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Books Volume 54 Number 5, September/October 2001

[Battle of the Bones | Mummy Matters]

Tales of the Count
by Mark Rose

Adventures in Showmanship

I collected ancient maps of the caravan trails leading through the Sahara and Egypt to King Solomon's Mines.... I heard fantastic tales of wealth in ivory, in gold, in jewels, and in vast underdeveloped oil fields. ...There were stories of dangers from savage tribes and jungle animals, rumors of cannibals.

Born in 1896, Count Byron De Prorok was educated at the University of Geneva. He worked on excavations at Carthage from 1920 to 1925 and held the Archaeological Institute of America's prestigious Norton Lectureship in 1922-1923. Gifted with energy and determination and speaking several languages, De Prorok was no intellectual slouch. But instead of a distinguished career, he undertook a series of expeditions of dubious scientific value, pursuing ancient legends like so many wil-'o-the-wisps and becoming more and more a showman.

De Prorok's newly reprinted book Dead Men Do Tell Tales (Narrative Press: Santa Barbara, 2001. 254 pp., $14.95)--an account of his 1933 expedition from Egypt into Ethiopia--is a case in point. At the Siwa Oasis, De Prorok finds and films petroglyphs. Regardless of his archaeological faults, De Prorok was a pioneer in using motion pictures, which he did first in 1920. But the expedition nearly ends in Egypt when the floor of a tomb De Prorok is investigating collapses into a catacomb. Before passing out, having injured his head in the fall, De Prorok manages to wreak havoc:

My foot slipped, and I fell and crashed through and into a wooden mummy case. ...I saw a dozen mummies lying on stone benches on either side of the tomb. I was surrounded by broken pieces of sarcophagi that had been smashed by the falling stones. They were beautifully painted, and covered with hieroglyphics of scientific value. ...I tried piling up the coffins in an effort to climb out. Every time I climbed on one it collapsed, and the poisonous [mummy] dust would rise again.

Bad archaeological form, but De Prorok, eventually found and rescued by his comrades, offers no apologies.

Fascinating and horrifying, Dead Men Do Tell Tales--with Digging for Lost African Gods (1926), Mysterious Sahara (1929), and In Quest of Lost Worlds (1935), which are also being reprinted--is all of De Prorok's work that we now have. Most of his films were apparently lost. Archivist and filmmaker Michael Tarabulski, who has studied De Prorok's career, sums it up this way, "I admire Byron's many talents--painting, writing, and having the presence of mind to have film shot--but am frustrated by the way he undid it all. But the films, if they exist, would give him a legacy. He would have made a contribution to world culture."

Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.


Battle of the Bones
by Eric Powell

The furor over Kennewick Man

Archaeologist and forensic anthropologist James Chatters has written a valuable firsthand account of the five-year controversy surrounding the 9,500-year-old remains known as Kennewick Man, now the object of a bitter, ongoing battle that pits the government and a coalition of Indian tribes against a group of anthropologists and archaeologists who are suing in federal court for the right to study the remains. Ancient Encounters: Kennewick Man and the First Americans (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001. 303 pp., $26.00).

The first half of Chatters' book is a thorough, though obviously one-sided, take on the hectic early days of the controversy, complete with plenty of suspense and drama. We learn that in between hostile encounters with local tribes and his desperate efforts to publicize the case, Chatters found himself being investigated by the FBI when pieces of Kennewick Man's femurs mysteriously disappeared. Chatters claims he became the feds' number one suspect in the case (the bones somehow materialized this summer in the local sheriff's office).

Fleshing out Chatters' sometimes melodramatic personal narrative, the second half of the book is a very readable survey of North America's early skeletons and sites. He does a good job of putting Kennewick Man in the larger context of the complex and often heated debate on the origins of North Americans. But the heart of the book comes down to his contention that science should trump tradition. He clearly believes anthropologists have an unimpeachable right to study Kennewick Man. To bolster his argument, he lays out an array of biological and archaeological evidence showing that modern tribes in the Columbia River Basin cannot make a clear connection with anyone who lived 450 generations ago.

Chatters does profess some sympathy for the Native American position. He even says remains up to 2,000 years old should be repatriated if a clear link to modern tribes can be shown. But it's evident that the deep divide between anthropologists and Indians is about more than a millennia here and a millennia there. It's also evident that Chatters has no answers for how to repair the rift.

Eric Powell is assistant editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.


Mummy Matters
by Mark Rose

A popular study of an age-old obsession

Heather Pringle's The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead (New York: Theia, 2001. 368 pp., $23.95) tells of her visits with various mummy scholars following her attendance at the 1998 World Congress of Mummy Studies. Pringle avoids writing a catalog of mummies, instead using them as springboards to examine archaeological issues and methods.

In Egypt, for example, Pringle looks on as University of Minnesota pathologist Arthur Aufderheide dissects mummies. His clinical approach brings up a recurring theme in the book: science vs. desecration of the dead.

We also meet Chilean Bernardo Arriaza, who looks after the Chinchorro mummies at the University of Tarpacá; Rosalie David, who runs the Manchester Mummy Project in England; and Yuri Denisov-Nikolsky, the man in charge of Lenin's body in Moscow. Enrico Caruso and Jane Fonda make cameo appearances, and Pringle even works in the sacred tana leaves used to keep the Mummy alive in the old Universal horror films.

Pringle discusses the National Geographic Society's role as a funding body in archaeologist-alpinist Johan Reinhard's recovery of 18 high-altitude Andean mummies since 1995. She raises important questions about the society's needs, as an "American media giant" and the rapid pace of mummy recoveries compared to the slow pace of study and publication.

Pringle's humor shows in her writing. She relates that after Lenin's death in January 1924, Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago and a noted artist, was called in to do a detailed watercolor of the body as a permanent record of its appearance. About patrons of a company that will preserve your frozen head for $50,000, she quips, "People...have to hope like hell that some medical researcher will not only happen upon a way to resuscitate the frozen dead but also devise methods for growing a new body from spare cells...."

A well written and thought provoking introduction to mummies and those who study them, The Mummy Congress rates nine out of ten sacred tana leaves.

Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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