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In Search of the Immortals: Mummies, Death and the Afterlife

In Search of the Immortals: Mummies, Death and the Afterlife

by Howard Reid

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Everyone knows that the ancient Egyptians were great mummifiers, and their sarcophagi and bandage-wrapped corpses are familiar images to us all. Yet across the vast sweep of history, we find many other great cultures in which the bodies of the dead were preserved as a matter of course.

In coastal Peru were the Chinchorros, whose mummifying culture flowered


Everyone knows that the ancient Egyptians were great mummifiers, and their sarcophagi and bandage-wrapped corpses are familiar images to us all. Yet across the vast sweep of history, we find many other great cultures in which the bodies of the dead were preserved as a matter of course.

In coastal Peru were the Chinchorros, whose mummifying culture flowered several millennia before Egypt's, and in the Andes were the Chachapoyas, the 'Cloud People,' a lost civilization which has only recently begun to be understood. In China's Taklamakan desert, the oddly-Caucasian looking people who established the Silk Route, which made possible the first trade between East and West, have left behind stunningly lifelike mummies. The ritually sacrificed bodies preserved in the peat bogs of northern Europe give us an extraordinary insight into life in the Dark Ages. And in the Canary Islands, perhaps most surprisingly of all, lived the Guanches, whose sophisticated mummification techniques - and whose cultural links with the Egyptians - Howard Reid explores here for the first time.

Taking his extraordinary first-hand experiences of discovering and filming mummies all over the world as his starting point, Howard Reid brings these ancient cultures vividly to life. And in so doing, In Search of the Immortals comes to represent his personal quest to find an answer to that most epic and timeless of human problems: the meaning of death.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This vivid, sympathetic account of the world's mummy-making cultures contributes much to the mummy trade, which does such a brisk business these days in books and on programs like National Geographic Explorer and the Discovery Channel that it might seem that there is nothing left to say. Another recent contribution to the genre, Heather Pringle's outstanding The Mummy Congress (Forecasts, May 21), will likely garner more attention this summer, but for its freshness and sensitivity, Reid's should do very well also. Reid, a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist living in England, sets out for exotic regions and vivifies ancient mummy-making cultures, artfully blending living and dead voices. He cites ancient scribes like Herodotus, Tacitus and the Babylonian author of the Gilgamesh epic, alongside accounts of and by the living descendents of mummy makers. Primarily, he seeks to understand "the paths that [these cultures] may have intended to tread beyond life" by examining "the bodies themselves, their attire and tomb accoutrements." Reid visits with the Maku in the Amazon to unravel the mystery of the Chinchorros of Peru, whose mummifying culture predates Egypt's. At a winter camp in southwest Siberia, he learns about the burial rites of the Kazakh nomads' warlord ancestors. He investigates the bog bodies of northern Europe; the peoples who established the Silk Route in China, whose mummies show evidence of an ancient European influence in the East; and the Guanches of the Canary Islands, who shared unexpected cultural links with the Egyptians. This intellectual adventure story focuses as much on life as on death; indeed, the way a culture regards death, the author implies, says muchabout how it regards life. (Aug.) Forecast: The Mummy Congress might steal this book's thunder, which would be a shame, as this deserves wide readership. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The author, a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist, takes his readers to sites in Central Asia, Siberia, Europe, Morocco, Egypt, Canary Islands, Chile, and Peru, in his attempt to answer fundamental questions about why ancient peoples practiced mummification. He draws upon research from recent excavations at these sites and on the expertise of scholars who accompanied him at various stages of his journey. In the Canary Islands, for example, where the Guanches mummified their dead, he met with local archaeologists and with Thor Heyerdahl, who gave his views on the possibility of an Egyptian connection. In Chile, where the practice of mummification is the oldest on Earth, Reid draws upon the findings of physical anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza, whom he also consulted. With this book, Reid has accomplished the task of bringing little-known cultures to a wide readership. In striving, as he does, for the broadest perspectives "from the anthropological and psychological to the purely spiritual," Reid takes us on a personal journey written in an engaging style. This book should appeal widely to lay readers. For history and travel collections. Joan W. Gartland, Detroit P.L. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A globe-trotting documentary filmmaker and archaeologist visits the sites where mummy-making cultures once thrived and arrives at some unremarkable conclusions. Reid is persistent and dedicated: a scholar-adventurer. He once spent two years living with the Maku, forest people who hunt, fish, and gather deep in the Amazon. He has crawled around in Romanian caves and hunkered down with Herodotus, Tacitus, and "Gilgamesh". And for this excursion-on a travel budget to die for-he visited mummy sites in central Asia, Siberia, Denmark, Egypt, the Canary Islands, North Africa, Chile, and Peru. So the problem is not with his persistence or his courage (he is an intrepid traveler, confirmed here by his gripping account of a horseback ride through the Andes-on a tough little steed and a sour stomach); it is with his writing, which ranges from a breathless gee-whiz boyish exuberance to the most common cliches of the Near Death Experience crowd. When he sees something he likes, warm glows spread through him and bells ring (or sparks go off) in his head. Despite the abundant treacle and triteness, there is much of interest-notably the many illustrations of Mummies of the World. Reid says he wished to determine if there were any connections among the mummy-makers, to discover the various reasons for mummification, and to explore the techniques involved. And so we learn a bit about the Pazyrk method of preserving (Siberia), the Danish Iron Age practice of tossing the victims of executions into peat bogs (where, centuries later, well preserved, they sometime bob to the surface), the somewhat familiar process employed by the Egyptians, and Reid's principal insight: that Berbers (North Africa) mayhave sailed west to the Canaries and continued their mummy-practices there. Another gem: some ancient Peruvians may have practiced trepanning for pleasure. On a more personal and poignant note, Reid tries to come to terms with the untimely death of his closest friend. Cliche and convention combine to suffocate-then mummify-a terrific idea. (16 pages color photos; 3 maps, 1 drawing)"

