Heather Pringle
The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead

People are fascinated with mummies. It almost seems to be a part of human nature. Pringle seeks to capitalize on this wonderment most hold by writing an account on the subject in a very popular style. She does a pretty good job too.

She begins by discussing "The Mummy Congress"--a small group of individuals, mostly scientists, who get together on occasion for a world conference on the latest mummy research and findings. Based on the title I thought we'd be hearing all their stories throughout the book. But she shifts gears fairly early on and leaves them behind until returning to the congress late in the book.

Along the way we get to travel to Egypt (of course), visit the bog people of Europe, and explore the, until recently neglected, mummies of South America. We also hear about the history of mummies and excavations including the horrific tales of mummies being ground up for pseudo-medicinal purposes and paint a hundred-plus years ago.

Pringle also touches on some of the more headline-grabbing stories, which have appealed to believers in miracles or other far fetched tales. Among those are the speculations that Egyptians and Ancient Americans engaged in trade (something she pretty much debunks) and the "incorruptibles." The latter being Catholics who didn't decompose like most cadavers do causing the faithful to believe they were miraculously preserved. Such bodies were given saint status until recently when the natural causes and reasons for the mummification were brought to light. Now it seems a little dubious for even the church to call such works of nature "miracles."

Overall, The Mummy Congress is a worthwhile read. The 16 color pages in the middle are quite cool too. If you have seen the relatively recent documentaries on the subject (on PBS, the Discovery Channel, etc. in the states) and were left wanting more then this is certainly for you. One need not be interested in science to enjoy this popular work. The Mummy Congress is as non-technical as they come.

from the publisher:
When acclaimed science journalist Heather Pringle was dispatched to a remote part of northern Chile to cover a little-known scientific conference, she found herself in the midst of the most passionate gathering of her working life -- dozens of mummy experts lodged in a rambling seaside hotel, battling over the implications of their latest discoveries. Infected with their mania, Pringle spent the next year circling the globe, stopping in to visit the leading scientists so she could see firsthand the breathtaking delicacy and unexpected importance of their work.

In The Mummy Congress, she recounts the intriguing findings from her travels, bringing to life the hitherto unknown worlds of the long-dead, and revealing what mummies have to tell us about ourselves. Pringle's journeys lead her to the lifelike remains of medieval saints entombed in Italy's grand cathedrals, eerily preserved bog bodies in the Netherlands bearing signs of violent and untimely slaughter, and frozen Inca princess glimpsed for the first time atop icy mountains. She learns of the extraordinary skills of ancient Egyptian embalmers capable of preserving bodies, in the words of one mummy expert, "until the end of time"; of the horrifying sacrifices made by ancient South Americans to pacify their gods; and of the weird mummified parasites, preserved in the guts of millennia-old bodies, that still wreak havoc across the world today.

Ranging from the famous excavation of Tutankhamen to tales of ascetic Japanese monks trying to mummify themselves, and from the Russians' terrified attempts to embalm the body of Stalin to the fleeting craze for public mummy unwrappings in nineteenth-century New Orleans, The Mummy Congress demonstrates that our own obsession with the preserved dead has a long and bizarre history. Packed with extraordinary stories and narrated with great humor and verve, The Mummy Congress is a compelling and entertaining journey into the world of the everlasting dead.

Heather Pringle is a journalist and writer who has written on archaeology and ancient cultures in numerous magazines including Discover, National Geographic Traveler, New Scientist, Science, and Geo. She is also the author of two books, including In Search of Ancient North America. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.

"I never imagined that a book about mummies and mummy-inspectors could be so engrossing. Heather Pringle has done a remarkable job. I read The Mummy Congress with scarcely a pause." --Evan S. Connell, author of Son of the Morning Star

"A fascinating survey of the different aspects of mummy studies." --Bob Brier, author of The Encyclopedia of Mummies

"Using the last World Congress on Mummy Studies as an entry point to 'our' world, Heather Pringle admirably manages to convey the results of various studies of mummies, as well as the more personal side of mummy research. It has been joked that mummy congresses are meetings of mummies, not about mummies. Heather Pringle certainly dispels that notion." --Niels Lynnerup, co-organizer of the upcoming World Congress on Mummy Studies

"Science writing at its best. The riveting story of intrepid researchers who reconstruct the dead." --Paul Hoffman, author of The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

The following is an excerpt from the book The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead by Heather Pringle.

