Expedition Unknown’s Josh Gates Discusses Mummy Etiquette

Adventurer and explorer Josh Gates popped the cork on the mummies' tomb on Expedition Unknown. Now he's off to find Nazi loot.

Discovery Channel made live broadcast history on Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live. Former Supreme Council of Antiquities Minister and world-renowned Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass and explorer Josh Gates popped the cork on a 2,500-year-old mummy of a high priest.

The mummy was well-preserved, wrapped in linen and decorated with a golden figure depicting Isis, an ancient Egyptian goddess. The team also opened two other sarcophagi. One contained a female mummy decorated with blue beads. The other held a father in a family tomb. The team also found an ancient Egyptian board game, the remains of a family dog, four intact canopic jars used to store organs, and a rare wax head of a a “Great of the Five Priests of Thoth.” This wax head was highly detailed.

In 1927, a huge limestone sarcophagus was found in the remote and ancient burial site of Al Ghorifa in Egypt and moved it to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Egyptian archaeologists got wind of the original site after an unauthorized digger was busted there two years ago. The team discovered the site a year and a half ago and the excavation is continuing.

further reading: Mummy of 2,500-Year-Old High Priest Unearthed on Live TV

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Josh Gates is an ardent explorer and adventurer. He’s investigated some of the greatest legends in history, even the fabled Crystal Skull of Doom featured in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Expedition Unknown premiered with the 2-hour event Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live. It aired “Live to Both Coasts” on Sunday, April 7, on Discovery Channel and simulcast on Travel Channel and Science Channel.

This season Gates will travel to Germany to find an elusive Nazi fortune hidden with a code”allegedly created by Hitler’s private secretary and embedded into a piece of sheet music.” The looted treasure disappeared after World War II. He will also will dive into the frigid waters of South America’s Lake Titicaca to find the “Atlantis of the Andes.” The adventurer will also begin his quest The Dead Sea Scrolls.  

Gates spoke with Den of Geek about mummies, history and how the Egyptian Antiquities Council deals with ancient curses.

DEN OF GEEK: Before I get into the mummies, I wanted to ask how many times have you watched Indiana Jones?

JOSH GATES: Oh, too many to count. I think I know the first three movies by heart, and I pretend the fourth one doesn’t exist.

So, how did it feel to be a part of history?

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It was an almost indescribable night. It was really fantastic. One real goals on Expedition Unknown is to take our viewers on a real adventure, and I think that the live show was really the ultimate expression of that. It was an opportunity for us to have our viewers not just watching the show, but really down in the tomb with us. There really was a sense that anything could happen. I think you felt that watching it, that it was not scripted, it was not planned. We genuinely didn’t know what we were going to find, and so that, to me, was just so thrilling because it was just so in the moment.

Live TV is tricky, and I always think of the old commercial where the elephant steps on the Timex, and it breaks, and he says, “Well, it worked in rehearsal.” So did you have any indication of what you were going to find before the cameras were rolling? What kinds of poking around did you do before shooting?

Not much. I knew that they were going to show me the first sarcophagus, which they had opened and put the lid back on, which is what we said in the show as well. So I knew that they had at least found a mummy in the first sarcophagus, but as to the other two that we opened live, I just had no idea at all. The second one that we opened, which was in a really bad state of preservation, in some ways, was kind of a happy accident because it really was such a great contrast with the last mummy that we found. It really showed what could happen when these mummies are not preserved correctly, and how fragile they really are.

So when we opened that last sarcophagus, and there was this beautifully preserved mummy, my jaw dropped. I just was so excited to be a part of it, but also secretly so thankful that it was not Al Capone’s vault, that it was just an empty sarcophagus.

The mummy you found was a high priest from 2,500 years ago?