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In Search of the Immortals

Mummies, Death and the Afterlife

By Howard Reid

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 Howard Reid
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7057-4


Central Asia

the riddle in the sands

In March 1989 archaeologist He Dexiu was surveying a remote corner of the Taklamakan desert (the so-called 'desert of no return') in China's westernmost province, Xinjiang. The heat thumped down on him as he crossed a dry stream bed and climbed a small rise not far from the village of Zagunluq. All around him the coarse grey-brown sand stretched away to the horizon, melding there with the dusty air. Scanning the surface with his binoculars, He Dexiu detected a small ruffle about 200 metres away. It looked like a crumpled piece of sacking. Scrutinizing the area more carefully, he could just pick out slight depressions in the sand a metre or so across – tell-tale signs for an archaeologist that the sands had been disturbed by digging.

As he drew closer to the 'sack', he realized that what he had seen was an orange fabric. Beside it he could make out a cascade of fair wavy hair. As he closed in on it, he found himself peering at a mummified woman. Her face was plastered with sand and mud and her eyes were empty sockets. She had no arms below the elbow and her legs were missing, but her clothes were finely woven and in amazingly good condition. Her lovely hair looked freshly combed.

Finding intact mummies on the surface is extremely rare anywhere in the world and, in the past, some discoveries have been wrongly identified – assumed to be recent exhumations and hastily reburied. But He Dexiu could tell right away that the woman lying before him had died a long, long time ago – about 3,500 years ago in fact. Her clothes and hair were all the clues that he needed. In the preceding ten years Chinese archaeologists had found similar mummies all round the edges of the Taklamakan.

Searching the area carefully, He Dexiu was soon convinced that he was in an ancient cemetery and decided to come back later with colleagues to carry out a proper dig. They began by gently cleaning and freeing the woman's body from the sand. Inspection of her pelvis made it probable that she was less than twenty-five years old – the ends of her pubic bone displayed the characteristic ridge-and-furrow pattern of a young woman.

