When writing leads to really cool experiences…

Being a writer does have its perks.  Sometimes it gives you access to places and events you’d never otherwise get to see.  Thanks to my job as a novelist, I’ve gotten access to the inner workings of Johnson Space Center.  I’ve visited the Boston Homicide unit and the Maine state morgue. 

And on Tuesday, I was lucky enough to attend this incredible event: the CT scanning of a 2300-year-old Egyptian mummy.  (More here.)


(photo: Dr. Jonathan Elias, me, and Joann Potter from the Vassar College Museum, with the coffin containing Shep-en-Min)

 If you know my background, then you know that I have a lifelong interest in archaeology.  I was an Anthropology major at Stanford and I’ve traveled numerous times to Egypt and the Mediterranean.  Last year, because I had questions about the technical aspects of mummy CT scans, I contacted Dr. Jonathan Elias, the Egyptologist who directs the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium.  We’ve corresponded on and off over the months, and last week, he invited me to be a guest observer at the CT scanning of a mummy who has resided at the Vassar College Museum for over 100 years.  Based on writings on the coffin, Dr. Elias concluded that the coffin’s occupant was a male priest named Shep -en-Min who lived during the Ptolemaic period.  Dr. Elias’s project involves scanning mummies across the U.S., but just getting the wheels in motion for such a scan requires organizational genius, plus the patience of a saint.  At long last, after months of emails and paperwork, Dr. Elias was finally going to get a peek at Shep-en-Min.

And he invited me down to Fishkill, NY, to watch as the first images showed up on the screen. 

The event was a big media event, with reporters and TV cameras crowding around as the coffin was unloaded from the museum van.  They followed it up the hallway toward the diagnostic imaging department, flashbulbs going off the whole way.  I felt like I was part of a rock star’s entourage.  No other patient — even Brad Pitt himself — would have had such an eager press pack chasing so avidly after him down a hospital hall.  After the mummy was gently placed on the CT scan table, the reporters were shooed out of the room and the scan was performed.  Later, at the press conference, Dr. Elias gave a brief summary of the findings, which you can read in the news articles linked above — but much more will be revealed in time.

Dr. Elias will be publishing his findings once he’s analyzed the data, and I don’t want to give away any secrets.  But suffice it to say there was a big surprise at the scan – one that startled us all. 

19 replies
  1. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Wow, that sounds like a really amazing opportunity. I can’t imagine getting the chance to do something like that! Were you looking at doing something like this for your new book, or just because of your love of Archaeology/Egyptology?

    Also, are you going to be at ThrillerFest this year?

  2. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    Sooo cool, indeed! I lived in Egypt when I was very young, but even at that tender age, the pyramids, sphinx and the people made an indelible impression. The whole archeology field has always been a big draw, and I can’t wait to read your newest! Nothing better than first-hand, up close and personal research.

  3. Abe
    Abe says:

    Ho Tess,

    Wow! You get to do all the cool stuff! I really envy you. The closest I’ve ever gotten to anything Egyptian was watching the $25,000 Pyramid on TV. I took one anthropology class in college and it was extremely interesting.
    The closest thing I ever got to something mysterious was when I was a member of the NYPD auxiliary police and we were working security the night Geraldo Rivera attempted to opened Al Capone’s vault. Let’s hope there was more inside the mummy than inside the vault. As you remember, the vault was empty.
    This makes me even more anxious to read your next book. I’m glad you got back into NY. Maybe next time you can stay longer.
    Congrats again, Tess.

  4. bob k
    bob k says:

    OK, Tess…

    After reading this, we can all now go back to our HUMDRUM lives, toiling away just to survive without even being able to manage a daydream about doing something this cool. 🙂

    But seriously – how cool is that? And I do hope, after Dr. Elias publishes his findings, you can tell us what the experience was like when it was realized there was a big surprise…Surely the excitement level in the room rises when the unexpected happens.

  5. Ann Woodburn
    Ann Woodburn says:

    I lived in Egypt for two years as a child and one year as an adult. I went back a couple of years ago and went on the Nile trip. Look forward to reading your book.
    You often complain how dull it is in Maine but you seem to have a pretty exciting life.

  6. Dana Cameron
    Dana Cameron says:

    Well, if you’re not having Cosmo-soaked book parties, this seems like a pretty good substitute!

    Seeing behind the scenes is the coolest part of the job.

  7. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Okay no, no fair you’re not allowed to do that because those aren’t billable words! If you wrote a book and did it that would be fine haha. I love that you get to do things like that and then come back and blog about it. Why would it be a secret to tell us if ya’ll got to see what shocked you? I guess you’re just privy to that information. Fun! Tell us the title of your new book! I’m dying!

  8. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    What a great experience for everybody.

    I’m thinking of how cool it would be for you to go back when your book is ready to come out. You might like to throw a “Thank you” book party for Vasser, Dr. Elias and Joann Potter. This way, you get a great book party and it’s for a worthy cause — to further interest in archeology — which is close to your heart.

    Anyway, don’t you love having people setting your social calendar?? 🙂 Can’t wait for your book to come out.

  9. therese
    therese says:

    What an awesome opportunity. I hope to have cool stuff like this in my future.

    Now to the mystery, of course I also think the mummy could be a woman, creating waves of distraught as the whole study of hieroglyphics is revamped for missing such a possibility.

    What would be really cool though would be a discovery of advanced surgical techniques discovered on the mummy’s internal organs.

    Either way, I’ll be watching for the news. 🙂

  10. john lovell
    john lovell says:

    Well, I got pretty envious, so naturally I went on Ebay to see if I could get a mummy. The only one I found was a fake, but in “new condition”:
    I guess I’ll just wait for your next novel instead.

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