That’s right. This is a period of ancient Egyptian history called the late period, and it’s the 26th dynasty out of 30 dynasties, so we’re talking about the end of ancient Egyptian history here, just before it all falls apart. In this part of Egyptian history, priests had enormous power in society. Early on, all the power really rested with the pharaohs, but as time went on, the powers really shifted to the priests, and this particular area was home to a big cult of worship of one of the Egyptian gods named Thoth. So this was a high priest of Thoth, and so this would’ve been a very influential figure in this area. He had a huge tomb that we were down inside of, and it was mummified, obviously, with great care. So this would’ve been a big player.

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In the 1932 movie The Mummy, Boris Karloff played the high priest Imhotep. He wasn’t too thrilled about being disturbed. Were you at all worried about a curse?

You know, it’s a funny thing. The mummy’s curse really didn’t catch on as a premise until they opened Tut’s tomb. But it is true that there are spells, and incantations, and warnings on some of the pharaoh’s tombs that do promise destruction to anyone who disrupts their eternal sleep, so there is precedence for it. Even in ancient times that you were not supposed to mess with these burials.

There’s been so much hype about the curse, but at the same time, there is something so mystical and reverent about these tombs, and there is some discussion even that possibly members of the Tut expedition team were done in by bacteria and other things that are locked inside the sarcophagus, which it could be its own version of the curse, right? So I went down there trying to not be nervous about it, but in the back of my mind, of course, when you’re doing something like this, you think could there really be something to this?

Was there any prayer, preparation, warding off, or respect given to the tombs before they were opened?

I think one of the things that we have to remember is that Egypt ancient history is so vast, and there are so many tombs and mummies that the field of Egyptology really is about the science and the work of conserving and preserving these artifacts. And so I think that there is a sense, now that it’s been more than 100 years of serious excavation going on there, it really isn’t quite as superstitious, maybe, as it was maybe 100 years ago.

But I do think there is a great reverence that you feel from the Egyptians, both the local workers at the site, and also folks from the Supreme Council of Antiquities. There is a real reverence and a responsibility they feel to do the work properly, to do it conservatively, to do it in a way that actually conserves these artifacts, and these people, and these burials. I think there’s more than a kind of ritualistic honoring. There is just a real reverence around the whole thing.

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Tell me a little bit about the wax sculpture of the high priest that you found.

I can’t tell you too much more about it than what I know from the show, which is that this is a very odd artifact that was in a niche behind the sarcophagus. That would probably indicate that it was a representation of the guy who is buried there, of the high priest. It’s a small head, and it’s very lifelike. It’s very well carved. It appears to be a wax sculpture. It wasn’t entirely clear to me if it was entirely made of wax, or if it could’ve been a combination of that and some sort of a clay. I’m not sure exactly what it was.

I do know that Dr. Hawass and the other members of the Egyptian team that were there had never really seen anything like it, especially from this late dynasty. They used to make something called reserve heads really early on, like in the fourth dynasty, and they were kind of back-up heads. Egyptians really believe that if your mortal body was compromised, your mummy was looted or destroyed or rotted away, you really couldn’t go on in the afterlife. You had to have a hard copy, and so they made these reserve heads as a kind of back-up drive, so that if your body was destroyed, at least there was this head of you that would endure. I don’t know if that’s what this is, if this is some sort of a callback to that, but I do know that they’ve never really found anything like it. So it’s a super unique find, and I’m really eager to hear, as they study it and continue to look at it further, what it really means.

further reading: Secrets of the Dead: Inside PBS’s Hi-Tech Scanning of The Pyramids

There was gold found in the bandages?

Yeah. There was a kind of a banding over the mummy that had a gold leaf on it, and there were also four representations of the sons of Horus, the four figures that were on top of the mummy’s chest. Those appeared to be covered in gold as well. So, yeah, it was amazing to open a sarcophagus and to see such a beautifully wrapped mummy, but also amazing to open it and just see gold shimmering back at you. Incredible.

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Do you know the significance of the gold?

No, just that the Egyptians, like most cultures around the world, had an enormous affinity for gold. They saw it as a precious metal. It obviously reminded them of the sun. It reminded them of wealth. It was a difficult thing to obtain, and also easy to work with. So you find a lot of things in Egypt in royal and high status tombs made out of gold because it’s a precious object. It was as precious then as it is now, and so it’s a representation of wealth and status.