After she was removed, He Dexiu suspected that she was, in fact, lying over the site of another grave. The workers continued to dig slowly and carefully, and soon came upon a little bundle of red fabric bound firmly round two tiny feet.

Lying head down in the sand was a baby boy, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Four little milk teeth had recently erupted in his lower jaw, making him eight to fourteen months old. Someone, perhaps his mother, had plaited a red-and-yellow woollen braid to a lock of his sandy-coloured hair, just as children like to do today. A braided woollen strap was passed under his chin and tied at the top and back of his head. These straps are common on mummies in this area and in many other parts of the world. They are there to keep the mouth shut after death. But it had slipped down and rigor mortis had left the baby's mouth wide open, frozen in a silent shriek as agonizing as Edvard Munch's famous painting The Scream.

The child was wrapped tightly in a red gauze-like cloth, then in a beautifully worked shawl that had first been dyed red, then had bright yellow circles added – some of the oldest batik work ever discovered. Unwrapping it, He Dexiu found the baby's tiny hands, fists firmly clenched. Scrutinizing the child's face, he thought he could see mucus coming from his nose and even traces of tears on his perfectly preserved eyelashes.

Gently placing the baby boy with the young woman, the workers continued to dig and soon came to a layer of reeds and branches – the cover of the main grave. They were in good order, carefully placed to stop loose sand falling into the tomb. He Dexiu knew that this grave had not been disturbed – grave-robbers never bother to put tomb-covers back properly.

Carefully lifting off the covering, they measured, annotated, labelled and took photographs of each stage of the process. When they reached the row of logs which formed the roof of the tomb they lifted them out cautiously, letting as little rubble as possible fall into the grave. The central log was from a really big tree and had a bas-relief carving on it – the outline of a hand or, perhaps, a lick of flames.

Immediately below this symbol was the head of a woman, aged about forty. As the dust settled after the last roof-logs were removed, He Dexiu found himself staring down at an almost perfectly preserved woman who looked as if she had died just a few days before. She lay on her back, her face staring up at the magic symbol on the log. Her right hand was raised above her chest, the fingers arranged in a curling, spiral-like formation. Her legs were bent beneath her, so that her feet almost touched her thighs. A stick had been placed vertically under each of her legs, holding her knees upright. Some time during the 3,000 years she had lain there, her head had become separated from her body. He Dexiu gently replaced it in position. Her clothes were finely woven in brown, purple, beige and red wool. She wore felt socks and deer-skin boots, the fine soft fur outermost. She lay on a beige mat which displayed a dazzling array of differing weaving skills. Elaborate scroll-patterned tattoos adorned her fingers, wrists and the backs of her hands. She was wearing eye-shadow, possibly even face-powder. Her long and beautiful greying fair hair lay in braids around her head, with strands of red sheep's wool plaited into them. Her long fingernails were in perfect condition, indicating she was not someone who had laboured long and hard with her hands. The tattoos and her fingernails suggested she was a shamaness, someone very important, a dignitary.

An idea began to form in He Dexiu's mind. The young woman he had discovered on the surface had no legs or forearms, and looked as if her eyes had been gouged out. The baby appeared to have been buried alive, its clenched fists, tears and the terrible screaming mouth attesting to an agonizing death. Yet the woman in the main grave epitomized the serenity of death – grace, beauty and elegance radiating from her. Could it have been that when this great priestess had died, her kin had decided to sacrifice the baby and the younger woman (perhaps a slave or war captive) to her memory, to give her company and assistance in the afterlife? If so, it would explain why the younger woman had been abandoned on the surface and the baby thrust head-first into the grave shaft. But, as He Dexiu knew so little about the ways of life and death of these people, such ideas would have to remain speculative.

