A globe-trotting documentary filmmaker and archaeologist visits the sites where mummy-making cultures once thrived and arrives at some unremarkable conclusions.
Reid is persistent and dedicated: a scholar-adventurer. He once spent two years living with the Maku, forest people who hunt, fish, and gather deep in the Amazon. He has crawled around in Romanian caves and hunkered down with Herodotus, Tacitus, and Gilgamesh. And for this excursion—on a travel budget to die for—he visited mummy sites in central Asia, Siberia, Denmark, Egypt, the Canary Islands, North Africa, Chile, and Peru. So the problem is not with his persistence or his courage (he is an intrepid traveler, confirmed here by his gripping account of a horseback ride through the Andes—on a tough little steed and a sour stomach); it is with his writing, which ranges from a breathless gee-whiz boyish exuberance to the most common clichés of the Near Death Experience crowd. When he sees something he likes, warm glows spread through him and bells ring (or sparks go off) in his head. Despite the abundant treacle and triteness, there is much of interest—notably the many illustrations of Mummies of the World. Reid says he wished to determine if there were any connections among the mummy-makers, to discover the various reasons for mummification, and to explore the techniques involved. And so we learn a bit about the Pazyrk method of preserving (Siberia), the Danish Iron Age practice of tossing the victims of executions into peat bogs (where, centuries later, well preserved, they sometime bob to the surface), the somewhat familiar process employed by the Egyptians, and Reid’s principal insight: that Berbers (North Africa) may have sailed west to the Canaries and continued their mummy-practices there. Another gem: some ancient Peruvians may have practiced trepanning for pleasure. On a more personal and poignant note, Reid tries to come to terms with the untimely death of his closest friend.
Cliché and convention combine to suffocate—then mummify—a terrific idea. (16 pages color photos; 3 maps, 1 drawing)