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Archaeologist's new mystery novel dug out of real-life work

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Archaeologist Sarah Wisseman sitting at a round table full of Egyptian books
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Photo by Kwame Ross
Archaeologist Sarah Wisseman has written a novel based on her real-life work on an ancient Egyptian mummy.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Little did the ancient Egyptians know that the afterlife they were preparing one mummy for would be as a key character in a new mystery novel.

The mummy, which belongs to the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the thinly disguised co-star of a thriller titled “Bound for Eternity: A Lisa Donahue Mystery” (iUniverse).

Sarah Wisseman’s novel centers on a series of grisly murders in a Boston university museum and a sinister insider plot to switch fake artifacts for real, and to sell the real stuff on the antiquities market.

The main character is Lisa Donahue, a spunky young museum curator and recent widow who becomes a threat to the evildoers. At considerable risk to herself and her small daughter, Donahue strikes back, morphing into a super-sleuth and eventually uncovering the perpetrators and their deadly scheme. Along the way she falls in love.

Aside from the murders, the theft of antiquities and the smoldering love affair, many of the novel’s details, including the description of the Boston museum, bear a striking resemblance to another museum, the old World Heritage Museum, the precursor to the Spurlock.

There is a perfectly good reason for this. The author, like the mummy, has a double life – as an archaeologist at Illinois. In the 1990s, Wisseman was assigned to lead an interdisciplinary study of the World Heritage Museum’s “new” mummy.

Which explains why Donahue is more than loosely based on Wisseman’s work; why James Barber, Donahue’s romantic-interest radiologist, closely resembles Wisseman’s husband Charlie, a pathologist; and, why the book mummy is a dead-ringer for the Illinois mummy. Wisseman’s novel is, in fact, based on the old museum, its ancient newcomer and the extensive research that was done on it.

The World Heritage Museum acquired its 2,000-year-old mummy, which Wisseman nicknamed Tut, in 1990. Shoe-horned into the attic and several floors of Lincoln Hall – a notoriously Byzantine campus building whose floor plan is mystifying and whose upper stairways seem to lead nowhere – the old museum was “the perfect creepy setting for a murder,” Wisseman said. But in the end she decided to switch the location of the museum in her book to Boston – where she grew up and was educated.

Over the course of a year, and working from the old museum, some labs and occasionally a local hospital, Wisseman and her research team used a variety of non-destructive techniques to try to unravel the many mysteries surrounding the mummy.

Much of the work of the team was “at the forefront of mummy research,” said Wisseman, who now teaches archaeological science at Illinois and is director of the university’s Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials.

The team did X-ray radiography and CT scanning, 3-D imaging and reconstruction, and bone, DNA, insect, resin, dental and wood analysis. It was the first time a supercomputer was used for “volumetric rendering” of a mummy’s head and torso.

Using the CT data, an artist produced four 3-D models of the mummy’s face and head to show how it would have looked in various stages of its life. The team later did extensive analysis of the components used in the mummification process, contributing significantly to “mummy science.”

They discovered that tiny Tut was a 7- to 9-year-old child, gender unknown, from Fayum, a fertile area southwest of the Nile River delta in Egypt, who lived during the Roman era and died of unknown causes about A.D. 100. Wisseman made her fictional mummy a boy, the son of a wine merchant.

color caricature-type portrait of a woman
Click photo to enlarge
Wisseman drew the cover art of her book – a mummy case – loosely basing it on other Roman-period mummies. She painted the portrait using the same encaustic technique Roman painters used during the first few centuries A.D., applying hot wax and pigment, rather than paint.

The embalmers took special care with the body of the real child, who was of mixed race and came from a good family – “one with the financial means to afford one of the better mummies of the Roman period,” Wisseman said.
In 2003, Wisseman published “The Virtual Mummy” (U. of I. Press), about her team’s research; the book is the first complete account of a “virtual” mummy autopsy.

Throughout her career, Wisseman’s primary research has been in archaeological science/archaeometry, with particular interest in ceramic technology, provenance and mummy studies. She is author of four other books of non-fiction on classical archaeology and scientific methods in archaeology.

With all of her expertise and experience in the field, it isn’t surprising that the science in Wisseman’s novel is scrupulously accurate. Readers are immersed in a short course in archaeology.

Even the cover art for the book is authentic. Wisseman drew the mummy case loosely basing it on other Roman-period mummies. She painted the cover’s mummy portrait using the same encaustic technique Roman painters used during the first few centuries A.D., applying hot wax and pigment, rather than paint.

Wisseman’s writing and artwork are only a few of her many side vocations. The author has, in fact, enjoyed a life rich with incarnations, working as a college dorm supervisor, field archaeologist, cook on an archaeological dig, and mother of two children.

Her passion for archaeology began in her freshman year at Harvard, when a friend handed her a brochure about a summer archaeology program in Israel.

“I signed up, and it changed my life,” Wisseman said. An anthropology major, she took her junior year abroad, living in Tel Aviv and digging in the desert around Beersheva and the Dead Sea; she completed her doctorate at Bryn Mawr in classical and near eastern archaeology.

Wisseman’s museum experience also is diverse, including jobs in six museums in four cities in such areas as registration, conservation, research, curation, tour-guiding,
fund-raising and database management. That museum work plays a role in her book, conveying the life of dedicated professionals in a perennially cash-strapped university museum.

Creating fiction out of fact was “great fun” for the archaeologist. She took devilish delight in “thinking about how to use a database to track fakes in and out of the museum,” and “enjoyed fictionally throwing and breaking valuable Greek vases – something I would never do in real life.”

But what she loved most was not having to back everything up with footnotes.

“That was incredibly freeing,” Wisseman said. “Non-fiction writing is absorbing, but it has a different set of rules. What both kinds of writing have in common is research – if you want your readers to believe the fiction you write, getting everything right – the setting, the food, the beer, the weather, the clothing, etc. – is very important.”

Wisseman said she created her characters out of snippets of people she’s known – and some she hasn’t. As she writes, she said, her characters take on a life of their own, “and I hear their voices in my head.”

She said she’s heard many writers talk about this phenomenon, but never quite believed them or it, “but now I do,” she conceded.

Wisseman is still hearing voices. “Dead Sea Codex” (Hard Shell Word Factory), her prequel to “Bound for Eternity,” will be released in December. Set in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and Masada – places Wisseman knows well from nearly two years of living and traveling in Israel, the story revolves around Donahue and a friend who “race to find a controversial new set of Dead Sea Scrolls before fanatics destroy them,” Wisseman said.

The third book in the series, “The Fall of Augustus,” will be set in Boston using some of the same characters. In the fourth book, still untitled, Wisseman shifts the setting to a hospital and creates a mystery “using my husband’s medical background.”