When a cat nap goes on for ever

The Scientific Study of Mummies
April 23, 2004

John Taylor gets wrapped up in a thoughtful consideration of preservation

This fascinating encyclopaedia is sure to become an indispensable research tool for students of ancient populations and palaeopathology. Arthur Aufderheide is professor of pathology at Minnesota University and, as one would expect of a world-renowned authority, he has produced a work of immense scholarship, superbly documented and exhaustively referenced. But non-specialists will also find it an easy-to-use storehouse of information.

As museum and gallery curators and the media know, the public has an inexhaustible interest in mummies. Cultural taboos surrounding the treatment of the dead provoke curiosity, and curiosity erodes barriers - a process that in recent years has brought us face to face with corpses with ever-greater frequency and in ways that are often disturbing. Controversy over the treatment of the dead is rarely far from the headlines, whether dealing with war casualties, ancient skeletons or the plastinated corpses in Gunther von Hagen's "Body Worlds" exhibition.

The dialogues that these debates produce look likely to continue; in recent months a government report has appeared, establishing guidelines on ownership, study, display and repatriation of human remains. Besides informing the debate, Aufderheide's book will doubtless become a classic reference.

The author uses a broad definition of mummies as corpses that retain enough soft tissue "to resemble a once-living person". Their preservation may have been intentional or unintentional, but they hold "a vast body of unique biomedical and bio-anthropological information".

Aufderheide laments the lack of a defined infrastructure for mummy studies as a scientific discipline, and this book seeks to meet that need. It covers the entire inhabited world and stretches from prehistoric and ancient remains to those of the very recent past, discussing the bodies from cultural, social and biological viewpoints.

Following summaries of societies' motivation to preserve the dead, and the history of mummy studies, there are sections on mummification processes and on geographical distribution. Evisceration, drying and wrapping of Egyptian mummies are all described, but it is the less familiar techniques and practices that seize attention, such as preservation in bat guano and the self-mummification of Buddhist priests. Aufderheide sets the bodies in their cultural context, recounting the religious beliefs surrounding them while maintaining a scientific detachment.

One of the book's strengths is the balance it strikes between generalities and interesting case studies. Many of the latter are drawn from Aufderheide's own experience, but he is also excellent at recounting and synthesising the work of other researchers. The detective work involved in finding and identifying the remains of historical figures such as the conquistador Francisco Pizarro makes absorbing reading.

The illustrations are well chosen; although sometimes gruesome, they are never prurient. Few faces are as moving as those of the three sailors of Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, from which no survivors returned. Exhumed from frozen graves, they and their clothes are marvellously intact. They also yielded important scientific data. Abnormally high levels of lead in these and associated remains were the key to the discovery that Franklin's crew was probably poisoned by lead solder contaminating their canned food, a neat solution to a problem that had puzzled historians.

There is much here on soft-tissue pathology and methods of studying mummies, including instructions for dissecting a mummy for scientific research. Experimental mummification and the embalming of animals is covered, and there is a fascinating section on the use and abuse of mummies. Here are authoritative accounts of cases and stories that are frequently mentioned in garbled and unreferenced form in popular books, and it is good to have the evidence properly presented. They include 200,000 cat mummies ground down for fertiliser in 1890 (authenticated); mummies used as fuel for 19th-century railway engines (probably apocryphal); and the linen bandages pulped to make wrapping paper (apparently authentic, although the scale may be exaggerated). Aufderheide also deconstructs the myth that workers employed on this task suffered a cholera outbreak - the disease most likely accompanied the mummies from Egypt in contaminated water on board ship.

Although planned as an academic reference work, the book is saved from dryness by the inclusion of anecdotes and by Aufderheide's engaging personal style. One moment he is describing the principles of protein degradation, the next recounting a shopping trip in South America where he saw mummies used as mannequins for displaying replica pre-Hispanic jewellery.

It would be uncharitable to complain that a few recent developments in mummy studies have been omitted. In a single-author work of this scope, this is inevitable. Nothing of major importance is missing, and the only real quibble is that there seems to be quite a high proportion of minor errors (notably in bibliographical references). These will no doubt be corrected in the second edition - which will surely be required.

John Taylor is assistant keeper of Egyptian antiquities, British Museum.

The Scientific Study of Mummies

Author - Arthur C. Aufderheide
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 626
Price - £110.00
ISBN - 0 521 81826 5

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