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In the grand scheme of scientific meetings, the Mummy Congress is a small, intimate affair, long on singular personalities and surreal slide shows and short on sophistication, hype, and ballyhoo. There are, after all, far larger scientific meetings, gatherings where thousands of name-tagged delegates in identical conference bags swarm city streets like ants, taking over every cab, restaurant, and bar in sight. There are also far more sophisticated events, where the world watches through simultaneous Webcasts and where handlers manage large, jaded crowds of reporters. And there are certainly far more lavish affairs where attendees dine in gilded French cháteaux or toss back glasses of chianti in Tuscan vinyards, all paid for by generous corporate sponsors. But the Mummy Congress is none of these things. It is not large. It is not savvy. And it certainly is not deluxe. What makes the Mummy Congress so memorablesome might say gloriously eccentricis something a good deal rarer and far more interesting. It is the odd, lonely passion of its delegates. With few exceptions, those attending the congress love mummies. And they relish being around others who feel the same way.
This strange shared passion colors nearly every aspect of the congress. But it makes itself particularly known in the organizers' choice of a host city. During three years of planning, those responsible for the Third World Congress on Mummy Studies, as it was officially known, paid little attention to the amenities that preoccupy most other conference organizersan abundance of fine five-star hotels and good restaurants, the existence of colorful nightlife and sightseeing opportunities, the availability of good airline connections and cheap fares. Indeed, they ignored all obvious places to host such a conferencegrand cities like Cairo, New York, and Londonand found a spot much more to their tastes. They chose Arica, population 180,000, a tiny dot on the map of northern Chile. Nearly a thousand miles north of Santiago, Arica perches on the frontier of a vast, almost lifeless desert, the Atacama. Arica's claims to fame are modest at best: it possesses a very good port on the Pacific and a large fish-meal plant. It also boasts a church and customs house designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the famous French engineer, after a tidal wave had washed away part of the town.
Over the years, local tourism officials have tried very hard to lure visitors to Arica. They dubbed Arica the 'City of Eternal Spring,' an epithet that rather glossed over its dry, brittle climate, and they encouraged Chilean families to holiday along the spectacular beaches that lined the waterfront. But Arica never really took off as a tourist town. The ocean, cooled by the frigid Peru current, is simply too chilly for anyone to contemplate leisurely swims. Only a few hardy surfers in head-to-toe wet suits dare brave its whitecaps for long. And hardly anyone is interested in roaming the barren Atacama: it is too vast, too intimidating, too fierce. As a result, Arica remains dusty and rather insular. To fly there, many delegates to the Mummy Congress spent twenty-four hours or more jackknifed in airline seats and nodding off to sleep in a series of ever smaller departure lounges. Indeed, one determined researcher hauled herself off and on eleven successive flights from Beirut.
But Arica had one sterling qualification in the eyes of the Mummy Congress organizers, and that single attraction more than compensated for all its many shortcomings as an international conference center. For Arica, unknown to most of the world, is blessed with almost perfect conditions for the long-term preservation of the human body. Bordering what is likely the driest place on earth, the Atacama Desert, it receives just three one-hundredths of an inch of rain in an average year. In bad years, it receives none at all. This relentless, inescapable aridity is precisely what is needed to dry a human corpse to the texture of shoe leather and to keep it that way. Arica abounds in mummies. It is a mummy expert's Mecca. To see these remarkable treasures and to catch up on the latest mummy news, scientists had converged on the little Chilean port from what seemed the far ends of the earth.
On the night before the congress opened, a certain euphoria infused the parched desert air in the lobby of the Hotel Arica, a sprawling beachfront resort complete with shady palm trees and nonstop Andean panpipe music. By the check-in desk, an impromptu one-man welcoming committee, Larry Cartmell, boisterously greeted arrivals. A pathologist in his early fifties from Ada, Oklahoma, Cartmell had taken the same flight from Santiago that I had; we had sat together on the school bus that picked up Mummy Congress researchers at the airport. He was very entertaining. For the last few hours, he had scarcely stopped talking and enthusing and cracking jokes, all in a booming southern drawl. Cartmell, I discovered, loved Arica and the desert that lay just beyond, where hundreds and hundreds of mummies had been found over the years. He loved analyzing little plastic bags full of mummy hair, which is his particular speciality. He loved the Chileans, although he seemed slightly less partial to those nostalgic for the old Socialist government of Salvador Allende. He even loved his colleagues' favorite local hangout, the Restaurant of the Dead, a dining establishment that would never find its way into any tourist brochure but which was located just across the street from a local cemetery and a stone's throw from an important collection of Chilean mummies. The menu was no great shakes, with its sandwiches and roast chicken, but who could resist the name? For Cartmell, who got his start in the mummy business in Arica, the little Chilean town was a piece of heaven. "This whole place," he told me, beaming ear to ear, "is built on mummies."
