Mum's not the word here

The ancient art of embalming fires up a tiny group of scientists

It's a plot device that never dies: The vengeful mummy comes back to take over the world ("The Mummy Returns" again and again). The paying public never loses its appetite for these leathery "immortals."

With such a strong pull on the collective imagination, it is somewhat paradoxical that mummy science today is largely unfunded. A handful of universities around the world study mummies, but mostly Egyptian ones.

The dearth of funding reflects a social taboo that developed after decades of scientific plundering, which caused an outcry by native groups. In the 1990s, American legislators passed a law protecting native burial sites and ordering museums to return the artifacts to their tribal bands.

That prevailing sensibility leaves a group of fewer than 200 scientists and anthropologists to study mummies on their own time and nickel. In "The Mummy Congress," journalist Heather Pringle attends the triennial meeting of these eccentric people as they share the fruits of their research: bags of mummy hair and fingers, tattered bits of clothing, and poster-sized photographs of exquisite specimens.

Pringle takes the reader over five continents to visit mummies that span 7,000 years: from the haunting "bog people" sunk in Dutch fens, to the sacrificed Incan children buried on Andean mountaintops, to the curious "incorruptible" bodies of saints displayed in Italian churches, to a group of Buddhist monks who mummified themselves.

In a very readable (and not always morbid) tale, Pringle pieces together the episodes of human history that mummy research is elucidating. For instance, cysts found petrified in Egyptian mummies suggest chronic sanitation problems along the Nile valley, explaining various epidemics suffered thousands of years ago.

The Dutch "bog people," many of whom bear signs of violent deaths, reveal details of an ancient culture - what they wore and ate, what they looked like, and how they treated outcasts.

A 13,000-year-old Caucasian mummy found in remote northwestern China challenges the common theory that China and the West have had contact only since about 150 BC.

Early this century, European discoveries of Egyptian mummies spawned a craze, with tourists bringing mummies back to England, holding public "unwrappings," even using ground mummy parts (by this time transformed into a dark resin) in paint for a color called, what else, mummy.

Pringle takes us to the embalmers in Moscow charged with preserving the corpses of Lenin and Stalin. And to 19th-century Japanese monks who slowly preserved themselves by eating just pine bark, torreya nuts, and lacquer (made from tree resin) for three years, slowly changing the chemistry of their bodies, so they would not decay when the monks died.

A touching chapter about the Chinchorro mummies of Chile reveals the tenderness with which the dead - particularly children - were prepared for eternal life.

The book's momentum takes a bizarre twist in a chapter about companies that offer mummification services even now. For a starting fee of $60,000, a company based in Utah will dispatch assistants to your side before your corpse is cold, to begin the chemical process of preserving you into the indefinite future. Or, you could have your body - or head, depending on budget constraints - preserved in a stainless-steel tube until future generations learn how to bring humans out of deep freeze, or perhaps attach someone's unused body to your frozen head, and then bring you back.

"Mummy Congress" is often morbid, sometimes strange, but always compelling. For those with steely stomachs, it's a fascinating exploration of humans and their histories. With great sensitivity, Pringle brings these subjects to life, conveying her own awe at these long-dead beings who still speak to us.

Julie Finnin Day is an editor on the Monitor's International desk.

The Mummy Congress

By Heather Pringle

Theia/Hyperion

368 pp., $23.95

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