Reviews /

Secrets of the Dead: Mummies and Other Human Remains from Around the World

Authored by Matt Ralphs
Illustrated by Gordy Wright
Published by Nosy Crow

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Secrets of the Dead is a fascinating look at human remains from around the world. It has information about bodies found in Africa, America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, with a useful map at the end of the book showing you the various sites. It is a wonderful collaboration between Nosy Crow and The British Museum.

The author, Matt Ralphs, and the illustrator, Gordy Wright, have done a sterling job in explaining where each body was found and showing what was found with them. What I liked about this book was that it doesn’t just deal with mummification in Ancient Egyptian times, which if you’ve been a primary school teacher for years, you’re probably very familiar with. This has information from many different cultures, much of which was new to me. I have visited the British Museum several times with my classes over the years and seen Gebelein man (I think he was called Sandy by them), but never realised that the smudge on his upper arm is one of the oldest tattoos in the world (It’s of a bull and sheep, in case you’re interested).

There were so many interesting nuggets of information that I read about and will now be able to astound and amaze my class with. Did you know (for example) that when they were found, Tutankhamen’s sandals had portraits of his enemies painted on the soles? I love the idea that he’d always be walking on them. Other gems from around the world that tickled me, were the Beauty of Xiaohe (pronounced she-ow-HUH). She was found in the desert in Western China along with the world’s oldest cheese. And then there was Lady Xin Zhui, a Chinese noblewoman, who was incredibly well preserved. Her burial chamber was packed with over one thousand items, including turtledoves, pheasants, sparrows and owls.

For me, the most gruesome were the Self Mummifying Monks of Japan. Followers of a monk called Kükai ate tree bark and roots for three years to reduce their body fat. When they were a living skeleton, they drank a poisonous tea and were sealed in an underground chamber with a bell. This was rung sporadically to show they were still alive. When the bell stopped, the followers would seal the air hole up, and come back after a thousand days. If the self-mummification had worked (and it only worked for twenty of the monks that went through this process), their body would be taken to the temple and worshipped.

Secrets of the Dead is very well set out. The text is easy to read and clearly set away from the illustrations. Everything is well explained, with a useful glossary at the end and diagrams to explain the construction of the different tombs and burial places. The pictures are beautiful and I really enjoyed poring over them. This book would be a great addition to a school or class library and will really appeal to anybody who likes finding out ‘stuff’ and sharing it. There are lots of questions asked as you read, and I really liked that often there are no answers.

Well done to all who were involved in producing Secrets of the Dead, it’s a wonderful book and I really enjoyed reading it.