at the forefront of an amazing modern-day mummification project.
Dr Stephen Buckley and Dr Jo Fletcher, who live in Scarborough and work at the University of York, have helped mummify taxi driver Alan Billis, of Torquay. Mr Billis, who was terminally ill with lung cancer, put himself forward for the project, which is the culmination of years of research by the Scarborough pair.
The process will be shown in the Channel 4 TV documentary entitled Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret, which will go to air on Monday at 9pm.
Egyptologist Dr Fletcher told the Evening News that she expects the programme to “rattle a lot of cages” due to its controversial nature, but says the whole process was carried out with the full support of Mr Billis’ family.
She said: “The family have had an astonishing amount of comfort. Alan was fascinated and the project occupied him during his final months.
“His widow’s face lit up when she saw him for the first time. It was a very profound moment.
“You could see then why the Egyptians did it. When the human angle came into play it was just phenomenal.”
Dr Buckley, an archaeological chemist, has spent 19 years trying to discover how the ancient Egyptians preserved bodies so perfectly and work out how to replicate the process.
He said that he and Jo made a breakthrough discovery in 2003 whilst working in the Valley of the Kings.
Studying X-rays of three particularly well-preserved royal mummies, they noticed unusual “snowflake-like” structures in the flesh.
It was a clue which led Dr Buckley to unlock the secrets of the peak of mummification during the 18th dynasty, when pharoahs at the time included Nefertiti and Tutankhamun.
The “snowflake” mystery led him to discover that the best preserved mummies had been placed in a bath of salt water during the process, rather than being covered in dry salt.
The key ingredient was natron, a form of salt unique to Egypt, which Dr Buckley describes as essentially a mixture of washing soda, baking soda and common salt.
He said: “This is the method they used when preserving the best of the best.
“Mummification is about removing water, but this way doesn’t remove the water so quickly, allowing the body to keep its shape and size for much longer.”
After spending so long researching the project he is thrilled it has been such a success.
He said: “It’s turned current understanding, including my own, completely on its head.
“We’ve had a very positive reaction and the work has many implications for other areas, such as pathology.”
Dr Buckley added that he would have loved to meet Alan Billis while he was still alive, saying: “He was clearly a great person and was doing this for the right reasons.
“His family supported him and were drawn into the research in a very positive way.”
Mr Billis’ body will stay at the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre, where the process was carried out, until the end of the year.
After that it is hoped it will continue to be studied by scientists researching ancient Egypt, mummification and decomposition.
Dr Buckley and Dr Fletcher have lived in Scarborough for more than 10 years.
They enjoy doing regular talks in schools and to groups in the area, and throughout Yorkshire.
Dr Fletcher said: “Scarborough is a wonderful place to think and write.
“It’s a great place to sit and distil your thoughts.”