Mummies’ Secrets

April 25, 2014

On April 12, 2014, I visited the Buffalo Museum of Science to view an excellent traveling exhibit, “Mummies of the World.” Mummies are interesting in their own right, of course, but they also provide insights into cultures that imagine mummies’ supernatural potential.

For example, consider the ancient Egyptians’ dichotomy of thinking regarding their elaborate mummifications. On the one hand, they used a rational evidence-based approach to preserve the corpse, which involved first removing the decomposition-prone brain and viscera. Yet because such extreme measures would have made bodily resurrection difficult indeed (!), they adopted, as necessary, magical thinking to bolster belief. For instance, The Book of the Dead—a papyrus scroll containing spells, hymns, and instructions—was typically buried with the mummy to help it navigate the afterlife (Mummies 2010).

Or take the case of the “Incorruptibles”—the bodies of Catholic notables that are in a remarkable state of preservation supposedly due to their holiness (for which they are often beatified or canonized). However, investigation reveals some were actually embalmed (the viscera even removed); others’ bodies, over time, ceased to be miraculous and became skeletonized; and some of the latter were disguised by enclosure in an artificial corpus santos (“holy body”)—the bones of St. Vincent de Paul (1580–1660) in a wax figure, and those of St. Clare (1194–1253) in a mannequin. In numerous cases the corpses became naturally mummified by interment in cool church vaults of alkaline stone (Nickell 1993, 85–93; 2013, 169–172; Pringle 2001, 242–268).

Interestingly, whereas in Catholicism incorruptibility was considered a sign of holiness, in certain Slavic countries the discovery often led people to believe that they had uncovered one of the “undead.” So they drove a wooden stake through the heart and burned the body to end the imagined ghoulish activities. In other words, one man’s saint is another man’s vampire (Nickell 2013).

Natural mummification can be caused by extreme environmental conditions, such as interment in sandy soil, or a dry tomb or catacombs. The opposite situation—months of submergence in water (e.g., groundwater)—can transform the outer layer of fat into a whitish, soap-like substance called adipocere (or “grave wax”); depending on later conditions, the corpse may proceed to mummification—like northern Europe’s “bog people”—or it may eventually succumb to decomposition. (In the 1885 disinterment of a 17-year-old girl near my Kentucky home town, her corpse was found, after less than two and half years, well-preserved and her coffin too heavy to lift, causing folk to conclude she had become “petrified.” In fact, the coffin was waterlogged—explaining the excessive weight and indicating probable adipocere formation [Nickell 1993; 2013, 169–170].)

Mummification has also resulted from cold. Among frozen mummies is that of the young Inca “Ice Maiden” of the Argentine Andes (South American civilizations having been the earliest known to practice mummification). Another is the famous 5,300-year-old “Iceman” discovered in a European glacier (Pringle 2001, 148–149; 216–241).

A unique sidelight on mummification is provided by the exhibition’s display of shrunken heads. Dating back to pre-Columbian times, the practice of preserving such trophy heads was intended to keep the enemy’s spirit from taking revenge—either in the present life or the afterlife. The process included removing the skull, which would not shrink, followed by boiling, scraping, and specially heat-treating the skin sack. (I cannot speak of shrunken heads without mentioning my late friend Bill Jamieson [1954–2011], world collector of the bizarre, who graciously shared his numerous shrunken heads—and knowledge of the same—with me for my research [Nickell 2005, 331–333].)

As these examples show, mummies offer tangible links with earlier cultures and their supernatural beliefs. I attended also a fascinating lecture by the exhibition’s Scientific Research Curator, Dr. Heather Gill-Frerking. As she demonstrated, today numerous scientific instruments and methods are unlocking mummies’ long-preserved secrets.


Mummies of the World: The Official Exhibition Catalog. 2010. Boca Raton, FL: Mummies of the World Touring Co.

Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 85–93.

———. 2013. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 170–171.

Pringle, Heather. 2001. The Mummy Congress, New York: Theia.