British anthropologist and documentary filmmaker Howard Reid leads a fascinating voyage of discovery through the mummy-making cultures of the world in "In Search of the Immortals." Calling on his own observations, visits with descendant cultures and the scholarship of numerous experts, Reid speculates on the "worlds [the mummies] once inhabited; into their lives, deaths and destinations beyond death." Beyond this, he hopes "to broaden our own perspective on mortality."
Reid begins with the amazingly lifelike Caucasoid mummies of the Taklamakan desert in Western China, especially known for their exquisite textiles. He describes the opening of a 3,500-year-old grave and the variety of professional, decorative and personal items buried with the mummies, including Cowrie shells 2,000 miles from the sea, a thousand years before the Silk Road.
Journeying to various desert sites he observes the habits of the present day Mongol nomads, noting that the woolen ropes which bind their yurts together are identical to those found in the ancient tombs. In Kazakhstan, his visits with nomads whose ways have persisted for 3,000 years, throws light on the lives of 2,000-year-old "ice mummies," buried in log houses adorned with felt wall hangings and illustrated woolen carpets, many of the bodies tattooed with mythical animals.
But the "Bog People," of Northwestern Europe "share one stark common characteristic: they all seem to have been deliberately put to death." Criminals? Sacrifices? Reid explores the possibilities, going back to the writings of Tacitus and the archaeological record, noting physical characteristics of the bodies which may indicate their status in life.
In Egypt - the only mummy-making culture with a written language - Reid concentrates on the religious beliefs and links with other cultures and from Egypt he moves on to the pyramids of the Canary Islands, where despite 1,000 years and the geographical distance, embalming techniques were amazingly similar to Egypt's, even to hairstyles and toenail bindings.
Exploring the possibility of trade links and echoes of commonality between these various cultures, Reid takes us to the New World where South Americans were preserving their dead 4,000 years before the Egyptians. Though many mummies were deliberately destroyed by the conquering Spanish, new discoveries have been made just in the last few years.
In Paracas, Peru, bodies were placed squatting upright ("in the way most contemporary native South Americans sit to relax, chat, and eat or chew coca") and were wrapped in layer after layer of specially made clothing, "some of the finest textiles ever found anywhere." One mummy bundle weighed 150 kilos. Further down the coast, the Chinchorro deconstructed and reconstructed their dead, making elaborate mummies, many of which show signs of repair, as if they were visited regularly. Mummy techniques in other areas include freeze drying and smoking. In some parts of Peru mummies were kept by their families (as recorded by shocked conquistadors), venerated, spoken to, even washed and changed frequently.
Reid's blend of personal and scholarly observation is highly readable and absorbing. His descriptions of mummies, tombs and artifacts is enthusiastic and visual, bringing these vanished cultures to life in all of their mystery. Sixteen pages of color photographs are a valuable supplement.
His anthropologist's view - Reid spent two years with the Maku, hunter gatherers of the Amazon rainforest, and visited other peoples whose cultures predate the Judeo-Christian tradition - informs his thinking, allowing him to fit clues from the archaeological record into a larger picture. His book is an excellent introduction to the world of mummies and, for those whose interest is piqued, Reid offers an extensive bibliography.