"Accidental" Mummies on Display in Mexico

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 31, 2002

Through the ages, many societies have practiced the mummification of human remains, often as a way to prepare loved ones for the afterlife. Not all mummies, however, are created intentionally.

In the beautiful Mexican colonial city of Guanajuato, a fascinating museum is home to more than 100 local mummies. The mummified remains weren't prepared by the people of Guanajuato, but were instead created as a result of extremely dry weather conditions coupled with an overcrowded cemetery. Their discovery initially surprised the locals—and put Guanajuato on the mummy map.

Ronald Beckett and Gerald Conlogue travel around the world in their search for mummies, employing modern medical and archaeological practices and imaging techniques—x-rays, CT scans, endoscopy—to expose their secrets, stories, and histories. On October 31, Halloween night, the National Geographic Channel will feature back-to-back episodes of their television series, The Mummy Road Show, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.

Worldwide Hunt

Beckett, an associate professor of respiratory care, and Conlogue, an assistant professor of diagnostic imaging, teach at the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. They have visited such disparate places as the United States, Mexico, Peru, Canada, Italy, and the Philippines, and examined mummies that were buried in tombs, frozen on mountain tops, hidden in caves, and preserved in bogs.

No matter where they're found, or how they were preserved, the two work hard to ensure that the remains are treated with the respect they deserve.

"We are honored every time we're allowed to do the work that we do. Whether in a museum or in a cave in the Philippines, it's just a true honor," said Beckett.

Accidental Mummies

The residents of Guanajuato, Mexico, display considerable respect for the mummies of their ancestors—which may seem a bit odd considering how they were created and eventually discovered.

In the past, the town charged a fee to bury loved ones in the crowded cemetery. The fee could be paid in annual installments, which was a desirable option for the town's poor. However, if for any reason payments were discontinued, the bodies were removed from their tombs to free up more space.

In the late 1800s, several corpses were exhumed. The townspeople were surprised to find that some of the bodies had been mummified as a result of the region's extremely dry conditions.

Continued on Next Page >>


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