Curse of the Mummy

In mummy movies and mummy lore, anybody who disturbs a mummy's tomb incurs its wrath. This idea is based on the actual curses the ancient Egyptians inscribed outside their tombs. These warnings acted as ancient security systems -- they were meant to deter tomb-raiders from making off with the departed's earthly possessions. One typical curse reads, "As for anybody who shall enter this tomb in his impurity, I shall wring his neck as a bird's."

In the early 1900s, when tomb excavation had reached a fever pitch, people were fascinated with these ancient curses. The events surrounding Howard Carter's 1922 excavation of King Tutankhamen's tomb played a major part in this fascination. Supposedly, when the crew first entered the tomb, a cobra swallowed Carter's lucky canary. Within seven years, 11 members of his team had died, apparently doomed by the mummy's curse.

The German microbiologist Gotthard Kramer thinks there may be some truth to the ancient curses. Mummies were buried with food for the next world, and over time this food produced loads of mold spores. When archeologists or tomb raiders open up a tomb, these spores kick up into the air and the intruders breathe them in. Kramer discovered that some of these ancient mold spores can cause illness or even death, effectively inflicting the promised punishment inscribed on the tomb door.

Modern Mummies

­In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a surge of interest in the mummies of ancient Egypt. "Unravelings" were a popular form of entertainment, and people­ from all classes were fascinated by the beliefs and practices of the Egyptian age. One effect of this phenomenon was that some people began revisiting the idea of mummification -- with the addition of some new technology.

The most famous modern mummies are Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Russian revolutionist, and Eva Peron, the revered wife of Argentinean president Juan Peron. Lenin died in 1924, soon after the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb, which influenced the decision to preserve Lenin's body and display it at the Kremlin. The exact chemicals and procedure that keep his body perfectly preserved are a Russian secret, but we do know that the mummification is an ongoing process. The Russians periodically immerse him in a preservative bath and then dress him in a waterproof suit to hold the fluids inside.

Like Lenin, Eva Peron's body was so perfectly preserved that she appears to be alive. This was accomplished with a revolutionary embalming treatment that essentially replaced all the fluid in her body with wax. Peron and similar mummies are really a lot like the wax dummies you see in a wax museum, except, of course, that they are the actual remains of a person.

In the 1970s, a group of scientists expanded on this idea to create a process called plastination. In the complicated plastination process, all of the water and lipids in the body's cells are replaced with polymers. The body takes on the properties of plastic: It is durable, flexible, doesn't have a strong odor and, most importantly, doesn't decompose. Plastination is used to preserve body parts for anatomical research and education, but it is also used artistically. In a controversial exhibit that traveled through Europe and Asia, stripped-down, plastinated human bodies were sculpted into wild shapes and positioned in active poses. The exhibit showed all of the inner workings of the human body, in both healthy and diseased bodies.

Dr. Bob Brier, a renowned Egyptologist, used a very different approach with his modern mummy. Instead of advancing the mummification process with new technology, Dr. Brier endeavored to replicate the Egyptian technique exactly. In 1994, he pulled off this feat at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, with fascinating results. Among other things, his experiment demonstrated that it was the Egyptian mummification process itself, not the thousands of years sealed up in a coffin, that gave Egyptian mummies their distinctive withered appearance.

In the future, mummification technology will surely continue to evolve. It's a good bet that a lot of this development will be in technologies designed to preserve dead bodies so they may someday be brought back to life (cryogenics, for example). Like the ancient Egyptians, many people today are shelling out a fortune for these services, in the hopes that science may someday be able to reverse whatever killed them. Remarkably, in the thousands of years since the time of the Egyptians, people are still drawn to mummification as a means of insuring immortality.

For more information on mummies and related topics, check out the links on the next page.