The Mummy Road Show
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"ACCIDENTAL" MUMMIES ON DISPLAY IN MEXICO
By Brian Handwerk
National Geographic News
October 31, 2002
Through the ages, many societies have practiced the mummification of human
remains, often as a way to prepare loved ones for the afterlife. Not all
mummies, however, are created intentionally.
In the beautiful Mexican colonial city of Guanajuato, a fascinating museum
is home to more than 100 local mummies. The mummified remains weren't
prepared by the people of Guanajuato, but were instead created as a result
of extremely dry weather conditions coupled with an overcrowded cemetery.
Their discovery initially surprised the locals -- and put Guanajuato on the
Ronald Beckett and Gerald Conlogue travel around the world in their search
for mummies, employing modern medical and archaeological practices and
imaging techniques -- x-rays, CT scans, endoscopy -- to expose their
secrets, stories, and histories...
Beckett, an associate professor of respiratory care, and Conlogue, an
assistant professor of diagnostic imaging, teach at the Bioanthropology
Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. They have
visited such disparate places as the United States, Mexico, Peru, Canada,
Italy, and the Philippines, and examined mummies that were buried in tombs,
frozen on mountain tops, hidden in caves, and preserved in bogs.
No matter where they're found, or how they were preserved, the two work hard
to ensure that the remains are treated with the respect they deserve.
"We are honored every time we're allowed to do the work that we do. Whether
in a museum or in a cave in the Philippines, it's just a true honor," said
The residents of Guanajuato, Mexico, display considerable respect for the
mummies of their ancestors -- which may seem a bit odd considering how they
were created and eventually discovered.
In the past, the town charged a fee to bury loved ones in the crowded
cemetery. The fee could be paid in annual installments, which was a
desirable option for the town's poor. However, if for any reason payments
were discontinued, the bodies were removed from their tombs to free up more
In the late 1800s, several corpses were exhumed. The townspeople were
surprised to find that some of the bodies had been mummified as a result of
the region's extremely dry conditions.
"They were accidental mummies, nobody mummified them on purpose," Beckett
Bodies from a middle row of tombs, untainted by even the rare moisture from
rain or groundwater, were most likely to become mummified, he said. Because
mummification was unintentional, the mummies represent a broad social
spectrum of the community. In societies that practiced ceremonial
mummification, typically only the powerful and wealthy citizens were
The Guanajuato mummies have inspired local legends and life and death tales
One is billed by the local museum as the world's smallest mummy. The infant
is thought to have been born by cesarean section. Neither the infant nor the
mother survived the procedure, and they were buried and naturally mummified
together. They remain together still, now in the town's mummy museum.
Another fascinating legend concerns the mummy of a woman who locals believe
was buried alive. Beckett and Conlogue focused their investigation on
ascertaining the validity of this disturbing oral tradition. It is said by
the locals that she was found turned over, as if she had tried to push up
the tomb lid with her back.
Beckett and Conlogue could not document how her body was found prior to
removal, but they did find other clues to her fate.
"We've seen a lot of mummies," Beckett said, "and she gave us the most
evidence to suggest that the story might be accurate." One important clue
was the burial position, which in typical interments of the time and
location featured the arms crossed over the chest. In this case, the woman's
arms were raised up over her face.
Also present were clearly defined fingernail scratch marks on her forehead.
These clues suggest the woman may indeed have been buried alive, but further
investigations could perhaps close the case.
"We need to go back and do a fingernail scrape," Beckett said, "and see
what's under her nails."
While the television team's investigations sometimes lend support to local
legends, at other times they disprove them.
One Guanajuato mummy was believed to have been hanged, but his body told a
different story. The mummy's trachea was intact, unusual for a hanging, and
the neck vertebrae showed none of the trauma associated with a hanging.
While his true story remains unknown, it did not conclude at the end of a
Around the world, many mummies lie patiently waiting to share the secrets of
past eras. It's an exciting prospect for Beckett and Conlogue, who plan to
keep The Mummy Road Show rolling along.
"We'll never run out of mummies," Beckett said, "and as long as we can keep
adding to our knowledge of people of the past, we'll never be out of work."
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