Duck Duck Book

61 – mummy congress
06.10.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: social sciences

The Mummy Congress : science, obsession, and the everlasting dead / Heather Pringle.
New York : Hyperion, c2001.
[MCL call number: 393.3 P957m 2001; one copy, no holds]

The human body, once dead, usually begins to degrade immediately.  Within a few days or weeks, under most natural conditions, the dead person is nearly unrecognizable.  Within a few months or years, no more than bones will remain, and in some environments they don’t last long either.  But under the right conditions, bodies are preserved.  Think about the ways we preserve food, and you’ll have a good start on how to keep a body stable — dry it, freeze it, or pickle it.  This can happen by accident, but people are observant and inventive, and many cultures have developed mortuary practices that increase the shelf life, so to speak, of their dead.

And for just about every something that there is, someone wants to study it.  Studying the preserved dead, though, is tricky.  They are people, undeniably.  Should they be unwrapped, thawed out, dissected, or dismembered, for the cause of learning?  Is it more important to respect the intentions of the people who preserved (and often buried) them, or to advance our knowledge of epidemiology, human migration, or the history of technology?

Heather Pringle explores some of these questions by traveling to meet and interview dozens of mummy experts, and by delving into the fascinating and occasionally quite horrific history of how mummies have been regarded, exploited, and revered.  Among the most repugnant stories she recounts is this:

Medieval Arab physicians, who were wonderful at writing things down for future generations, were very fond of using a specific variety of bitumen (a naturally occurring hydrocarbon, sort of like a petroleum pitch) found in Persia and known there as “mumiya” as a salve for cuts, bruises, and bone fractures.  They also gave it internally for a wide variety of ills, including ulcers.  Since the word mumiya was a strictly local word, when European scholars got to translating these medical texts, they were not sure what to do with this unfathomable word.  They guessed, wrongly, that it must refer to a pitchy kind of substance found in Egyptian mummies.  So European doctors began prescribing ground up Egyptian mummies as a new wonder drug.  Horrors.

The Mummy Congress is engagingly written, a little more journalistic than scientific, with a good solid narrative, a handy (though sadly not annotated) bibliography, and a decent index.


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