Tales Mummies Tell Critical Essays

Patricia Lauber


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Lauber usually approaches her subject in a scientific manner. She presents mummification—the process of body preservation from either natural or artificial actions—as a phenomenon that was practiced worldwide. The author records anecdotes in the daily life of animals and humans that eventually lead to their mummification. She begins with a woolly mammoth near the Arctic Circle. A young wandering mammoth falls into a natural pit, cannot reach the top, and freezes to death; the walls collapse to form its tomb. The frozen body remains in place for thousands of years until it is accidentally discovered in 1977. Until then, scientists had found few intact mammoths, only incomplete bodies with deteriorated torsos or limbs scattered by scavengers. This specimen, named Dima, became the pet project of a prestigious alliance of Russian scientists. The animal’s stomach contained milk, dirt, and a few summer grass seeds, so the researchers knew that the animal had probably died in desperation in late summer. Carbon 14 dating, which is precisely defined for young readers, found the mummy to be nearly forty thousand years old.

Mummification requires specific conditions in order to preserve bodies successfully. Lauber clarifies the primary natural mummification processes: salting, freezing, drying, and embalming. Because oxygen deprivation accompanies mummification, many bodies suffer a combination of these effects. The author provides examples of these methods by citing specific mummies that scientists have discovered. In a South American copper mine in the Atacama Desert, the drying air and natural salts froze a miner—his slight, statuelike frame still in a working position, with his hair braided and his loincloth covering intact. The so-called Copper man relayed information to the scientific community not only from his body but also from the tools surrounding him. In 400

(The entire section is 782 words.)