Mummification in the News

Siberia Ice Maiden Guards Her Secrets - June 4, 2002 - Moscow Times

Akademgorodok, Western Siberia

She lies curled on her side in a glass case, her waxen skin -- scarce on the skull -- is partly covered by a white veil, her hands demurely crossed over her navel.

Nearly a decade ago, this mystery woman, known usually as the Siberian Ice Maiden, became one of the most exciting archeological discoveries in Russian history, shedding light on ancient peoples described in the fifth century B.C. by the Greek historian Herodotus.

Now the 2,500-year-old mummy -- threatened at one point by fungi from a refrigerator once used to store cheese -- lies in a small exhibit room in this quiet Siberian town, where a single day brings no more than 30 visitors, if that. Most of those who do come make arrangements with the local Institute of Archeology and Siberian Culture, which oversees the exhibit hall. But studies on the woman's body, found in 1993 in a tomb in the Altai mountains, continue to this day.

"No other body in the world has been so well preserved," Irina Kedrova, a caretaker at the exhibit hall, said proudly in an interview.

The woman's body is indeed almost perfectly intact, frozen in time by rainwater that seeped into the kurgan, or high earthen mound, where she was buried and formed a protective cocoon of ice. Her yellowish skin is smooth and shiny like leather; intricate indigo tattoos, depicting fantastical beasts with flowers growing from their horns, are clearly visible on her left arm and shoulder.

"She did not have to be wrapped up and treated like Egyptian mummies," Kedrova said. "The climate and land in the Altai preserved bodies and [her] people knew that. ... They were very intelligent," she said with a smile, pressing her forefinger to her temple for emphasis.

Archeologists found the woman, about 28 when she died, in a wooden chamber buried two meters underground and marked by a circle of stones. Six sacrificial horses stood frozen by her grave in the kurgan and a symbolic meal of sheep and horse meat, also well preserved, had been left behind, indicating that she was a person of some importance -- a noblewoman or shamaness, perhaps.

Natalya Polosmak, the archeologist who led the team behind the discovery, was drawn to the Ukok plateau where the Ice Maiden was found by tales of an ancient people called the Pazyryk, fierce nomads who roamed the Eurasian steppes.

Her search for the right tomb, located just meters away from the strip of no-man's land between Russia and China, finally bore fruit -- not only thanks to her passion for science but to a bit of luck as well.

"We had a visit one day from a border guard who helped us choose the burial mound," Polosmak said in an interview with the NOVA science program. "Their commander knew all the burial sites in the area. When I explained that I needed a large and beautiful mound, he told me he knew of one within their view. ... [It] turned out exactly as he described it. We liked it as much as he did."

Frozen tombs had been unearthed in this part of Siberia before, but not for decades. When Polosmak and her team opened the wooden chamber, they saw a solid, milky block of ice, which they meticulously melted away with cupfuls of hot water.

Virtually no skin remained on the woman's head when she was found, but police pathology techniques helped reconstruct her face. Her shaven skull was filled with pine marten fur and adorned with a meter-high ornamental head dress, a replica of which is exhibited together with the Ice Maiden. Her body was stuffed with peat and bark.

Among the most telling discoveries in the tomb were the silk shirt and red-and-white woolen skirt in which the woman was buried, which now hang in a display case near the mummy's, the fabric and colors miraculously unspoiled. Swiss textile experts who analyzed the silk have come to the conclusion that the Pazyryk had trade links with peoples as far as India.

After the woman was exhumed, she was brought to Akademgorodok, a small town dedicated to science near Novosibirsk. Through some error or oversight, her body was placed in a freezer that had been used to store cheese, and destructive fungi soon began growing on the preserved flesh, fading her tattoos. The Ice Maiden was rushed to Moscow, where embalmers and scientists worked for a year before returning her to Akademgorodok.

Even in death, the woman has caused controversy, stirring up an age-old debate about national identity. While some Russian experts pronounced her to be Caucasoid, i.e. an early European, their colleagues in Altai -- where the Ukok burial ground is still considered sacred -- insist she is Mongoloid. Now, the Academy of Sciences and Altai's regional administration are in drawn-out negotiations over where the body should be based, Kedrova said.

Although a model of the woman's face in the museum looks unmistakably European, Kedrova voiced what sounds like a compromise: "It is now thought she was Scythian," she said, explaining that this ancient tribe absorbed many different ethnic groups as it roamed the plains of Asia between China in the east and Greece in the west.

In addition to the famed mummy, the exhibit hall boasts a wealth of other archeological material, laid out in three ground-floor rooms of a small yellow house surrounded by pine trees. A glass case next to the woman contains the equally well-preserved body of a man, a shepherd from the same era, found in 1995 also in Altai. Display cabinets on the walls are filled with valuable artifacts -- from stone tools dating back 300,000 years to Neanderthals' teeth and animals found freeze-dried in the Gobi desert in Mongolia.

There is also a prehistoric painting on a slab of rock depicting a blood-red man with what look like antennae instead of ears.

