John Taylor has been digging into the background of a guy with a tongue-twisting name - Nesperennub.That's nez-pair-ren-newb. Nez for short.
Taylor is an assistant keeper, or curator, in the ancient Egypt and Sudan department of London's British Museum. He has gotten to know Nez pretty well, but the curiosity is not reciprocated.
Nez has been dead for nearly 3,000 years. Still, he left a trail of clues.
Picture Taylor as a scholarly Sherlock Holmes, magnifying glass in hand, piecing together the mystery of this man's life, death and afterlife in what was the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes - now Luxor.
Taylor's findings can be examined - bring your own magnifier, if you wish - at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the international touring show "Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb" goes on view today.
The show, which covers 2,000 years of Egyptian history with about 100 objects, is premiering in Richmond for its only American stop. Next, it goes to Queensland, Australia.
All of the artifacts are on loan from the British Museum, which has the most comprehensive collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Egypt. The exhibition includes everyday items, such as jewelry, and objects related to an ancient Egyptian's afterlife, including canopic jars for storing a dead person's dried organs.
Mummies also are in the mix - four humans and two animals are in the galleries. One of those mummies is Nez.
In a recent phone interview from his London office, Taylor recalled seeing his first mummy as a youngster.
"It was a powerful experience," he said. "I was already fascinated by the subject at the age of 8. One of the things I really wanted was to see a mummy face to face."
Why do mummies fascinate people? Taylor thinks it's a direct link to an ancient civilization.
"You're seeing a person from the distant past and recognizing them as a human being, not just as bones."
Most mummies still have flesh and hair.
"It disorients you. These things, they shouldn't be here after 3,000 years. How did they do this?
"Why did they do this?"
Used to be, to peer at a mummy and unearth its secrets, researchers had to open the coffin and unwrap the deceased.
Then along came computed tomography, or CT, scanning, the same type used in hospitals to photograph what's under people's skin. Taylor put Nez through a CT scan in 2003 and built a popular exhibition around it called "Mummy: The Inside Story."
The show, which opened in 2004 at the British Museum, featured a 3-D film that revealed what's within Nez's coffin, though the images weren't very detailed.
By 2007, CT scanning had improved. Taylor took Nez on another trip to a London hospital, where he was wheeled in on a gurney.
As a monitor displayed the new images, Taylor grew excited. He saw so much more than before.
The amulets, for instance. Amulets are small objects tucked here and there on a mummy. The charmlike items were believed to assist the person in the afterlife.
A heart-shaped amulet, for example, was placed over Nez's collarbone to stop his heart from revealing any shameful deeds as he faced Osiris, god of the underworld.
"The old scans just showed there were things underneath the wrappings, but you couldn't really tell what they were. They were sort of blobs. Now you can recognize what they are," Taylor said.
As the latest exhibition that revolves around Nez opens, accompanied by an updated 3-D film, the art historian has a greater knowledge of his subject pieced together from numerous sources, including the CT scans.
Nez was a temple priest who lived around 800 B.C. His name, titles and affiliations are written in hieroglyphic inscriptions on his inner and outer coffins.
From those writings, Taylor knows that he was a priest at Karnak, a major temple in Luxor. And that one of his jobs was to pour water over food offerings made to the gods.
He probably was among dozens of priests serving Khonsu, the god of the moon and time.
"The Khonsu temple is very well-conserved," Taylor said. "We can go to that temple today and stand in a place where Nez would have stood 3,000 years ago."
Nez's other job was fan bearer for a pharaoh.
Fan bearer sounds menial, but it was a high-ranking position that gave him direct contact with the pharaoh, Taylor said.
Nez's age is not written down anywhere. "You have to look at the state of his body." His teeth, which are fairly worn down, suggest he was middle-aged. Taylor guessed he died in his 40s.
During the mummification process, Nez's organs were removed and dried, so there's no way to track his diet. But Taylor knows what most Egyptians ate: unleavened bread, fruit, vegetables, fish, some meat, beer and wine.
It was a healthy diet, aside from the sand that inevitably wafted into the bread batter. Such grit rapidly wears down teeth. Even today, Taylor said, "village bread in Egypt, there's always a bit of sand in it."
The CT scans showed a few abscessed teeth. Taylor wrote for the exhibition catalog: "It would certainly have caused Nesperennub much pain and discomfort, and probably made him irritable and short-tempered."
Nez's father was a priest, too, a fact noted on Nez's coffin. Nez's wife's coffin - owned by a museum in Berkeley, Calif. - resembles his, and he's named in hieroglyphics as her spouse.
They had at least one child - a Karnak temple inscription mentions a son - but he may have had as many as a dozen children, as did many Egyptians, Taylor said.
The CT scans also revealed a thing or two about ancient Egyptian embalmers. Poor Nez was buried with a bowl on his head, looking as silly as a drunk wearing a lamp shade.
"We know that embalmers were often very careless," Taylor said.
Taylor saw one mummy where the embalmers broke off the head and stuck it back on the body with a pole. In another instance, he glimpsed a mouse that had crept into the wrappings and died there.
In the case of Nez's bowl, it may have been put on his head to catch drippings from resin used in mummification. It is possible that the resin hardened quickly, so that the bowl could not be removed.
The embalmers must have thought: who'll ever know?