David Howell spends a lot of time underground, both physically and in his dreams. He lives with his wife in his grandmother’s basement in Belleville, Illinois, and he passes most of his days thinking about mummies. From the time he saw his first sarcophagus, when he was five, at the Saint Louis Art Museum, he has been obsessed. He spent his childhood reading every book he could find on ancient Egypt, pestering his folks to take him to traveling exhibits. “I remember sitting in the first or second grade just sounding out the name ‘Tutankhamen, Tutankhamen.'”

Howell spent three years as a grad student in Egyptology at the University of Chicago, then dropped out, though he continued to slake his thirst for mummies, traveling the country to visit them, photographing them and translating their inscriptions. In addition to Latin, Greek, and a bit of Sumerian, he can read any of the three languages likely to be inscribed on an Egyptian sarcophagus–hieratic, demotic, or Coptic. He estimates that there are 200 mummies in the U.S. He’s tracked down 137 and has actually seen 90. (He’s found a total of 69 in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.)

Howell entertained thoughts of writing a book about his quest, but decided against it because he kept finding new mummies. Then he discovered the World Wide Web. He had held a series of dead-end jobs, including delivering the Wall Street Journal. In the early 90s, he became a full-blown Netaholic, surfing all night, when traffic is low and connections are fast, and sleeping much of the day. During that time, it dawned on him that the Web was the ideal place to publish a database that could be constantly updated.

Most of the mummies Howell has found are in museums like the Field and the Oriental Institute. But some are hidden away in places you’d never expect: historical societies, Bible colleges, even an old curiosity shop in Maine. And most have at one time or another been part of a private collection. For example, Howell says, the Kalamazoo mummy was originally brought to San Francisco in 1895 for an Egyptian exhibit at an international exposition. When the expo closed “the Egyptians didn’t have enough money to return home, so they had to sell their mummy to a collector.” A Kalamazoo businessman bought it in 1910 and took it home, where he put it on display. In 1928 it was donated to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

“What usually happens is that someone will have a mummy in their private collection and when they die their heirs don’t know what to do with it. So it ends up in a place like the Ohio Historical Society, in Columbus. There,” Howell grins sardonically, “they have a mummy in a beautiful glass case from the turn of the century, surrounded by American Indian artifacts and mound-builder things.”

Most of these mummies were shipped here by tourists around the turn of the century, when ancient Egypt was all the rage. What most tourists didn’t know was that mummies were as common as oriental rugs. Though originally reserved for royalty, the right to be mummified was extended during the New Kingdom to everyone who could afford it. Egyptian burial sites were lousy with mummies. The Egyptians had so many they didn’t know what to do with them, Howell says. “They were used for fertilizer, sold on the market as an aphrodisiac.” Mark Twain even jokes in Innocents Abroad that mummies were so plentiful in Egypt they were used to stoke the fires in steam engines. According to Howell, a lot of rich Americans who believed they were in possession of their own personal pharaoh really just had the remains of some low-level temple functionary.

Eventually the Egyptian government clamped down on the pillage. “The last mummy to actually leave Egypt is in Richmond, Indiana,” says Howell. “A Richmond woman named Julia Meek Gaar bought a mummy in 1929 in Egypt for $3,000, but she had a very hard time getting it out.” She ended up appealing to President Herbert Hoover, and with his help she was able to ship her prize home, but not before Egyptian authorities had “hacked the mummy open and rooted around inside to see if there were any valuables being exported.”

Howell, who now works doing freelance Web consulting, has the skeleton of his mummy catalog, called “The Wepwawet Project,” posted on-line at www.geocities.com/athens/delphi/2161/. “One of the hopes I have for the home page is that anyone who knows of a mummy not on the list will let me know about it,” Howell says. “I know that they are out there. I just don’t know where they are.”

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Howell/ sarcophogus photos courtesy David Howell.