Book Review: The Mummy Congress

mummycongress cover

The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting by Heather Pringle

Originally published 2002; available in ebook and print

Heather Pringle is a science journalist; she writes articles on archaeology and ancient cultures for a number of popular science magazines. She started researching an article on mummies, became fascinated by the topic, and traveled all over the world interviewing experts and researchers and viewing mummies. Her research led her to attend the Mummy Congress, an international conference of mummy experts held once every few years.

Most of us think of ancient Egypt when we hear “mummy”. In actuality, mummies have been found on every continent and associated with many ancient cultures: North and South American native cultures, the bog bodies of northern Europe, entombed medieval saints in European cathedrals, preserved remains of all types in Asia and China. The book discusses both purposefully preserved bodies, from the Egyptian mummies through Lenin’s on-display remains, and unplanned natural preservations such as the bog bodies and ice men and dessicated remains found in dry desert caves. The oldest discovered instances of deliberate mummification are from 7000 years ago in Chile.

Ms. Pringle makes the case that the study of mummies is important to us because of what we can learn about ancient diseases and parasites, to aid modern medicine in dealing with current versions of those afflictions. And archaeologists are interested in bettering their understanding of ancient cultures by studying the artifacts and clothing of the mummies, plus gathering data on food consumption and drug and herb use by testing the mummy bodies.

The volatile politics of “disturbing the dead” are also discussed. Native cultures with descendants still in existence object to having their ancestors’ bodies carted away and dissected by scientists; it is a violation of their religious and cultural beliefs. Many mummy experts have ceased the practice of autopsying, preferring to depend on non-invasive procedures as x-rays, CT scans, and endoscopy. Unfortunately, these techniques were developed for studying living bodies and do not do well in providing accurate information on dessicated tissues. There is also discussion of current national politics and agendas — sometimes existing governments don’t like what the study of mummies tells them about the history of their culture and country.

One warning: Don’t read this book while eating. Some of the stories are a bit bizarre and the discussions of how these mummified people died could be disturbing to your digestion.

The author treats the topic with sensitivity, always remembering that these ‘preserved remains’ were real people, with lives and emotions. As the book says: “. . . the world’s mummy experts throw open the doors to lost worlds and lost times. They offer us proof, as clear as can be, that the distant past was not peopled with vague shadows and shades, but with men, women, and children who were very much like us.”

 

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