Alibi V.13 No.51 • Dec 16-22, 2004 

Idiot Box

The Bone Gunmen

“Mummy Autopsy” on Discovery Channel

Mummies, when you think about it, are really just very elaborate dead people. But there's a certain mystique about them. They're part of history, they're a backbone of archeology, they're a staple of horror movies. Plus, they look really cool in a grisly kind of way.

Discovery Channel, cable TV's “docu-tainment” king, has found a new way to exploit our leathery ancestors in the new series “Mummy Autopsy.” The show features a five-member mummy investigation team (referred to as “MIs”), who travel the globe, hunting down mummified corpses, dragging them back to the lab and exposing their most hidden secrets. Two of the MIs are University of New Mexico graduate students James Murrell and Ken Nystrom. They're two of the more colorful team members, and give the show a decent hometown appeal.

The show itself does a decent job of melding the occasionally dry world of archeology and the suddenly trendy world of forensics. Hip editing techniques and intrusive, high-tech graphics occasionally make it look like the show is trying a little too hard to be “CSI: Cairo.” Still, it more than delivers on its core premise.

Each week, the team members track down a couple mummies and subject them to a battery of tests to determine how old they are, how they died, etc. The show tries to build some mystery around each case. Was a Medieval Canterbury family of four murdered, for example? The answers, unfortunately for the show's manufactured “drama,” are a bit elusive. Even with DNA testing, facial reconstruction, carbon dating and the like, most conclusions are nothing more than theories. Science junkies will be happy. Those waiting for the big “twist” endings, are likely to be disappointed after a week or two.

Occasionally, it's a little odd to see bodies dug up and subjected to a battery of scientific tests. Culturally, you have to wonder about what the locals think. Watching the investigators talk some poor Peruvian villagers out of their sacred mummy, for example, is probably the creepiest thing on the show. Although the investigators are driven by scientific curiosity, it's clear that the locals don't really care what the results of the carbon dating will be. It is interesting to see how widespread these ancient cadavers are, however. The show checks in to England, Italy, Greece, Asia, Egypt and South America, making for a good travelogue of the dead. In addition, the show does try to impart a decent sense of the history that surrounds these bodies. Some pretty accurate actor-based recreations show some of the possible circumstances of death and burial.

Producers have clearly dumped some dough into this show. It's slick (at times distractingly so), handsomely mounted and offers plenty of iterations on its titular theme. Armchair archeologists and crime scene groupies will enjoy this one, bones and all.

“Mummy Autopsy” airs every Tuesday at 7 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.