by Heather Pringle



282pp/$23.95/November 2001

The Mummy Congress
Cover by Anton Markous

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

When most people think of mummies, they think of Egyptian pharaohs.  Heather Pringle's The Mummy Congress, reveals that there is much more to mummification than the wrapped bodies of long dead Egyptians.  In fact, the congress which forms the event of the title took place in Arica, Chile, at the edge of a desert which provides the perfect climate and conditions for natural mummification to take place.  Pringle begins her exploration into the current state of mummification research by describing the congress.

Pringle's purpose in writing The Mummy Congress is not to espouse any particular theory or advance any new ideas.  Instead, it is to present the various theories about mummies as well as the competing trains of thought about the best way to learn more about mummies and the natural and assisted processes which result in mummification.  In order to do this, Pringle resorts to examining the individuals who are active in the field and presenting them with all their foibles.

Since Pringle writes for a variety of popular science magazines, in fact the project was kicked off by an assignment for Discover, it is not surprising that her prose is eminently readable.  What is surprising is how much of the book feels as if it were a novel rather than a non-fiction work.  The opening sequence, in which Pringle travels to Arica, feels as if it is a carefully plotted work of fiction.  Even later chapters which deal with such topics as dissection of mummies, the penchant for mummification among Communist countries or the use of mummies to unravel crimes of ages past feel as if they are short stories.

While the majority of the book is entertaining and readable, at times, Pringle must describe the specifics of mummification and the study of it.  When this happens, the book becomes a catalog of the grisly, whether it is describing the parasites which are common to all humans, especially after they die, to the variety of signs which can be found about a mummy and give clues to how it lived, died and what it ate.  Of course, these sections, which are not for the squeamish, form the meat of Pringle's book.

The Mummy Congress serves to demystify, as much as possible, one of the more intriguing practices of humans, who are frequently, in the modern age, uncomfortable with death.  At the same time, the heavy focus of the book paints a skewed picture of the cultures which embraced mummification.  Although there were a variety of trades which dealt with the dead, would not a future anthropologist working specifically on funerary practices of the twenty-first century get a distorted view of our own attitude towards death.

Pringle manages to explain in clear and entertaining terms the treatment of the dead in a variety of cultures, some of which are in the distant past while others are within living memory.  At the same time, she explores the scientific process as practiced throughout the world at the turn of the century, revealing it to be, as she states in her subtitle, an obsession with the people who study mummies.

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