Ronald Beckett

Professor, Researcher, Explorer

Expeditions Council Grantee

Photograph: Ronald Beckett

Photograph by Ulla Lohmann

Birthplace: Yuma, Arizona

Current City: Phoenix, Arizona

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I was born and raised in a small town in the desert Southwest. There were many cultures there and I was always exploring the deserts with my brother Greg. I was interested in everything and, having had some great teachers, I knew that I always wanted to teach. I started out as a music major and later found my way into the health and biological sciences which, in turn, led me to bioanthropology and paleoimaging. As for what I wanted to be, well, it was whatever I was doing. I know I wanted to learn all that I could about anything that I could. I see my continuing development much like surfing: If there's a good wave, I can choose to take it. I can also chose to let it go by and just enjoy the water and sun. As you can see, I am still growing up, and I am still looking to see what I am going to become. The most exciting thing that I have done is research mummies. This has captured my interest on so many levels and has become my passion.

How did you get started in your field of work?

My colleague Jerry Conlogue was in my office and about to radiograph some mummified remains at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. He was describing the limitations of the two dimensional images derived from an x-ray. I stated that if we could find an opening, I could apply endoscopy to the subject, thereby giving the objects dimension and color, essentially more detailed information.

We researched what had been done in the past related to endoscopy and mummies and set up some experiments in our lab and found that the methods complement one another a great deal. We began working as a team and adopted the anthropological and archaeological approach rather than the medical approach to our research. By that I mean, instead of having the mummified remains brought to an imaging facility, we stripped down our instruments, battery powered what we could, and took to research directly to the context, to the tombs, remote research facilities, jungle caves, crypts, and out to museums. We found that no one was approaching this line of research in this way and soon we began to get invitations to conduct our research all over the world. We established the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University to provide a focus for our work and approach.

How we did our work, the process and results, have taken us to amazing places and we have met and worked with amazing people. Our work caught the attention of many documentarians and in 2001 we became co-hosts for National Geographic Channel's The Mummy Road Show, which featured our research and ran for three seasons and 40 episodes and aired in 60 countries worldwide. The support from National Geographic gave us the opportunity to scientifically research more types of mummies in more places in the world than anyone else at the time! What a great experience. From there we have presented and published much of what we have discovered and researched and have produced two books on the subject.

One, Mummy Dearest: How Two Guys in a Potato Chip Truck Changed the Way the Living Sees the Dead (Lyons Press), chronicles some of our adventures while associated with The Mummy Road Show as well as some of the discoveries we made. The other book, Paleoimaging: Field Applications for Cultural Remains and Artifacts (CRC Press), presents the many techniques we've developed from our experiences in the field as well as suggests standards for data collection via paleoimaging measures.

And the journey continues! We continue to conduct research, and most recently, I was awarded a National Geographic Expeditions Council Grant to conduct research of previously sparsely studied mummies deep in the fringe highlands of Papua New Guinea. This was my second expedition to this area but with National Geographic's support, I was able to conduct an incredible amount of research, all in the remote jungle!! As you can see, its hard for me to stop writing about my work ... I love it!

What inspires you to dedicate your life to researching mummies?

The inspiration for my work, researching mummies, has several origins. First, the mystery of seeing what can't be seen, of learning new information right at the source in the original context is thrilling. Second, the people I get to work with, the researchers in the field, the villagers we meet, are usually so very wonderful and my scientific experiences always become human experiences as well. I make friends, professional and personal, all over the world. That is fantastic! Third, my work is filling a niche. Others have gone into the field to do what we've done, but they don't usually stick with it. I've been doing this for so many years now that researchers know that I and my colleague can be counted on to be there and to get the work done and done right in any setting. That's a great feeling. Fourth, I have a thirst for knowledge. This work is like playing in the desert sands of my youth as I never know what we are going to find. It's always discovery. It keeps my mind active, engaged, and maybe young.

What's a normal day like for you?

I teach courses online so I can be flexible enough to leave when a new "case" comes up. I teach many different subjects and one of them is a Mummy Science course that I developed.

Then the emails light up. You wouldn't believe the kinds of "research" requests we receive. Once, after we had been featured in an article in the New York Times, I got a call from a man saying, "I have a body in my backyard, can you come look at it? I was digging a garden and there it was." We referred that one to the state police. Then there was the Sasquatch x-ray we were asked to examine. We actually examined what was being billed as a "fetal Chupacabra." So the days are interesting indeed.