As Cartmell and I waited for a few of his colleagues to join us, he kept a sharp lookout for all new arrivals. An infectious extrovert, he had an ulterior motive. He was dying to see if anyone had a copy of the congress program, which would tell him exactly when organizers had slated his session, the one he had painstakingly organized on mummy hair. It seemed that time slots were everything at the Mummy Congress, as they are in television. Cartmell prayed he had been given prime time. So as soon as he spied someone he knew, he roared out a name and charged over for a chat, shaking hands, hoping like hell that the new arrival had an advance copy of the conference program. From the look of it, Cartmell knew just about every one of the 180 or so mummy experts who had flocked to the congress from all over North America, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. And nearly everyone seemed to know him. As the knot of people expanded around us, Cartmell disappeared to find a table big enough for everyone in the hotel restaurant. Before long I found myself squeezed into a noisy, shrieking, hooting group of mummy experts. To my eyes, the congress was quickly taking on the air of a house party. Indeed, I'd just seen more people hugging warmly in the hotel lobby than I ever had in an airport arrivals gate. "I love these congresses," rhapsodized Karl Reinhard, who was sitting on my left. "I get to see so many of my friends here."
Lean and fit-looking in his mid-forties, with a bushy black beard and a Brazilian good-luck charm wrapped around his wrist hippie-style, Reinhard teaches anthropology and palynology, the study of pollen, in Lincoln, Nebraska. But his real passion, it transpired, is for parasites, specifically the types that inhabit the bodies of mummified people. Reinhard had just flown in with his wife, Debbie Meier, a museum conservator, to chair a session before heading down to Brazil, his favorite place for studying all manner of weird parasites in mummies. Fortunately for a guy whose speciality doesn't make appetizing dinner conversation, Reinhard likes to keep it light. He gives his papers playful titles like "Exploding Worms and the Consequences of Close Human-Parasite Evolution." He is full of trivia on all kinds of unexpected stuff, such as how the creators of the movie Alien got their ideas for the monster. According to Reinhard, they relied extensively on his speciality, parasitology. The alien's egg, he said, was a fluke egg. "The molt was based on a tick. Its body structure was like a thorny-headed worm and the lifestyle was based on a parasitic spider. Sigourney Weaver would be nothing without worms."
Reaching for his beer, Reinhard surveyed the room. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied Bob Brier, a cadaverously thin philosophy professor from Long Island whose popular books include The Encyclopedia of Mummies, and whose controversial new tome on the murder of Tutankh-amen had just landed on the bestseller list in England. Nearby was the spry, white-haired form of Minnesota pathologist Art Aufderheide, one of the grand old men of mummy research and a leading authority on ancient disease in mummies. In the doorway, the young Peruvian physician Guido Lombardi, who had just spent months tracking down two long-lost Egyptian mummies in New Orleans, scanned the room for a colleague who specialized in human sacrifice in South America. "It's a very small world here," Reinhard said, laughing.
It was also, as I swiftly realized, a world where nearly everyone was gainfully employed doing something other than studying mummies. The immense public interest in mummies has never translated into real research money. There are few salaried jobs and very few full-time mummy experts. Most delegates are professionalsanthropologists, archaeologists, or pathologistswho dip into their own pockets to cover their field expenses and who spend their summer holidays, Christmas vacations, or retirement years flying to Egypt, the Canary Islands, and Peru to work on mummies. More than a few had exhausted the patience of their bewildered spouses. Some had ended up marrying each other. Most had paid their own fares to Arica, and they were squirreled away in half a dozen budget hotels scattered around town. At seventy dollars a night, the Hotel Arica was simply too rich for most of the crowd.
