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Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Time Event
12:33a
A little light reading ...
This is another of those 75%-off books that I picked up over at Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. I've read quite a lot on Egypt over the years (I had actually at one point been considering a career in Archaeology and took a good number of courses in "Ancient Near-Eastern Religions" back when I was at Northwestern), so there wasn't a whole lot of stuff that was new for me in this ... except, perhaps, a general over-view of how poorly most Mummies have been treated over the past couple of hundred years (not that they were getting much post-burial respect a few thousand years ago either).

Of course, Joyce Tyldesley's The Mummy - Unwrap the Ancient Secrets of the Mummies' Tombs isn't intended as a "scholarly" work, but a "popular" look specifically at the subject of Mummies. Only passing reference to the texts, the funerary cults, the various religious phases, etc. makes it into this (even the Pyramids are barely noted), so this at least is focused on the titular subject.

Personally, I've always found the "dead body" aspect of the unwrapped mummy somewhat "squicky", and the author (or, more likely, her editors) certainly play this up, from the near-lifesize contorted head on the cover, to various up-close-and-personal looks at the ancient Egyptian dead throughout the book.

Frankly, if one were somehow completely uninformed about "mummies" in general, this would be a fairly decent introductory book. It begins with a brief look at the mythological/theological context of mummification (the Osiris story), goes into how mummification was practiced (they should have, however, gotten shots of the very informative miniature dioramas from Chicago's Field Museum to illustrate this section), a general look at how mummification spread from just the royalty to the population in general, and a section on animal mummification. With this as background it then turns to "modern manifestations", from the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb (and the resulting Egyptian craze), to how mummies have been presented in books and movies (this, certainly, has not featured much in the more scholarly resources on the subject!), and how modern medical techniques are more being brought to bear (CAT scans, etc.) to non-invasively study mummies.

The author certainly paints a vivid picture of how much we've lost of the Egyptian culture due to tomb robberies in the deep past. If one considers the "fabulous" hoard of Tut's tomb in light of what a minor and transitional figure he was, and then think of what must have gone to the afterlife with the great rulers, the feeling of loss can't be helped, especially given that most of the main dynastic burials (long since ransacked) have been identified. Looking at the awesome craftsmanship of items surviving from this one tomb, one wishes that we could have seen more surviving up to our time. It's quite a lesson of what happens when the fruits of a culture are not protected against the ravages of the criminal classes!

Time after time in this (very heavily illustrated) book I found myself marveling at the skill and artistry of the finer examples, from a beautifully wrapped mummy (where, tens of centuries later, the aesthetics of the fabric speaks clearly of the skill of the workers), to fine detail on metal inlays, carved stone, and sculpted portraits. That we have lost 98% or more of the products of that culture is a bitter thing to contemplate.

If I had one negative to report on The Mummy it would be its abrupt end. After the final section on medical technology (including a picture of the embalmed Lenin), it inexplicably veers into a last sub-section on trying to sort out a "who's who" in a particular tomb (associated with the Akhenaten clan) and then stops. Turn the page, and you're in the index. This really could have used an "afterword" or some concluding chapter to pull the various bits together ... a small gripe, but notable none the less.

As has been the case with these B&N books I got at clearance, they do seem to be officially "out of print", but the Amazon new/used guys have "like new" copies available for as little as 40¢ (plus shipping, of course), so it's out there if you feel this is something you'd like to add to your library!


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