An archeologist is considered a bit like a spy, someone dangerous,” says preeminent French archeologist and prehistorian Lionel Balout, 70, who found himself in the eye of an academic storm last year when he treated the deteriorating Ramses II, the mummified Egyptian Pharaoh of Light.
As director of Paris’ Musée de l’Homme, Balout had helped diagnose the mummy’s affliction in a case that touched off an international controversy. Some Egyptian and American experts charged that the removal of the 3,200-year-old cadaver from Cairo to Paris for treatment was a diplomatic gimmick designed to bolster sagging Franco-Egyptian political relations. One of these was Dr. James Harris of the University of Michigan, who suggested that any bacteria found on the royal mummy had to be as old as Ramses himself. Scorned Dr. Balout, after sending the fragile Ramses safely back to Cairo, “that would have been a real discovery!”
Ramses II was embalmed 32 centuries ago by having his insides removed. His brain was siphoned through his nose. He was then dried, stuffed with straw and resin, and wrapped in 300 feet of bandages.
What Balout and his team of 50 researchers found was that, under the ancient preservative wraps, Ramses was festering with more than 60 types of destructive growths, all of them 10 years old or less. Apparently, Ramses began to decay in the Cairo Museum, where the level of humidity was too high and the mummified remains were not sheltered from visitors’ bacteria. Balout prescribed a series of mild radiation treatments which sterilized the ailing dignitary against further infection.
With visible relief, Balout says today, “It is no longer my affair. I gave it back, signed the papers and now it is up to the Egyptians to insure its future.”
But the case of the mummy’s malady (which really will not be over for Balout until his forthcoming book on Ramses is published) is not the professor’s first brush with controversy. In 1940 he received a number of threats after urging the Pope to change the papal view of the origins of man. Balout wanted the church to take recent scientific discoveries about prehistoric man into account.
But Balout considers controversies all part of his work. Born in 1907, the son of a musician, Balout, who at the age of 12 got hooked on collecting toy Egyptian soldiers (he still has his collection), made weekly visits as a schoolboy to the Louvre to study Egyptian antiquities. Fresh out of the Sorbonne, he went to North Africa as a professor of Roman archeology, only to discover that there were too many archeologists. So he switched to prehistory, teaching and doing pioneer work in what was then practically a virgin field. After a wartime interruption spent with the Free French forces, Balout earned his doctorate in 1955 and published Prehistory of North Africa, considered a classic in the field.
Accolades, high appointments (including dean of the University of Algiers in 1958) and more scholarly books led to his current museum directorship and professorship at Nanterre University. He and his wife, Andrée, have a son and granddaughter. As a teacher and as president of a scientific UNESCO group, Balout is noted for his conciliatory and moderating influence (“My role as professor is one of synthesis”).
Though he complains about the lack of official importance given his field (“The minute someone is really good in the field, he becomes a minister”), Balout knows his work will be continued in the years ahead. The majority of pre-historians at work in North Africa are his students. Although Balout himself will step down from his museum and university posts this fall, he will continue his research. Reflecting on his life, he takes the long, long view: “Prehistory,”‘ he says, “is the only passion that counts.”