An engrossing discussion, lurid title aside, of mummies: how they’re made, where they’re found, what scientists and historians learn from them.
A mummy is a dead human or animal whose soft tissues are preserved. Dry or cold climates do this naturally, but many cultures work to preserve their dead. The popular image of a mummy is the exquisitely decorated Egyptian pharaoh in his tomb, yet this barely scratches the surface: Egyptian rulers tried to monopolize the tradition, but it spread to the nobility and beyond to anyone who could afford it. Thousands of Egyptian mummies have turned up, more than any museum can handle; Egypt, however, is only the tip of the mummy iceberg—hundreds have been found in the bogs of northern Europe, thousands in the deserts of South America, Central Asia, and the American Southwest. Cold temperatures in the Arctic, Andes, and other mountains have preserved prehistoric men (such as the spectacular “Iceman,” a 3,000-year-old hunter found in the Alps). Not all mummies are ancient (witness the discovery recently of famous mountaineer George Mallory, who disappeared on Mount Everest in 1929), and the custom enjoyed a bizarre 20th-century revival under communism (Lenin, Stalin, and Ho Chi Minh were all mummified). Despite purple prose and a tendency to compose fictional dramas on the last hours of those destined to become mummies, science writer Pringle (In Search of Ancient North America, 1996) traveled the world, visited sites and museums, and allowed the experts (often an eccentric bunch) to speak for themselves. Mummies tell us much about ancient life as well as ancient disease, and they exert a peculiar and persistent fascination: Even today, there is an international traffic in mummies and mummy parts.
The author has done her homework, revealing a subject far more complex and interesting than it might seem at first.