Heather Pringle,
The Mummy Congress
(Hyperion, 2001)

When I first picked up The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead by Heather Pringle, I was not sure what to expect. The Mummy Congress sounds like an interesting fiction title to a horror buff, yet Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead does not. While I enjoy magazine articles I have read on mummies, I was unsure I would be able to get through more than 300 pages of scientific discussion on such a dry topic. (Dry -- mummies -- get it? Oh, never mind.)

I grudgingly started the first chapter, which describes how every couple of years, the world's small collection of scientists, archaeologists, journalists and others interested in anything to do with mummies gather to discuss their latest research. By the time I was done with this chapter, I knew I was going to enjoy this book. Heather, a writer/journalist from Vancouver, Canada, has penned many articles on archaeology and ancient cultures. She definitely has a way with words that makes the subject of mummies not only easy to digest, but also hard to put down. The Mummy Congress is speckled with humor and many interesting personal stories. At times, you will forget that you are learning about the ancient dead.

When most people first think of mummies, they immediately think of Egypt. Yet the Chinchorro people of South America knew the secrets of mummification more than two and a half millennia before the Egyptians started the practice. Two of my favorite chapters in the book focus on the mummies found in South America. For those of you familiar with the articles in National Geographic about Incan mummies found high atop Andean peaks, Heather goes into a lot more detail about Johan Reinhard and his high-altitude excavations.

Another interesting chapter focuses on research done to discover what diseases various people suffered from in the past. I was thoroughly fascinated reading about scientists detecting 3,000-year-old eggs of parasitic worms and using data like this to chart the rise and fall of epidemics in ancient Egypt. A similar example of following Chagas outbreaks in Latin America was equally gross and engrossing at the same time. For those of you unfamiliar with Chagas, this disease can potentially enlarge the intestines until they rupture.

Another chapter looked at ancient drug use. For example, researchers detected the use of tobacco and cocaine in Egyptian mummies suggesting a link to the Americas. Was this transatlantic connection possible? Read the book. Another chapter focuses on the "Incorruptibles" -- Christian saints and religious figures. Does God keep these bodies from decay or has science stepped in? Read the book. Many Communist regimes in the 20th century mummified their leaders. Did you ever wonder how and why they did this? (Mao from the People's Republic of China, by the way, looks like he is made of wax. At least he did when I saw him back in the summer of 1991. Now I understand a little better as to why.) Did you know that certain Buddhist monks in Japan mummified themselves through their diet? Did you know that mummies found in Western China indicate that Caucasians reached Asia long before Marco Polo? If you consume a "medicine" that contains ground up mummy, does that make you a cannibal? There are many other similarly interesting pieces of information to ponder over in this book.

I recommend The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. This book contains information on mummies from the Americas, Europe, China and Africa. Heather has managed to breathe life into the subject of the dead. Reading about the scientists and archaeologists who study mummies is almost as fascinating as reading about all the research they have done. After reading this book, I am contemplating seeing what I can find out about the next Mummy Congress (which will be held in Nuuk, Greenland).

[ by Wil Owen ]
Rambles: 5 January 2002

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