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

by Heather Pringle

While trying to satisfy a magazine editor’s request for a story on mummies, science writer Heather Pringle ended up at the gloriously eccentric World Congress of Mummy Studies on the edge of a desolate Chilean desert. The extraordinary characters she met and the remarkable things they studied triggered the journey that led to her new book.
For at least 6,000 years, humans have attempted to cheat time and bodily decay by preserving the dead, sometimes with remarkable success. The methods covered in the book range from the familiar mummies of Egyptology to the bizarre self-preservation techniques of Japanese monks. When the naturally preserved bodies found on icy mountaintops and in searing deserts are added to these specimens, there is a surprisingly large number of our ancestors still around. Our morbid interest in these human relics is what drives the Mummy Congress every three years, funds museums fortunate enough to have a mummy collection, and presents Pringle with the material for her diverse and entertaining collection of stories.
Pringle’s journeys uncover scientists studying ancient parasites, cataloguing 3,000-year-old cocaine use, and overseeing the incorruptible remains of dead Communist leaders. We learn how a body rots and how to stop it, and how research into the ancient dead can answer modern medical questions. Pringle also draws interesting analogies between a desire to embalm the dead and the modern cult of self-preservation of the living through excercise, diet, and cosmetic surgery.
Pringle’s prose is entertaining and vivid – occasionally too vivid for the faint of heart – and her enthusiasm for her subject shines through. This wonderful book is not for everyone, but given our long-standing fascination with the dead, it will be a must-read for many.