The 200-year-old mummified remains of a small child are making their way back to the University of Maryland School of Medicine after an absence in which they were posted for sale on eBay and languished for almost five years in a Michigan police evidence room.
The effort to identify the mummy's home and return it was aided by a Port Huron, Mich., police lieutenant, a couple of astute Michigan anthropologists and the curator of a mummy collection originally assembled by a convicted 19th-century Scottish grave robber.
"It was a pretty fascinating case, with a lot of people involved," said Norman. J. Sauer, a forensic anthropologist who proved that the mummy belonged to the medical school. "We discovered a piece of a very rare collection with a lot of history."
Little is known about the mummy or when it went missing, but on Friday it rested in a box at a postal processing center in Linthicum — yes, it was sent by mail from Michigan. It's expected to arrive at the medical school Monday, where it will take its rightful place as part of the 220-piece historic Burns Collection.
"It will be nice to have it home with the rest of the mummies," said Ronn Wade, the curator who has cared for the collection since 1974.
Acquired by the university in 1820, the Burns Collection is an obscure set of medical mummies once used for dissection and the training of medical students. It represents a time in medical history when the dissection of human corpses was banned and some students turned to grave robbing.
The child mummy wasn't the first piece to go missing from a collection that once topped 500 items. They were stolen or lost, probably borrowed by students or professors and never returned, said Wade, also director of the anatomical services division at the medical school.
The age and sex of the child mummy haven't been determined, but it could be a boy of 8 or 9. It's also unclear what journey the mummy has made over the years or how it ended up in Michigan.
What is known is that it popped up on eBay for sale in Port Huron, Mich., on Oct. 10, 2006, under the category of medical specimen, according to police. A student in North Carolina spotted it, became suspicious and called police.
Officers went to the house associated with the eBay ad and were met at the door by a woman who said she was trying to sell the mummy for a business acquaintance in Detroit, police said. The medical examiner was called after police determined they were dealing with human remains. Bidding had reached $500 by the time it was confiscated.
"They got to the basement, and it was just lying there," said police Lt. Duane Loxton, who worked on the case.
Loxton was determined to find out where the missing remains belonged, and called the Detroit man who ordered its sale. A contractor who demolished and renovated old buildings, he said he had found it in an old school in Detroit in the '80s and had held on to it ever since.
Loxton then contacted Sauer, a forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University. Sauer showed it to his student, Katherine Horner, an anthropologist who at the time was working on her doctorate. She had seen the Burns Collection a few years earlier while helping National Geographic shoot a program on it. The child mummy contained hollowed-out insides, and the dissection emphasized the circulation system — a Burns signature.
"She took one look at it and said, 'This is from the Burns Collection,'" Sauer said.
Sauer contacted Wade at the University of Maryland, exchanged photos with him and studied dissection techniques. The conclusion: a Burns original.
"The chances of it not being from the collection were pretty rare," Sauer said.
Wade had no doubt as well: "It was clear this was one of our specimens."
Back at the Port Huron police station, Loxton was happy the mystery was solved. But the mummy wouldn't make its journey back to Maryland quite yet.
It was returned to the station and placed in the evidence room, carefully wrapped and marked "fragile." Loxton wanted to wait to make sure no legal battles would be waged by the Detroit demolition man. That is where the mummy sat until last week.
Loxton was recently promoted to oversee the detective division. He had always remembered — and been fascinated — by the case, unique for a suburban town where you can see Canada from the police station.
"I guarantee it is the first mummy that we had in our police station," Loxton said, "and I'm sure it will probably be the last, too."
Loxton plans to retire in two years and wanted to bring some older cases to a close. He called Wade and said it was time for the mummy to head back to Maryland.
The mummy will join the rest of the collection, in boxes in a chilled basement in a building on West Baltimore Street. There are other child mummies like the one coming from Michigan. One piece is a mummified arm with a black-and-red tattoo depicting the coat of arms of Pope Pius VII, who reigned between 1800 and 1823. Wade said it is the only identifying mark on any of the mummies. Other than that, they lack identifying clues.
The collection was created in the early 1800s by Scottish anatomist Allen Burns. He was considered skilled, though he had no formal training and had been convicted of body-snatching. Before he died in 1813, he gave the collection to his protégé, Granville Patterson, who was later hired at Maryland and sold the collection to the school.
The collection is not used for everyday research by students anymore. The pieces are too delicate, and there are more modern techniques in use these days. But Wade said there still may be some educational value. Perhaps the faces of the mummies can be reconstructed, a technique that has become popular in the world of research.
Wade said he was glad the child mummy would be in a respectable place.
"This was somebody's body," he said. "It was once somebody's child."