In the grand scheme of scientific meetings, the Mummy Congress is a small, intimate affair, long on singular personalities and surreal slide shows and short on sophistication, hype, and ballyhoo. There are, after all, far larger scientific meetings, gatherings where thousands of name-tagged delegates in identical conference bags swarm city streets like ants, taking over every cab, restaurant, and bar in sight. There are also far more sophisticated events, where the world watches through simultaneous Webcasts and where handlers manage large, jaded crowds of reporters. And there are certainly far more lavish affairs where attendees dine in gilded French châteaux or toss back glasses of chianti in Tuscan vineyards, all paid for by generous corporate sponsors. But the Mummy Congress is none of these things. It is not large. It is not savvy. And it certainly is not deluxe. What makes the Mummy Congress so memorable -- some might say gloriously eccentric -- is something a good deal rarer and far more interesting. It is the odd, lonely passion of its delegates. With few exceptions, those attending the congress love mummies. And they relish being around others who feel the same way.

This strange shared passion colors nearly every aspect of the congress. But it makes itself particularly known in the organizers' choice of a host city. During three years of planning, those responsible for the Third World Congress on Mummy Studies, as it was officially known, paid little attention to the amenities that preoccupy most other conference organizers -- an abundance of fine five-star hotels and good restaurants, the existence of colorful nightlife and sightseeing opportunities, the availability of good airline connections and cheap fares. Indeed, they ignored all obvious places to host such a conference -- grand cities like Cairo, New York, and London -- and found a spot much more to their tastes. They chose Arica, population 180,000, a tiny dot on the map of northern Chile. Nearly a thousand miles north of Santiago, Arica perches on the frontier of a vast, almost lifeless desert, the Atacama. Arica's claims to fame are modest at best: it possesses a very good port on the Pacific and a large fishmeal plant. It also boasts a church and customs house designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the famous French engineer, after a tidal wave had washed away part of the town.

Over the years, local tourism officials have tried very hard to lure visitors to Arica. They dubbed Arica the "City of Eternal Spring," an epithet that rather glossed over its dry, brittle climate, and they encouraged Chilean families to holiday along the spectacular beaches that lined the waterfront. But Arica never really took off as a tourist town. The ocean, cooled by the frigid Peru current, is simply too chilly for anyone to contemplate leisurely swims. Only a few hardy surfers in head-to-toe wet suits dare brave its whitecaps for long. And hardly anyone is interested in roaming the barren Atacama: it is too vast, too intimidating, too fierce. As a result, Arica remains dusty and rather insular. To fly there, many delegates to the Mummy Congress spent twenty-four hours or more jackknifed in airline seats and nodding off to sleep in a series of ever smaller departure lounges. Indeed, one determined researcher hauled herself off and on eleven successive flights from Beirut.

But Arica had one sterling qualification in the eyes of the Mummy Congress organizers, and that single attraction more than compensated for all its many shortcomings as an international conference center. For Arica, unknown to most of the world, is blessed with almost perfect conditions for the long-term preservation of the human body. Bordering what is likely the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert, it receives just three one-hundredths of an inch of rain in an average year. In bad years, it receives none at all. This relentless, inescapable aridity is precisely what is needed to dry a human corpse to the texture of shoe leather and to keep it that way. Arica abounds in mummies. It is a mummy expert's Mecca. To see these remarkable treasures and to catch up on the latest mummy news, scientists had converged on the little Chilean port from what seemed the far ends of the earth.

On the night before the congress opened, a certain euphoria infused the parched desert air in the lobby of the Hotel Arica, a sprawling beachfront resort complete with shady palm trees and nonstop Andean panpipe music. By the check-in desk, an impromptu one-man welcoming committee, Larry Cartmell, boisterously greeted arrivals. A pathologist in his early fifties from Ada, Oklahoma, Cartmell had taken the same flight from Santiago that I had; we had sat together on the school bus that picked up Mummy Congress researchers at the airport. He was very entertaining. For the last few hours, he had scarcely stopped talking and enthusing and cracking jokes, all in a booming southern drawl. Cartmell, I discovered, loved Arica and the desert that lay just beyond, where hundreds and hundreds of mummies had been found over the years. He loved analyzing little plastic bags full of mummy hair, which is his particular specialty. He loved the Chileans, although he seemed slightly less partial to those nostalgic for the old Socialist government of Salvador Allende. He even loved his colleagues' favorite local hangout, the Restaurant of the Dead, a dining establishment that would never find its way into any tourist brochure but which was located just across the street from a local cemetery and a stone's throw from an important collection of Chilean mummies. The menu was no great shakes, with its sandwiches and roast chicken, but who could resist the name? For Cartmell, who got his start in the mummy business in Arica, the little Chilean town was a piece of heaven.

"This whole place," he told me, beaming ear to ear, "is built on mummies."

