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


368 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-670-88802-8
DDC 393'.3




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


The Third World Congress on Mummy Studies, held in Arica, a remote part
of northern Chile, is the starting point for science journalist Heather
Pringle’s wide-ranging, fascinating study of mummies, mummy
researchers, and “the visceral, emotional, and intellectual”
connections between the living and the everlasting dead.

Each chapter is devoted to a different aspect of mummy studies: mummy
dissections and the ethical problem they pose; the role of mummified
tissue in the war against deadly parasites; the testing of Egyptian
mummy hair for cocaine and nicotine, which gave rise to speculations
about the existence of “an ancient transcontinental [drug] trade”;
the mysterious Dutch bog bodies, probable victims of human sacrifice;
“[the] troubling questions about race, racism, and the nature of
history itself” raised by the discovery, in northwest China, of
mummies with Caucasian features; the commercial exploitation of mummies,
ranging from 19th-century fads (including mummy unrollings and drugs and
pigments made from mummified human flesh) to modern-day expressions of
the mummification business (cryonics, cosmetic surgery, etc.); the
discovery of Juanita, a remarkably preserved Inca girl exhumed from an
Andean peak, and its dismaying illumination of “the role of the media
in modern mummy science”; the human intervention and environmental
conditions that produced the mummies of saints, despots (Lenin, Stalin,
Ho Chi Minh), and children (the Chinchorro mummies of Chile); the
parallels between the self-mummification of Shugen-dф ascetics and
today’s “cult of fitness and beauty.”

Pringle is the author of In Search of Ancient North America and
numerous archeology-related articles that have appeared in such
magazines as Discover, National Geographic Traveler, and Science. Her
lively prose testifies to her journalistic background, and her sense of
humor is a welcome antidote to the book’s stomach-turning details. She
likens one mummy to “Wile E. Coyote after a particularly disastrous
fall,” and an eminent pathologist to “an aging car mechanic, or
perhaps a retired Maytag repairman.”

Early on in the book, Pringle refers to the “odd, lonely passion”
of the Mummy Congress delegates. As her investigation unfolds, the
reasons for that passion become admirably clear.


Pringle, Heather., “The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024,