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Saturday, July 2, 2011


You might say the mummy congress I recently attended in San Diego opened up whole new worlds of esoteric knowledge for me. For example, I knew a fair amount about embalmed Egyptian mummies, but nothing at all about smoked mummies from Papua New Guinea.

Where do you want your physical body to reside after you die and your spirit goes elsewhere?  Different cultures have different answers for the question. In ancient Egypt, your body must be preserved for the soul to have an afterlife, and so the mobile part of the spirit, the Ba, can go back and forth between the entombed mummy and the world of the living. But in the remote village of Koko in Papua New Guinea, the Anga people believe the spirit roams around the jungle after death. They also want the bodies of key people, such as chieftains, to be preserved and remain on view for their descendants. 

So bodies are smoked in a special smokehouse, dressed in ritual garments, and in some cases, mounted in a chair before being carried up to a prominent viewing gallery in a cliff overlooking the village of Koke. Unfortunately, the jungle environment is not kind to dead bodies, so they deteriorate over time.  In a restoration project led by Prof. Ronald G. Beckett of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, the condition of the former chief, Moimango, and several other mummies was evaluated and discussed with native villagers. Instead of bringing in modern materials to patch up holes, bind flaking skin, and prop up mummies whose faces could no longer be seen, the team decided to use local jungle materials such as bark and sap. They also removed lichen on the mummies’ toes (ugh!) and other debris using brushes made from local plants.

See pictures of the process here.

The villagers assisted the scientific team in the restoration and now know how to restore their own mummies with materials available nearby. Thus a new cultural tradition is born…

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