Western audiences have long been enthralled. In centuries past, the upper crust gathered in meeting halls and theaters to witness mummy unwrappings. No less than P.T. Barnum once staged a European magical mummy tour. More modern mummies stagger across the silver screen in B-movies and summer blockbusters; they populate Anne Rice and R.L. Stine novels, Scooby Doo cartoons, and Uncle Ben's rice commercials. The Discovery channel loves them. Mummies, it turns out, pop up just about everywhere, including a basement stairwell in the Tulane University library.
Mummies are our favorite riddles, wrapped in enigmas and covered in dust. Relics that point to the past and simultaneously remind us of man's uncertain future, they mesmerize us with their musty mysteries and tell us tales from the crypt.
The truest test of popularity is box office, and mummies sell. Science journalist Heather Pringle knew this when an editor of Discover magazine encouraged her to cast about for a mummy story, a fresh angle, new research. What she couldn't know was that she would soon discover a fascinating scientific subculture of mummy experts and mummy fans, all joined together by a little-known triennial meeting called the Mummy Congress.
The first time she heard of the congress, Pringle recalls, it was simply a footnote to a longer conversation with a Canadian mummy expert. "Right toward the end of the phone call," Pringle says, speaking by telephone from her home in Vancouver, "he mentioned, 'Oh yes, by the way, there's going to be this Mummy Congress, and it's going to be in Arica, Chile, and we're all going down there.'
"I heard this and all the sort of journalist alarm bells started going off at once. They really did," Pringle continues. "I'd been writing about archaeology for about 20 years and had never heard any mention of it. I just thought, 'Well. I have got to go down there.'"
And so a book was born. The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead (Theia Books) is the fascinating story of Pringle's journey to the remote Chilean city of Arica, where she met the many pathologists, anthropologists and archaeologists who would jumpstart her yearlong trip around the world to the very center of mummy research.
"I ended up traveling to places that most people wouldn't really associate with mummies," Pringle says. Chapter by chapter, she acquaints her readers with the curiously Caucasian-featured mummies of northern China; the Crusades-era mummies of Lebanon; the self-mummifying Buddhist monks of Japan, who sipped bowls of lacquer when they felt death drawing near; the Incorruptible saints of Italy; the precious preserved remains of Lenin, which have for years commanded the talents of Russia's top medical minds; the still-unexplained bog people of the Netherlands; and the lost-and-found-again Egyptian mummies of New Orleans.
That's right, New Orleans. In Arica, Pringle met up with a medical doctor and then-Tulane graduate student named Guido Lombardi. At the time, Pringle picked up on something about Lombardi: "He seemed to have a knack for finding mummies in places where you wouldn't think to look for them," Pringle recalls. "That's about the best way I can put it."
Lombardi, who has since left New Orleans to return to his native Peru to conduct more mummy research, was going to be a great source, a true devotee who often reminded Pringle that he had grown up around mummies. Literally. A treasure trove of mummified remains, Peru has yielded some of the mummy world's most exciting finds; the schools Lombardi attended as a child often had mummy display cases, he recalled.
But it was in his adopted home that Lombardi would make his finest discovery -- and right under his own nose. Again, it was strictly word of mouth that precipitated the find; a colleague at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine recalled conversationally something about two Egyptian mummies once on display at the medical school.
"Being such a mummyphile, his little antenna went up right away. I can almost visualize it happening," Pringle says, laughing. "And he made it his mission to find these mummies. He tracked down everyone who had ever been associated with those mummies."
Lombardi pieced together the nomadic story of the two mummies, who had indeed been on display at Tulane during the late 1800s and the early 1900s, disappearing from view in the 1950s when space became an issue. At that time, they were relegated to a room under the bleachers of Tulane Stadium, where they sat for nearly 20 years, Pringle notes, inadvertently attending three Super Bowls and innumerable Green Wave and Saints home games. A few moves later and the mummies were slipped into the basement stairwell of Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, where Lombardi found them in the late 1990s.
"When Guido found them there," Pringle says, "it was probably one of the crowning moments of his life. He was so happy to find these mummies, but he was a bit horrified, too. There were squashed cigarette butts all around them and a couple of copies of Playboy tucked underneath the crates. Students had obviously come down there and maybe even sat on the crate that held the two mummies and had a smoke and flipped through Playboy."
The pre-Tulane tale of the mummies is as colorful as their rediscovery. Turns out at least one of the pair had been the toast of 1852 New Orleans. The mummies, a male and a female, were donated to the university by a traveling Egyptologist named George Gliddon, who had obtained them reportedly with great difficulty from Thebes, Egypt. The female was the subject of a popular social event of the time now known simply as a mummy unwrapping.
"I think we have a hard time trying to fathom this really, but there was certainly a time in England and in North America -- and in New Orleans in particular -- when scientists would hold these public mummy unwrappings," Pringle says. "When professors of anatomy had taught their students in earlier times, they had always held these public lectures and sold tickets to them. In France, for example, the nobility would arrive wearing masks, and they would sip wine while they watched an anatomist cut up the body. The mummy unwrappings were a logical extension of this because many of the early unwrappers were, in fact, anatomists."
