"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.

"They were accidental mummies, nobody mummified them on purpose," Beckett said.

Bodies from a middle row of tombs, untainted by even the rare moisture from rain or groundwater, were most likely to become mummified, he said. Because mummification was unintentional, the mummies represent a broad social spectrum of the community. In societies that practiced ceremonial mummification, typically only the powerful and wealthy citizens were mummified.

The Guanajuato mummies have inspired local legends and life and death tales abound.

One is billed by the local museum as the world's smallest mummy. The infant is thought to have been born by cesarean section. Neither the infant nor the mother survived the procedure, and they were buried and naturally mummified together. They remain together still, now in the town's mummy museum.

Another fascinating legend concerns the mummy of a woman who locals believe was buried alive. Beckett and Conlogue focused their investigation on ascertaining the validity of this disturbing oral tradition. It is said by the locals that she was found turned over, as if she had tried to push up the tomb lid with her back.

Beckett and Conlogue could not document how her body was found prior to removal, but they did find other clues to her fate.

"We've seen a lot of mummies," Beckett said, "and she gave us the most evidence to suggest that the story might be accurate." One important clue was the burial position, which in typical interments of the time and location featured the arms crossed over the chest. In this case, the woman's arms were raised up over her face.

Also present were clearly defined fingernail scratch marks on her forehead. These clues suggest the woman may indeed have been buried alive, but further investigations could perhaps close the case.

"We need to go back and do a fingernail scrape," Beckett said, "and see what's under her nails."

While the television team's investigations sometimes lend support to local legends, at other times they disprove them.

One Guanajuato mummy was believed to have been hanged, but his body told a different story. The mummy's trachea was intact, unusual for a hanging, and the neck vertebrae showed none of the trauma associated with a hanging. While his true story remains unknown, it did not conclude at the end of a rope.

Around the world, many mummies lie patiently waiting to share the secrets of past eras. It's an exciting prospect for Beckett and Conlogue, who plan to keep The Mummy Road Show rolling along.

"We'll never run out of mummies," Beckett said, "and as long as we can keep adding to our knowledge of people of the past, we'll never be out of work."

Join the National Geographic Society

Join the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.