By Alex Tresniowski
February 10, 2003 12:00 PM

Sometimes Ron Beckett brings his work home with him. Once, for example, he pulled into the driveway with a 1,000-year-old Peruvian mummy belted snugly in the backseat of his Oldsmobile. “He carried it right in,” says his wife, Beverly, “and sat it on a chair in the living room.”

Even if such guests aren’t long on conversation, they do eventually tell a story. Beckett, 50, a specialist in endoscopy—the threading of a tiny video camera inside the human body—stars on The Mummy Road Show, a popular series now in its second season on the National Geographic Channel. Each week he and partner Jerry Conlogue, 55, an X-ray imaging expert, wisecrack their way through expeditions to far-off jungles and mountaintops, where they perform forensics on a variety of desiccated dead folks and reconstruct their life stories. “We’re not the first people to X-ray or use an endoscope on mummies,” says Beckett, “but we are the first to make house calls.” Adds Conlogue: “What we do is kind of like solving mysteries. We get all these clues and try to piece them together, and if we can’t the mummy keeps its secret.”

Both professors and codirectors of the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, the two tomb raiders have proved that a female Catholic saint in Italy was actually a male, shot down the legend of a Tennessee carnival mummy rumored to have been a murderess killed by cops (blood clots in her lungs suggested she died of tuberculosis) and sleuthed out the story behind the mummified daughter of medieval ruler Ludwig IV of Bavaria (they determined she had been sickly and died at 18 months). “They’re wild and crazy guys but deadly serious about what they do,” says Gretchen Worden, director of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. “It’s hard enough to get a doctor to make a house call, but a radiographer and an endoscopy specialist? Amazing.”

Their adventure began in 1985, when Beckett—who loved camping out and digging up arrowheads as a kid in Yuma, Ariz.—leafed through résumés in search of a director for Quinnipiac’s diagnostic-imaging program. He was particularly impressed by an application from Conlogue, a Meridian, Conn., native. Then a freelance diagnostician who had X-rayed everything from porpoise flippers in the Arctic to old works of art that might hide underpaintings, Conlogue got the job. “We hit it off right away coming in from the airport,” says Beckett, “and I don’t think it had anything to do with us stopping at that bar.”

In 1997 Conlogue, who honed his skills X-raying mummies at the Smithsonian, developed an innovative radiographic technique that made it possible to process X-ray film at remote locations. Not much later, he was hired to examine the Chachapoya mummies in the Peruvian village of Leimebamba. Before going, he shared with Beckett his frustration at not being able to see inside the nooks and crannies he spotted on his X rays. Beckett realized his endoscope could do just that, and the first mummy he delicately explored “just started to come alive,” he says.

Their 1998 mummy-finding trip to Peru was filmed for a documentary, and producers took note of their good-natured banter. In 2000 the National Geographic Channel gave the green light for 13 episodes. Tooling around in an old pretzel delivery truck dubbed the Mummy Mobile, the boys somehow satisfy their Indiana Joneses while still teaching weekly classes at Quinnipiac. Married for 26 years to Beverly, 48, a registered nurse, Beckett even finds time to jam on his bass guitar with musically inclined sons Paul, 19, and Matt, 21 (he also has a daughter, Julie, 14). Conlogue, the divorced father of Byron, 23, and Ali, 16, cites performing necropsies on sharks as a hobby.

Right now their mission is demystifying mummies—or at least making people forget Boris Karloff. “You try not to get emotionally attached, but you can’t help but develop a relationship with them,” says Conlogue. “You start to realize they haven’t told their story to anybody but you.”

Alex Tresniowski

Johnny Dodd in San Jose