Do you know if any amulets have been found in the bandages?

You know, I don’t know. In many mummies, they would put amulets inside the bandages or even inside the body, and so we didn’t disturb any of the wrapping on the mummy. It will have to go and be CT-scanned. I’m sure the scan will show what’s inside the bandages and inside the body. We didn’t disturb the mummy at all. We simply moved the lid, photographed it, and looked at it in situ. So I think we’ll have to wait and see next steps there as to what they’re able to find.

One of the mummies was female. Is this uncommon?

It’s not terribly uncommon. I’m a little out of my depth here. I’m not an encyclopedia of ancient Egyptian history, but women did hold positions of status in ancient Egypt. Obviously, famously, people like Nefertiti and Cleopatra actually ruled, which we don’t often think about women having a lot of agency in the ancient world, but in ancient Egypt, they did. And there were priestesses who held very high status. In this particular case, there was some thought that this woman might’ve been a dancer or a singer at the temple, which would also have been a position of high status. That she was somebody able to operate within the inner circles of the temple as part of this group of religious figures worshiping the god Thoth.

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In The Mummy, the reincarnated woman asked the archeologist, do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?

Yeah. I think you do. Yeah, I think you do, yes.

Access to the Great Pyramid and surrounding areas is carefully controlled by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but there’s been a lot of recent discoveries. Why is now such a strong time for them?

Technology is changing archeology a great deal. Remote sensing technology is changing the face of archeology, from ground penetrating radar, to LIDAR, which is a laser scanning technology. But it’s also in its nascent years. They made a big announcement that they thought they had found a void in the Great Pyramid that had not been detected before, and now there’s a lot of debate as to whether that’s an accurate reading, and whether or not there really is something there. The same thing happened in Tut’s tomb. There was an indication that maybe there was a false wall, and there was a chamber behind it, and that really didn’t bear out in Tut’s tomb, and it may not bear out in the pyramid.

It’s an exciting time for archeology because really, really cutting edge technology is now playing a role in archeology, but it also is something that I think people are still getting their arms around as a tool of science to figure out really what its limitations are and how to interpret it.

You’re an adventurer. Do you ever have to bribe guards and do things like that to get to these places?

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Hopefully not, but, no. Look, every country has its challenges. In the case of the Egypt Live show, it would’ve been an impossible project without the cooperation of the Egyptian government, and with the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It’s like don’t even bother getting on the plane unless you’ve got this relationship in order, and really a lot of our shows are about meeting the real archeologists, and the real explorers that are the center of the stories we’re investigating. Their cooperation is paramount to the whole project, so what we really want to do is go to places where real work is happening, and to highlight that work. To do that, you have to have that cooperation.

further reading: Ancient Black Tomb Unearthed in Egypt

It is true that in some parts of the world things are easier to get done than other parts of the world, but our show just wouldn’t work without this high level of cooperation from people, so that’s what we’re always looking for.

Do you think there’s any significance that they found the family plot and then they found the high priest?

No. I think that one of the things maybe we didn’t have an opportunity to really express during the show was the geography of the site, and there are tombs really everywhere. The family tomb that we went down into is one of the best that they’ve found, but I think there are probably dozens more of these vertical shafts leading down into these dozens and dozens of chambers that, I think, are going to contain more families and more high priests. I think that what you’re seeing here is a snapshot of a town very much focused on religious life. You’re going to have priests. You’re going to have people who lived and worked there. You’re going to have families, and I think that you’re going to find that there’s a lot more of that at the site.

Do you think you’ll ever find evidence of advanced technology of the Egyptians, like a cathode ray tube, or something like that?