He climbed down into the grave, carefully lifting the woman up to the light, to inspect her more closely. Explaining how he had felt when embracing this perfect woman from before the dawn of history, he said: 'That moment as I held her in my arms and looked at her lovely face, I knew she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I knew then that if she were alive today, or if I had been alive 3,000 years ago, I would most certainly have asked her ... I would most certainly have made her my wife.'

The beautiful lady now rests in He Dexiu's museum in the town of Korla on the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert.

Zagunluq cemetery yielded up a further seventeen bodies, most in the same incredibly fine state of preservation. Three of these mummies – a mature man (the 'sun man'), a woman and another infant – were shipped to the provincial capital, Urumchi, and displayed there in the archaeology museum.

A short while later an American scholar, Professor Victor Mair, saw them and was the first foreigner to realize their significance. Professor Mair specializes in ancient Chinese history and was intimately familiar with the earliest written accounts of the peoples who inhabited the lands to the west of China in ancient times. The accounts were not flattering – they wrote of barbarians who looked like monkeys – but they were quite detailed. These wild people had large noses, blue or green eyes, long faces and red or blond hair. The men had beards and some were said to be hairy all over. These descriptions were clearly aimed to distinguish the 'pure' Chinese from the 'impure' barbarians, but the details they provide are all characteristics of Western Europeans.

When Victor Mair first saw the mummies he was as amazed as He Dexiu: 'I just couldn't believe my eyes. I mean, they looked as if they had died just a few days ago. I was really fascinated, riveted. I knew right from the start that I just had to tell the rest of the world about these amazing finds.' He knew he was looking at the embodiment of the barbarians in the early Chinese accounts of the wastelands of Central Asia. But at that time few had heard of the mummies and no one knew exactly who they were, where they had come from or what eventually happened to them. The enormity of the puzzle attracted Victor intensely and, over the next decade, it drew in a host of Chinese and international scholars all bent on solving the riddle in the sands.

* * *

Spectacular though He Dexiu's finds were, he was not the first researcher to discover mummies in the sands of the Taklamakan. At the beginning of the twentieth century, European adventurers and explorers had scoured this section of the great Silk Road seeking the treasures of the great Buddhist cities and temples which had flourished there two millennia before. Thousands of paintings, sculptures and manuscripts were shipped back to Europe on horses, mules and camels for examination and 'safe keeping'. The saw-marks and blank spaces on the walls of the temples are still clearly visible today.

Foremost among these adventurers was Sir Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born British archaeologist and explorer, who made many trips to the region. On one trip he excavated a grave and was startled to find two very European-looking bodies in it. The woman, it has been noted, looked like an Irish peasant, the man like a Bavarian burgher. He took them to be travellers who had somehow wandered into the desert and perished there. After taking a couple of photos, he reburied them.

In the first half of the twentieth century, China was in turmoil and the westernmost part of the country was effectively abandoned by central government. It became the fiefdom of a succession of warlords until Mao Tsedung's Communist party took power in 1949. Stung by China's humiliation, first by the colonial powers then by Japan, Mao was determined to prove to the world that China was the cradle of ancient civilization. He ordered a major programme of archaeological research, stressing the need to show that landmark inventions, such as the wheel and metallurgy, had originated in China and then spread to the rest of the world. Although this major programme took place all over China, emphasis was inevitably placed on the western part of the country as it was from there that inventions must either have been imported or exported to and from Europe.

The big questions for Mao's archaeologists, therefore, was how and when did people from the Chinese homeland begin to make contact with the peoples to the west, in Central Asia and ultimately Europe? When and how did trade relations begin to link the hearts and minds of the ancient peoples? It was thought then that contacts between east and west did not occur until the Silk Road was established around 100 BC because of the formidable barrier inhibiting these links – the Taklamakan desert.

The Taklamakan is one of the most inhospitable places on earth and the furthest point from any seashore on the entire Eurasian landmass. A place of immense extremes – temperatures can reach 72C in summer and plummet to –34C in the winter – Aurel Stein describes the ink freezing in his pen as he struggled to write his notes there one winter evening.

