Secrets of the Dead: An Interview with Matt Ralphs
What made you want to write a book about dead bodies?
I became fascinated with the ancient Egyptians when I was about eight years old. Because there is so much that remains for us today of their incredible (and extremely long-lasting) civilization, I felt I could get close to them – even if just from the pages of a history book. Their bright and beautiful artwork. Their enormous pyramids filled with mysterious passageways and chambers. Their hidden tombs – with more, no doubt, still waiting to be discovered! And, of course, the mummies. The actual preserved remains of people who lived thousands of years ago. The ancient Egyptians’ mummification methods were so sophisticated and effective that the skin, flesh and hair remain to give us a vivid indication of what these people (some, like Ramses the Great, being incredibly important historical figures) actually looked like!
Many years later, while thinking about books I’d like to write, I thought something about mummies would be interesting. I was already fascinated about Egyptian mummies (and knew a little about bog bodies) but I also wondered if other ancient societies also used similar methods of preserving their dead. A little bit of research told me that yes, plenty did. Certainly enough to fill what would be a truly amazing book. And that’s how Secrets of the Dead began.
How did you tackle writing a book about such a sensitive subject?
My publisher Nosy Crow and I were in compete agreement right from that start about how to write about the preserved dead. In one word: respect. Of course, we weren’t going to shy away from the sometimes gruesome details - after all, we’re talking about a subject that includes decay, decomposition and organ removal. But the focus would be on the individual people we were examining (who they were; what they wore; what their last meal was, how and when they died), and the societies they were part of (their beliefs; methods of preserving their dead, and their reasons for doing so). To me, these were not ‘bodies’, or ‘corpses’, they were people who had names, emotions, hopes and fears, and who in many ways were just like me. To be honest, I wrote Secrets of the Dead for them more than anyone else.
What surprised you the most while researching the book?
When I began the serious business of researching Secrets of the Dead I was surprised and fascinated by pretty much everything I unearthed. Preserved remains and the items found with them give us a vivid look at people from the distant past. A Scythian warrior’s tattoos show us they believed in mythical creatures, and that adorning themselves in their likenesses gave them strength. The tomb contents of an ancient Chinese noblewoman presents us with a sumptuous menu of food (including owl!) that she would have eaten while alive, as well as a strong hint that it was over-indulgence that led to her death. That Otzi the Iceman was fully equipped to survive and hunt in the snowy mountains of Europe, and that his last meal consisted of goat meat, bread and berries.
However, the people that surprised me the most were the Self Mummifying Monks. The notion that someone would make a decision to prepare their bodies for preservation after death before they’d actually died (and were, in fact, in the prime of their lives) was mind-blowing. And that was before I’d even read about the almost unbelievably long and gruelling process they had to go through to do so. It’s all in the book, and it’s incredible.
What was it like working with Gordy Wright?
Gordy is a brilliant artist, and I am so grateful Nosy Crow chose him to illustrate Secrets of the Dead. His art style is unique. He can show scale, like the sweeping mountain vistas of the Incan empire, or the icy hellscape endured by the brave yet doomed souls of the Franklin Expedition. And he also captures gorgeous details, like the decorations on an ancient Egyptian tomb wall, or the colourful fabrics worn by the Salt Men of Iran. It’s a delicate skill to be able to depict the dead in a way that captures how they really look after so many years, but at the same time ensure they are not upsetting or disturbing to the reader. Gordy absolutely nailed it.
Secrets of the Dead by Matt Ralphs, illustrated by Gordy Wright, is published by Nosy Crow in association with the British Museum. Out now, £12.99 hardback, ISBN 9781788009003. www.nosycrow.com