From the first time I saw a mummy movie on TV, I developed a lifelong interest in mummies: Egyptian and otherwise, factual and fictional. One of my favorite activities in childhood was watching old mummy movies on television--especially on Saturday afternoons.
These movies fascinated me--the idea that someone could come back to life (all wrapped up in tattered bandages) was very interesting to me. Although as a child I never had a chance to see a real mummy or learn about ancient Egypt (because it wasn't covered in my school's curriculum), I maintained this fascination to adulthood. In 1990, when I was all grown up, I was inspired to write a book about mummies.
I was in the British Museum in London, climbing up the long staircase to the second floor when I came across a mummy that I couldn't ignore. It was Lindow Man, and he was in a display case in the middle of the second floor foyer. Lindow Man is a bog body, a kind of mummy I had never before encountered. One look at his preserved body, and I knew that I wanted to write a book about all the different types of mummies in the world. That's what I accomplished in my book, How to Make a Mummy Talk. During my research, I read many books and articles about mummies. I spoke to a number of mummy experts. I also visited many museums that exhibit mummies. In the end I wrote a number of books related to preserved human remains.
Here are some mummy stories that I have written.
Lemon Grove Girl was discovered twice: first in 1966 and later in 1980. To my mind, she is the loneliest mummy in the world. Here's why:
In 1966, she was discovered by two American teenagers in a cave near Chihuahua, Mexico. The teens had gone to Mexico in search of their very own mummy. They had heard that local Indian tribes had once buried their dead in caves around Chihuahua; because of the cool dry air of the caves, the bodies often became mummified naturally.
They were quite serious about wanting to find a mummy. Consequently, they spent more than a month exploring caves. Finally, they found not one, but two mummies: a 15 year-old girl and a 1 year-old girl. The teens packed their mummies, smuggled them across the border and took them home.
But what do you do with two mummies when you get home?
Turn them into lamps?
Use them as a foot rest?
Display them as art objects?
The teens had no idea either. And because they did not want to share this information with their parents, they eventually asked a friend if they could store a box in her garage in Lemon Grove, California.
For 14 years, the mummies of the girl and the infant remained in the Lemon Grove garage, until the mother of the friend began to clean out her garage. Of course, she was shocked to find the body of the girl in a carton. She thought a murder had taken place. Shaken, she called the police. When they arrived and inspected the box, they realized that two bodies were in the box (the girl and the infant) and that both were mummies, not necessarily murder victims.
While the police conducted their investigation, the mummies were taken to the Museum of Man.
Shortly, the police tracked down the two teens, now men. They told police how they had found the mummies, smuggled them into the U.S., and stored them in their friend's garage. Now, to make amends, they wanted to donate the mummies to the Museum of Man. Of course, the mummies were not theirs to donate. This would be similar to a robber stealing your car and then donating it to a charitable organization; the car was not his to donate.
This did not stop the museum, however, from pursuing the donation. Museum officials contacted Mexican authorities and asked for permission to keep the mummies, to use them in an upcoming exhibit and then as an addition to the permanent collection. Permission was granted, and the Museum carefully studied the mummies before placing them on exhibit, where they still are.
Interestingly, if the mummies had been American Indians, they would have been repatriated to their ancestral tribe and reburied. Because they came from Mexico, where no such laws about mummies apparently exist, they were allowed to remain at the Museum of Man: stolen, smuggled, hidden, and now displayed mummies of two Mexican Indians.
If you should go to the Museum of Man, you shouldn't have a hard time locating the Lemon Grove Girl. She will be in a Lucite container. She will be curled in a basket, her body will look quite dry. In these days of technological wonders, it would be quite easy to make a reproduction of the body and display it in a similar fashion. In these days of heightened sensitivities, it would be admirable to return the mummies to their people. The girl, it is believed, died between the years A.D. 1040 and 1260. A DNA sample could easily be taken from her body and possibly traced to her living descendants.
Would you want your great grandmother on display in a museum for everyone to watch?
Isn't it time to give her a proper burial?
Copyright © James M. Deem. Originally published in How to Make a Mummy Talk (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). All rights reserved.