Tales Mummies Tell by Patricia Lauber

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Analysis

(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 a.d., an Inuit woman attempted to escape a landslide that rolled down her hillside. The earth crushed her and preserved her frozen body, which was decorated with tattoos and the marks of disease. A Scythian king who reigned over a territory bordered by Siberia and Mongolia was found lying with one of his queens, personal servants, and several of his finest horses—all of them embalmed. The heads of the corpses were chiseled so that the brains could be pulled out, the internal organs were removed, and salts filled all body cavities. A smooth coating of wax encased each figure.

The author describes unique methods for preservation as she continues her geographic tour of mummification. The Jivaro Indians living in the High Amazon River Basin perfect the shrunken-head art called tsantsas. The hair remains the same length, while the head shrinks from the precise process of skinning the face from the skull. The result launches a tribal celebration.

Often, liquid preparations can adequately suspend the deterioration of bodies. The body of John Paul Jones remained in identifiable condition as a result of friends encasing him in a lead coffin filled with alcohol. A Chinese woman more than two thousand years ago floated in a slightly acid solution containing mercury. Egyptian mummification processes varied from century to century and reign to reign. Priests learned two important aspects of...

(The entire section is 782 words.)