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Television: Alaska's Valley of the Kings Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Eric A. Powell

[image] One of the Aleutian mummies featured in the Discovery Channel's "Mystery of the Alaskan Mummies" (Discovery Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Discovery Channel's latest archaeological offering takes mummy-mania to an unpublicized corner of the known mummy world--Alaska's Aleutian Islands. The Unangan, seafaring ancestors of today's Aleut, made their home in the barren archipelago for some 9,000 years, honing techniques for hunting large sea mammals, building sturdy houses, and, perhaps surprisingly, perfecting ritual mummification in a hostile, wet climate.

The melodramatic Mystery of the Alaskan Mummies (premieres November 18, from 9 to 10 p.m.) follows archaeologist Rick Knecht, geologist Gary Carver, physical anthropologist Bruno Frohlich, and Aleut representative Larry Merculieff on a tour of the most remote reaches of the Aleutian chain (the precise aims of the expedition are never really made clear).

The crew's first two stops are islands where the Smithsonian's infamous Ales Hrdlicka discovered over 60 mummies in 1936. Fascinating original footage from these excavations shows Hrdlicka himself tearing into archaeological deposits with a pickax (the narrative refers only obliquely to the physical anthropologist's somewhat unsavory reputation). Sadly, there's not much left for the modern expedition to work with.

Then, it's off to other islands, where crew members crawl into narrow caves (which often hold mummies, though they don't discover any), find evidence for massive tsunamis, and ascend fortress-like peaks that were the preferred locations for Unangan villages. Along the way, we are also taken inside the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which houses most of the Aleutian mummies Hrdlicka discovered. We visit Tulane University, where an Aleutian mummy has resided ever since 1930, when police rescued it from a carnival that advertised the remains as the "Petrified Man."

The museum segments are heavy on comparisons to Egyptian mummification techniques. Like the Egyptians, Unangans disemboweled their dead to remove easily corruptible organs. They then bound the remains in bags woven from sea-mammal skin, which preserved some bodies for centuries.

Though the scientists on the expedition are clearly a rational lot, sensationalism abounds. Do we really need to see lurid, lingering shots of shrunken heads from the Amazon in a documentary on Alaskan mummies? And everyone knows that any mummy movie worth its salt has to have a curse. Alaskan Mummies obliges with the gratuitous story of botanist and amateur archaeologist Ted Bank who committed suicide in 1981, "soon after" completing a map of all the Aleutian sites he discovered.

When not focused on these distractions, the documentary does a credible job of re-creating the daily life of the Unangan with solid archaeology and relevant folklore. The real stars here aren't the mummies and the scientists who study them, but the harsh Aleutian landscape and the Unangan who thrived there.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America