Death Stories: Mummies of No Man's Land

I saw my first mummy at the No Man’s Land Museum in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Mostly I remember the museum as  images: Fine figurines carved from alabaster.  A flat chunk of sandstone big enough to stopper a fifty-five-gallon drum; pressed into it, like a family crest into sealing wax, the footprint of a carnosaur.

There was a peace pipe once owned by Two Guns Whitecalf, the man immortalized by his profile on the Buffalo nickel. A horse-drawn hearse; the tools of nineteenth century carpenters.  Archaic cash registers and adding machines.  Strands of barbed wire in different styles, some fitted with circular barbs like the rowels on spurs, some as wide and almost as flat as scotch tape.  The first telephone lines in the area had run along the top strands of barbed wire fences.

Carnivorous animals stuffed in mid-snarl -- a mountain lion, a brown bear, a pair of lean coyotes.  Perched in a glass case was an infant rattlesnake posed in the act of suicide, stabbing its curved fangs into its own back.  Next to it a rusty-brown diamondback too thick to circle with the fingers of one hand stared with fogged, dead eyes; its tail terminated in fifteen rings of rattle.  Between this large adult and the infant lay an even more imposing rattle -- nineteen rings long -- chopped from the tail of what must have been a huge snake.

There was the museum’s unofficial mascot, a spindly-legged Hereford calf dead for decades.  Its head branched into two, but incompletely, so that a right eye and a left were set next to each other in a gaze from the land of nightmares.  It looked like a trick of mirrors. They’d had to wait several days after its birth for the calf to die.

In a display case in the center of a room lay a human child, folded into a painful-looking pose. He appeared to be made of stone. It was a Native American boy, perhaps three years old, perhaps ten. The fingers of his left hand clutched nothing, suggesting the experimental grip of a baby. He was discovered when someone saw that small fist sticking out of the dirt in the floor of a cave.  His right hand was tied to his left thigh; no one alive knows why.  His hair was wild and red--the color is common among those who’ve lain in the ground a long time. Iron in the soil. Most of his flesh looked wrinkled, like the sagging skin of a reptile, but stone-hard. There were exceptions, patches where the skin was smooth as life; the toes of one foot, for example, were perfect.

An arm hid part of his features. I had to crouch close to look him in the face. That face always struck me as oddly particular, human. Death and desiccation had twisted it into the semblance of agony.

I have seen many mummies since. Once, in the Ozark Mountains, I visited the basement of a museum where half a dozen bodies lay loosely wrapped in plastic, all of them carried with delicate hands from a cave centuries after their deaths. They were, it is true, mostly bone, but a stubborn layer of desiccated and patchy flesh clung to them. I stroked the skull of one ancient woman—a vacant conchoid, colored as if with nicotine, rough here and there with the tenacious papery flesh, wreathed with textured strands of hair.

She and her comrades had endured because they'd found their way into a cave, and the mouth of the cave had filled with dirt. Within the moist mountains, their cave was a sealed bottle where weather could not penetrate, and so the available moisture expended itself in meager chemical reactions and the bodies dried like jerky on the bone. An archaeologist there told me how unusual that was. "Sometimes after five years, there's nothing left but coffin handles. Even bones don't ever last fifty years in this region."

Tucked into the ancient Ozark woman's embrace lay the mummy of an infant, as if that connection still mattered. Babies are disproportionately represented among natural mummies. Their bodies begin relatively free of microbes. Living longer corrupts a person.

Of course, the Oklahoma mummies had died in drier circumstances. I remain most attached to that first mummy, the one who came from the caves my grandmother explored as a child. He is the only human specimen from the Kenton caves whose whereabouts are still known to science. But the caves yielded prodigiously in those early years, and some of the mummies lingered for decades before vanishing from the record.

The author with the cast of an apatosaur leg bone near Kenton, Oklahoma.


  1. Have you ever been in the Museum of the Mummies in Guanajuato? It's a very eerie but interesting place. They say Tim Burton wants to be part of its collection when he dies...

  2. No, but I'd like to. . . preferably before Tim Burton comes back.


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