Looking at the region on a map, it seems that the desert sands reach the edge of the Tien Shan mountains ('Celestial Mountains') to the north and the Tibetan plateau to the south, but the landscape is more complex than that. Snow falls on the mountains to the north and south, and in the spring it melts and runs down the slopes to the edge of the desert. There, most of the water disappears underground. A few miles into the desert the water resurfaces, generating a string of oases – narrow strips of green in the pinks, greys and browns of the sands. In some places, the water continues to flow into the desert, but eventually all the water sources peter out without any real outflow. Evaporation levels are among the highest anywhere in the world. This means that all the minerals and salts washed into the desert in the mountain rainfall are not carried away downriver but remain in the sands. In earlier aeons, the desert was a shallow sea which eventually dried out, leaving huge deposits of salt in many parts. So the desert sands, always dry and alternately ferociously hot or bitterly cold, are also very salty – perfect conditions for the preservation of soft human tissues.

The oases which fringe the desert are relatively evenly dispersed, forming a chain of water-points all round its north and south sides. There are some gaps – occasionally we drove for 50 or 60 miles between oases – but there are few places where two or three days' hard walking does not take an explorer from one water source to the next.

So the possibility for human colonization of this region, albeit hazardous, has existed for millennia, as long as people stuck to the chain of oases on the desert fringe.

We know that people did work their way along the oasis chains from about 10,000 years ago but, apart from some stone implements, the first colonists left little behind them to provide clues about who they were or where they had originated.

* * *

In 1978, archaeologist Wang Binghua decided to excavate a cemetery just outside one of the small oasis villages on the northern fringes of the Taklamakan. Chinese administrators called it Wupu ('number five village') and the site had probably been occupied by people for at least 4,000 years. Wang's finds there revolutionized scientific thinking about the original populations of the region. The local people call it Qizilchoqa, 'Red Hillock', after a distinctive geological formation next to the village.

Wupu is about an hour's drive from Hami, a large market and industrial town, but the rhythm of life in the village feels far from modern. The dirt streets and alleyways throng with people, donkey carts, sheep, goats and the inevitable sea of bicycles. Everyone moves at a leisurely pace, the air filled with human voices calling greetings, exchanging gossip, chiding children and shooing animals. The mud-brick houses are arranged with courtyards to the front, large airy rooms to the sides and rear, and they have high ceilings supported by whole tree trunks. Nowadays there is some electricity but most houses have their own wells providing cool, clear but often salty-flavoured water. The women wear bright-coloured clothes and the men embroidered hats. Small naked boys glisten as they swim and play in the irrigation ditches which thread their way through the village. The villagers are Uyghurs, an ethnic minority group who speak a form of Turkish. Their looks are a blend of east and west – some have long faces and noses with hazel or even blue eyes, others have the high cheekbones, rounded faces, narrow eyes and sleek black hair typical of Mongoloids. Most are a mixture of both.

The Uyghurs are known to have inhabited this region since at least 700 AD, so when Wang Binghua began to dig in the cemetery outside the village he was expecting to find a similar, ethnically mixed population. Walking up the slight incline to the cemetery, he could see at once that it was a large one. There were clear depressions in the sand every few metres and, standing on them, he could feel that the sand was softer, less compressed than on the ridges between the graves. His initial survey plotted the sites of more than 300 graves. Scattered around the surface were fragments of cloth and rope, a few wooden bowls and spoons, even a chunk of a wooden cart-wheel. Clearly, some of the graves had been looted but most looked undisturbed.


Excerpted from In Search of the Immortals by Howard Reid. Copyright © 1999 Howard Reid. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Howard Reid is a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist who, among other things, has spent several months living with the Tuareg people of North Africa and two years with hunter-gatherers in the Amazon basin. He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and has made many popular and award-winning films for the BBC and Channel 4 about ancient civilizations, religions and cultures around the world.

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