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No, I don’t think so. I think that this ancient alien, ancient advanced technology stuff is kind of a fantastic notion. I also think, in some ways, it kind of undervalues the real genius of these cultures. One of the things that I was saying at the end of the live show is that America’s 243 years old, and ancient Egypt went on for 3,000 years, so I think that when we look at the pyramids and the things that they built, and we sort of say to ourselves, “How did they do this? How could they possibly have had the ingenuity to do this,” we have to realize that they were an incredibly advanced culture. And the things that they did invent, which we look back on now and kind of take for granted … They invented in some ways the idea of kingship. They invented the idea of the afterlife. I mean, they didn’t invent the afterlife, but they invented a really organized religion. They invented the world’s first really fully formed writing system. These are things that are insanely difficult things to come up with if they didn’t exist, right?

And so I think that rather than kind of looking around for the “who helped them,” and “how did they do it,” and “is there a conspiracy,” I think what we really should be doing is just celebrating the fact that they did do all of this stuff, and I think, for me, that’s the message of all this is that these are people that were incredibly advanced, and, by the way, also fell completely apart, and that there are lessons in there as well. When we look at Greece, and Rome, and ancient Egypt, there are big lessons for our own very young society that we can probably learn from them as to what they did right and what they did wrong.

You’ll be going to the Andes’ Lake Titicaca. What do you expect to find in your dive?

The Expedition Unknown: Egypt Live was really the kickoff to an all new season of Expedition Unknown, so we’ve got a whole new slate of episodes coming up that are going to be all over the world. Tonight [the evening of the interview], we’re doing a story on a lost Nazi treasure in the forest of Germany.

The episode that you’re referring to is about a supposedly sunken city in Lake Titicaca in the Andes. This is the hardest navigable lake in the world. It’s a place where there was an ancient civilization and an ancient huge building complex, a place called Tiwanaku. It’s been excavated, but it’s not terribly well understood. It’s a pre-Inca site that was this big civilization that existed before the Inca there. And a lot of their buildings and their construction have kind of been swallowed up by time, and so there have always been legends that there is more of their buildings and more of their construction in and around Lake Titicaca.

And so this is a really cool opportunity to not just look for ruins, but to try to understand and highlight a culture that many people, myself included, know very little about.

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What is the truth behind the Crystal Skull of Doom?

There was a crystal skull, famous from the fourth Indiana Jones film. That object is based on a real object. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s an authentic artifact, but there are a number of these crystal skulls around the world, the most famous of which is called the Mitchell Hedges Skull. It was purportedly found at a Maya site in Belize, and it’s a very controversial artifact, and many people have dismissed it as a fraud. And there are other crystal skulls in museums around the world. There’s one in the Louvre, there’s one in the British Museum, that has been pretty clearly demonstrated to have been made in the 1800s and they’re not ancient artifacts.

And so this is an opportunity to tell the story of the crystal skull, the most famous of skull, to look at its origins, see if it could be an ancient artifact, but also really to highlight the guy at the center of the crystal skull story, Mitchell Hedges, who was an explorer and kind of the model for Indiana Jones. He is kind of the guy who Indiana Jones is modeled after in some sense. He was this swashbuckling archeologist, and a guy who is fascinating. Flawed in many ways, and a really interesting character, but we really wanted to do a show about him because he’s kind of the real Indiana Jones.

It’s an awesome opportunity to dig into a really thrilling artifact and a really fascinating explorer.

What advice do you give to future Indiana Joneses?

Oh, you know, for every kid out there who watches Raiders, or watches anything that gets them excited about exploration is, to me, a step in the right direction. I think that exploring the world is incredibly important. I think archeology is incredibly important to help understand our past, but even just travel and experiencing other cultures, and having an adventurous sense of the world, I think, is so important. I think it makes us better people. It makes us understand the world that we live in more.

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So I think any kid out there who really wants to explore the world should hold onto that passion and realize that it’s entirely within their grasp to do so. Anybody can be an explorer in a sense. Anybody can go to a distant land and learn about another culture in ways big and small, and so I hope that our show encourages people on some level to become explorers, or at the very least, to become armchair explorers. To hear about these legends, and mysteries, and artifacts, and to learn more about them, because they’re all part of an amazing collection of stories. Real stories from around the world.

Expedition Unknown airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Discovery Channel.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.