Gliddon had attempted to raise this practice to an art form -- and had achieved a certain amount of notoriety a few years prior to his New Orleans visit. "He unwrapped one in Boston which was of course a bit of a disaster because it turned out he was not able to read hieroglyphics quite as well as he thought," Pringle says. "He had told everyone it was going to be an Egyptian princess, and, of course, when he unwrapped it, it turned out to be an Egyptian male with quite a prominent penis. Bit of an embarrassment there."
Gliddon soldiered on, traveling further south and setting up a second unwrapping at the building now known as Gallier Hall. "To think about all of these people paying -- paying -- to see a mummy unwrapped and just to try to imagine what was going through their mind when they sat there in the audience," Pringle says. "They knew so little about the ancient Egyptians, and many of them sort of really thought maybe they were seeing someone exotic like the Queen of Sheba or an Egyptian princess being unwrapped. Their imaginations kind of went wild."
An Egyptologist like Gliddon knew how to fan those flames. "He had this way about him," Pringle says. "He always dressed in black. He was a lover of big words -- the bigger the word the better -- and he was very theatrical. He unwrapped the mummy in New Orleans over several nights actually; it was a bit like a striptease. And then on the final night he finished the unwrapping; the audience was quite enthralled by this, according to the newspaper accounts."
Gliddon wasn't only in the game for the thrill of the crowd, though. He had a racial agenda to promote, and the mummies were his tools. In the chapter "Master Race," Pringle explains that Gliddon, like a handful of other scientists of his time, was a great believer in the measuring of human heads and cranial capacities as an indication of intelligence. He was going to use the bodies of ancient Egyptians, a people he considered white, to demonstrate his theory that the cranial capacities of white people were greater than those of black Africans.
The Englishman, however, had as much trouble proving his premise as he did with his hieroglyphics. So he decided to cheat, Pringle says. "The fateful evening in New Orleans when Gliddon unwrapped the mummy, he actually left some bandages on the head of the mummy," she explains. "It would be difficult to see because the mummies are so coated in resin, and it wouldn't be obvious to the audience that that is in fact what happened. But as Guido discovered in his very gentle examination of those mummies, there were wads of bandages at the back of the head, and this would have made the measuring of the head seem larger than it in fact was."
According to some accounts, Gliddon ended up committing suicide somewhere in Central America. His theories of a master race have long since been discarded by mainstream science. His mummies are still with us.
And the first order of business is to glean as much information from them as possible, says John Verano, associate professor of anthropology and keeper of the Tulane mummies.
"There is an informal group that's thinking of trying to raise money to exhibit these mummies," he says, speaking by phone from his New Orleans home before heading to the airport. He's off to Peru to dig around a little bit, excavate a few skeletons, examine a few mummies. "The problem with exhibition is that if you put something in a permanent case, you can't study it again without disturbing it further. For the time being, our goal has been to try and extract all the research information we can from these without doing any damage."
"These mummies are very resilient," Verano says. "Most of these mummies, the way I see it, is if they have made it this far they are usually very stable. Now certainly if you put them in adverse conditions they are going to deteriorate like anything organic. So we are happy that they are now in a climate-controlled environment and we can monitor them and make sure they're safe."
Verano realizes how fortunate the university is to have three mummies in its care. (The third is an Aleutian Island mummy, who, incidentally, will be the subject of a paper presented at the next Mummy Congress, scheduled for September in Greenland.) "It reminds me that most universities have old collections that most people don't know anything about, and it's partly because, like the case of Tulane, we don't have a big museum to exhibit these things in," he says. "In storage, I bet there are a lot of forgotten mummies out there."
While Verano takes meticulous care of the Tulane mummies, his imagination hasn't exactly been captured by them. He's more of a bone kind of guy, he admits. "It's like working as a pathologist," he says. "You kind of think about the research and professional stuff, and you don't think about the romantic aspects of things."
Still, he sees the reaction of those around him to these marvels of early science. "My guess is that it's because a mummy looks like a person," he offers. "A skeleton is interesting, but you don't see skeletons walking around. Mummies often look lifelike enough that it could really be someone just sleeping there."
Pringle adopts a more philosophical attitude. "I think a great part of our fascination has to do with a sort of yearning for immortality," she says. "I do believe that if most of us were given a choice, if we had the opportunity to live forever, I think most of us would probably go for it. Unfortunately, science isn't there yet. Science is not able to give us this kind of everlasting life, and so mummification represents our closest stab at it."
The drive to keep our bodies physically fit, Pringle muses, mirrors the ancient desire to keep it all together after death and impede the march of time. The final chapter of her book, titled "Self-Preservation," catalogs what she considers to be the new means of mummification: exercise, radical diet, plastic surgery, anti-aging cream, detoxifying body wraps and, most radically, cryogenics. "It's all a way of preserving our bodies," she says. "For many people, I believe they want to keep their bodies in good shape after death as well."
Our obsession with mummies is, at heart, really an obsession with ourselves, a sort of subconscious nod to where we are all headed. "It just touches us on an almost primal level. We might regard mummies as being a bit grotesque at times. We might sort of fear them a little bit," Pringle admits. "But at the very kind of bottom of it all is this intense fascination with them. We just can't leave them alone."
It seems the fascination, however, only goes so far. In her book, Pringle reports that a session held at the last Mummy Congress surveyed its attendees, inquiring as to whether they themselves -- the best friends of mummies the world over -- would consider mummification. A surprising 60 percent said thanks, but no thanks. Proof that while so many of us do love our mummies, we still don't want to be them when we grow up. -->