As Cartmell and I waited for a few of his colleagues to join us, he kept a sharp lookout for all new arrivals. An infectious extrovert, he had an ulterior motive. He was dying to see if anyone had a copy of the congress program, which would tell him exactly when organizers had slated his session, the one he had painstakingly organized on mummy hair. It seemed that time slots were everything at the Mummy Congress, as they are in television. Cartmell prayed he had been given prime time. So as soon as he spied someone he knew, he roared out a name and charged over for a chat, shaking hands, hoping like hell that the new arrival had an advance copy of the conference program. From the look of it, Cartmell knew just about every one of the 180 or so mummy experts who had flocked to the congress from all over North America, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. And nearly everyone seemed to know him. As the knot of people expanded around us, Cartmell disappeared to find a table big enough for everyone in the hotel restaurant. Before long I found myself squeezed into a noisy, shrieking, hooting group of mummy experts. To my eyes, the congress was quickly taking on the air of a house party. Indeed, I'd just seen more people hugging warmly in the hotel lobby than I ever had in an airport arrivals gate. "I love these congresses," rhapsodized Karl Reinhard, who was sitting on my left. "I get to see so many of my friends here."

Lean and fit-looking in his mid-forties, with a bushy black beard and a Brazilian good-luck charm wrapped around his wrist hippie-style, Reinhard teaches anthropology and palynology, the study of pollen, in Lincoln, Nebraska. But his real passion, it transpired, is for parasites, specifically the types that inhabit the bodies of mummified people. Reinhard had just flown in with his wife, Debbie Meier, a museum conservator, to chair a session before heading down to Brazil, his favorite place for studying all manner of weird parasites in mummies. Fortunately for a guy whose specialty doesn't make appetizing dinner conversation, Reinhard likes to keep it light. He gives his papers playful titles like "Exploding Worms and the Consequences of Close Human-Parasite Evolution." He is full of trivia on all kinds of unexpected stuff, such as how the creators of the Movie Alien got their ideas for the monster. According to Reinhard, they relied extensively on his specialty, parasitology. The alien's egg, he said, was a fluke egg. "The molt was based on a tick. Its body structure was like a thorny-headed worm and the lifestyle was based on a parasitic spider. Sigourney Weaver would be nothing without worms."

Reaching for his beer, Reinhard surveyed the room. Out of the comer of his eye, he spied Bob Brier, a cadaverously thin philosophy professor from Long island whose popular books include The Encyclopedia of Mummies and whose controversial new tome on the murder of Tutankhamen had just landed on the bestseller list in England. Nearby was the spry, white-haired form of Minnesota pathologist Art Aufderheide, one of the grand old men of mummy research and a leading authority on ancient disease in mummies. In the doorway, the young Peruvian physician Guido Lombardi, who had just spent months tracking down two long-lost Egyptian mummies in New Orleans, scanned the room for a colleague who specialized in human sacrifice in South America. "It's a very small world here," Reinhard said, laughing.

It was also, as I swiftly realized, a world where nearly everyone was gainfully employed doing something other than studying mummies. The immense public interest in mummies has never translated into real research money. There are few salaried jobs and very few full-time mummy experts. Most delegates are professionals -- anthropologists, archaeologists, or pathologists -- who dip into their own pockets to cover their field expenses and who spend their summer holidays, Christmas vacations, or retirement years flying to Egypt, the Canary Islands, and Peru to work on mummies. More than a few had exhausted the patience of their bewildered spouses. Some had ended up marrying each other. Most had paid their own fares to Arica, and they were squirreled away in half a dozen budget hotels scattered around town. At seventy dollars a night, the Hotel Arica was simply too rich for most of the crowd.

No one seemed to mind, however. Most were just enormously happy to be in attendance at the world's largest regular gathering of mummy experts and eagerly awaited what lay ahead over the next five days. The South Americans, explained Reinhard, didn't believe in wasting time. Sessions on subjects as diverse as ancient human disease, animal mummies, ancient DNA in mummies, Mexican mummies, high-altitude human sacrifices, and mummy conservation would begin each morning at 8:30 A.M. and end eleven or twelve hours later. In between, papers in two languages -- English and Spanish -- were scheduled every fifteen minutes. Moreover, the organizers planned to keep the congress dead simple: there would be no concurrent sessions. To ensure that every delegate could hear every paper, the sessions were scheduled consecutively in one large room. To ensure that everyone could understand everyone else, the organizers had flown in a team of interpreters from Santiago. Attendees would be issued headphones.

It sounded perfect, but not everyone was happy. At the far end of the table, a howl of protest rose as Cartmell flipped through a faxed program of scheduled papers he'd managed to find. "I can't believe it," he moaned, betrayal stamped all over his face. He looked as if he'd just lost his best friend. His session on mummified hair had been scheduled from 4:25 to 6:20 P.M. the day after tomorrow. It was just about the time the overheated brains of delegates would require a serious soaking at the hotel bar. It was one of the worst time slots of the conference.