No one seemed to mind, however. Most were just enormously happy to be in attendance at the world's largest regular gathering of mummy experts and eagerly awaited what lay ahead over the next five days. The South Americans, explained Reinhard, didn't believe in wasting time. Sessions on subjects as diverse as ancient human disease, animal mummies, ancient DNA in mummies, Mexican mummies, high-altitude human sacrifices, and mummy conservation would begin each morning at 8:30 a.m. and end eleven or twelve hours later. In between, papers in two languagesEnglish and Spanishwere scheduled every fifteen minutes. Moreover, the organizers planned to keep the congress dead simple: there would be no concurrent sessions. To ensure that every delegate could hear every paper, the sessions were scheduled consecutively in one large room. To ensure that everyone could understand everyone else, the organizers had flown in a team of interpreters from Santiago. Attendees would be issued headphones.
It sounded perfect, but not everyone was happy. At the far end of the table, a howl of protest rose as Cartmell flipped through a faxed program of scheduled papers he'd managed to find. "I can't believe it," he moaned, betrayal stamped all over his face. He looked as if he'd just lost his best friend. His session on mummified hair had been scheduled from 4:25 to 6:20 p.m. the day after tomorrow. It was just about the time the overheated brains of delegates would require a serious soaking at the hotel bar. It was one of the worst time slots of the conference.
The Mummy Congress is held every three years, and, in between, it is the subject of much fond talk and anticipation among mummy experts. But the Congress is not well known outside the small circle of delegates. For nearly twenty years, I had made my living as a science journalist covering the arcane world of archaeology and during that time I had met and talked to hundreds of archaeologists. I had spent countless hours sitting in conference halls, slouching in train stations, and excavating side by side with archaeologists. I had subscribed to archaeological journals, pored over archaeological Web sites, and joined archaeological news groups. I had never heard so much as a whisper of the Mummy Congress and I am quite sure I would not have been the wiser even now were it not for a rambling conversation that I had with a Canadian mummy expert.
At the time, I was casting around for a mummy story. My editor at Discover magazine had asked me to keep an eye open for new research on the preserved dead: stories about mummies are very popular with readers. So I began making phone calls. Despite the line of work I am in, I had encountered few mummy experts. In Canada, where I live, and in the United States, archaeologists seldom investigate the ancient human remains they happen upon: strong sentiments prevail against such studies. The reasons are religious, social, and political, and they are rooted in history. For many decades, anthropologists and archaeologists had plundered native cemeteries to gather up collections of skulls, skeletons, and mummies for study in universities and museums. Outraged by this desecration of their dead, native activists had fervently demanded the pillaged bodies back. As the outcry reached a crescendo in 1990, American legislators passed a sweeping law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, protecting native graves and ordering many museums to return bones and mummies to native bands. This righted some old wrongs, but the bitter controversy had left an unfortunate scientific legacy: the study of North America's ancient dead had become virtually taboo.
As a result, I didn't encounter many researchers who openly professed an interest in mummies. But a few years back, I had interviewed a loquacious paleopathologist from Canada, Patrick Horne. Horne was a bona fide mummy person. Like others of his ilk, he considered a mummy to be any ancient cadaver whose soft tissues had partially or wholly resisted decay. He had studied many of them. During the 1980s, he had examined the spectacular frozen body of an ancient Inca boy, known today as the Prince of El Plomo, who had been recovered by climbers atop a mountain peak in Chile. During the 1990s, Horne had worked with Egyptologists in the Valley of the Nobles, identifying parasites in the dessicated tissue of Egyptian mummies. The day I called him, we chatted for almost an hour about the latest mummy research. Finally, just as we were about to hang up, Horne mentioned, as an afterthought, an upcoming conference that he dearly hoped to attend. It was the Mummy Congress in Arica.
Just from the note of longing in his voice as he described it, I knew I had to go. I had no idea what to expect, but I was sure it would be worth the trouble it would take to get there. I wanted to know, after all, who these people were who studied the bodies of the ancient dead so unabashedly. And I wanted very much to see what I had been missing in all my years of writing about the distant past. I had described and recounted at length many of the clever things that archaeologists had deduced from the humblest of cluestiny bits of broken pottery and stone, scatterings of ancient fishbones around a hearth, imprints of nets in Ice Age clay. I had gleaned as much as I could from the things that humans had left behind on their long twisting journey through time. Now I wanted to see their ancient faces. I wanted to know what they had looked like, how they had frowned, squinted, arranged their hair, tattooed their skin, draped their tunics, shaped their fingernails, and tied their shoes. I began scrambling to find a way to get to Arica.