Then there's the real stuff and plenty of it. We have done so much research that we are way behind in getting that information out. We are working on our third and fourth books and boy, I enjoy writing, but it's challenging to make the time for it. We are constantly asked to research mummies and artifacts from museum collections and give presentations for the public as well as at professional meetings and universities. We recently assisted the Museum of Man in San Diego, California, develop a major exhibit related to mummy research. National Geographic helped support the exhibit, and my recent work for the Society in Papua New Guinea is featured in the exhibit. The exhibit runs through March of 2012. We were involved in the exhumation of a local folk hero only to find that the "gravesite" was empty. Some days, I even make animal mummies of my own.

Planning is a huge part of this work so I need to look well into next year to try to keep myself organized. In a nutshell, while the days do vary, basically I consider projects, develop projects, and plan for the execution of those projects. Next up, presentations in Peru, skeletal analysis under St. Bride's Church in London, continued development of a desert research facility focused on mass grave body identification, and head a standards committee to develop global standards for the various disciplines in mummy sciences.

Do you have a hero?

I have many heroes but three stand out for me. Two involve the development of my worldview while the other has been a professional hero.

First, my father (recently deceased) never knew a stranger or a limitation. He could always find a way and that has been so fundamental in the type of research I do. In the field, you adapt, you think critically, and you make it work. The second is my grandfather, who was an agricultural researcher in the 1920s and 30s. He was involved in the development of what is known as Pima cotton. While, like my father, he knew no limitations, my grandfather sparked my interest in science and discovery. He was fun yet disciplined and had published much of his collaborative work. He was an inspiration to be around. Both also exuded humaneness. From my father and my grandfather I developed a thirst for knowing and the ability to make it work, no matter the environment or setting, and to do it right.

My third hero is Arthur Aufderheide, who some consider to be the father of modern paleopathology. Dr. Aufderheide has been an inspiration in my work as he has done so much quality research. Dr. Aufderheide, while being one of the brightest in the field, is also one of the most human and genuine. His dedication to collaborative work and standards has inspired me to be the best that I can be and to lead the field of mummy science forward. I can name several more heroes but these are my top three.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

I have to say that my favorite experience in the field (as well as the most challenging) was my National Geographic Society-supported research in the Aseki region of the Morobe province, Papua New Guinea. Here my tasks were to study the science of the smoked body mummification method that was still practiced until recently. The practice, too, may soon be rekindled.

The other task was to conduct a field restoration project on the smoked body of Moimango, the father of the current and living clan leader. At the last minute, rather than bring into the jungle sophisticated restoration implements, I decided to trust the knowledge of the villagers. I trusted that if I knew what I needed, they could provide it from their jungle environment. It could not have worked out better. It was my favorite experience because it was also so very challenging. Physically, logistically, and scientifically. Just getting to the locations and moving about the Aseki region to find and study various mummies was extremely challenging. Unstable "bridges," wet logs over deep crevasses, long hikes, intervillage tensions, and endless rain and slippery clay. From a research perspective, the challenges too were great. I had to devise ways to gather the most science that I could in very remote settings. I even invented a few new tools for analysis! I could talk for hours about this experience. No, days!

What are your other passions?

My other passions are my wife and children. I am truly blessed! My kids and my wife have traveled and worked with me when they can and are amazing and wonderful human beings! Wow. Those are the best times. Also, I love to hike, to find those out-of-the-way places. I also have a passion for music. I play bass and guitar (I only have ten of them), and I do play at venues when I can. I am also a fair carpenter and like to make furniture.

What do you do in your free time?

I don't really allow myself free time but when I do I play music, ride the sunset, read, and ... explore. I love the creative process so I also dabble in fiction writing based on my real life experiences. Free time...hmm ... I need to research that one!

If you could have people do one thing to help save our world what would it be?

If I could have people do one thing to help save our world, it would be to keep learning. Keep that childlike enthusiasm for the new. Learn about people and places. Some say money is power. I say knowledge and, if you are lucky, wisdom is power and it is available to all of us!!

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In Their Words

If I could have people do one thing to help save our world, it would be to keep learning. Keep that childlike enthusiasm for the new.

—Ronald Beckett

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