Siberia - and the Altai region especially - is a rich hunting ground for archeologists. Kedrova said more mummies like the Ice Maiden and the shepherd would have been dug up by now if the local authorities and Akademgorodok's archeological institute got along more constructively. Now the archeologists are running out of time, she said, because global warming is melting away the Altai tombs.

Nevertheless, Kedrova recognizes that the scientific teams have been fortunate to work in such an untouched part of the world. "Places like Altai are very important on an international level because now, when everything elsewhere has been excavated, it is hard to find archeological sites that have not been plundered," she said. "So our archeologists are very lucky."

Secrets of the mummy return in Egypt dig

June 18, 2001 - The UK Times

Three 5,600-year-old bodies found buried in the Egyptian desert are turning the theory of mummification on its head.

Egyptologists have long thought that the practice began in the age of the pharaohs, to preserve their appearance after death. These bodies suggest that it evolved much earlier, among working-class people in order that they could move and feed themselves in the afterlife.

When Renee Friedman, Heagy research curator at the British Museum, pulled back the matting over the first of the three women, she could not believe what she saw. The body had been subjected to sophisticated mummification at least 500 years before the earliest known mummies, but the bandages had been wrapped only around the hands and head.

Dr Friedman said: �At that point we didn�t know what to make of it. Was it a pillow? Or gloves?� The wrappings of another woman had preserved an elaborate hairstyle involving the first known use of hair extensions and henna to disguise thinning and greying hair.

The mummies were among discoveries at Hierakonpolis, the first capital of Egypt, which have astounded the archaeology community.

The latest evidence contradicts the theory that mummification began on members of the elite because these bodies were buried in the hot, dry sand of the desert, which is a better natural preservative than mummification. The parts of the women�s flesh that were wrapped actually decayed more than those left exposed to the sand, suggesting that the Ancient Egyptians began mummification to bind together the more fragile bones of the body, ensuring that the dead could continue activities such as eating in the world of the dead.

"There are all sorts of hypotheses about why just the head and hands are bandaged," Dr Friedman, director of the expedition, said. "It may be because when the body turns into a skeleton the hand bones and jawbone fall off and can be easily lost, and they may have been trying to keep together the body parts they would need."

The women lived in a prehistoric society, around 500 years before the first pharaoh in 3000BC. They were labourers buried in a working-class cemetery of Ancient Hierakonpolis, the 'City of the Hawk', which lies on the edge of the desert about 60 miles south of Luxor. When Dr Friedman heard that the area was about to be bulldozed in 1996 to make way for sugarcane production, her team rushed out to the site.

�On the last day of the season in 1997, and I mean the very last day, we came across a body covered in a beautiful mat. When we lifted it up, we found the first body which had been wrapped, totally untouched since the day it was buried,� she said.

Tests verified that the linen used was layered with resin, which may have had antibacterial properties, using progressively finer cloth closer to the skin. �This was a very carefully thought-out process,� Dr Friedman said.

So far 170 of the estimated 2,000 bodies in the cemetery have been uncovered, but none of the fragments of mummifying bandages has been found in a man's grave, suggesting that women were the first mummies, possibly because of their occupation as weavers.

They have also found the oldest-preserved beard, well-trimmed by a very sharp blade, and a unique sheepskin toupee. "The Egyptians loved wigs, but this is the first finding of a toupee I have heard of," she said.

The last of the three women had her throat ritually cut after death and was then bandaged. One theory is that the Egyptians were playing out the myth of the god Osiris, who was killed and decapitated by a rival god, before being reassembled and resurrected.

In ancient funeral texts, the lines "put your head back on your body, gather up your bones", puzzle Egyptologists. "Perhaps this is our first illumination of what the texts are talking about," Dr Friedman said.

John Taylor, assistant keeper in the department of Ancient Egypt at the British Museum, said: "These kind of discoveries only come along every 50 years or so, it really is a major leap forward for our understanding of Ancient Egypt. We have to revise our standard thinking of that time to show it was a society much more sophisticated than anyone had thought."

Chinchorro - The Mummy from Chile

November 29, 1999 - BBC

Many mummies have been discovered in Northern Chile

Ancient inhabitants of the Andean mountains were infected with the same virus as modern-day Japanese people, suggesting travellers from Asia colonised South America thousands of years ago.

This unusual form of archaeology was carried out by analysing DNA samples taken from the bone marrow of 104 mummies found in Northern Chile.

The mummies are believed to be over 1,000 years old and could be as much as 1,500 years old. Two virus samples, from San Pedro de Atacama, provided useful DNA fragments up to 159 base pairs in length.

Kazuo Tajima and his colleagues from the Aichi Cancer Centre Research Institute in Nagoya, Japan, found that fragments were very similar to virus samples taken from living Chilean and Japanese people.

Mongol invasion

This evidence, published in Nature Medicine, adds weight to existing theories that Mongoloid people invaded South America 20,000 years ago, long before the Spanish invaders brought a variety of different infectious diseases to the region.

It also discounts the possibility that the virus was introduced during the European colonisation, 500 years ago.

The virus is associated with adult T-cell leukaemia and other diseases which are today clustered mainly in southwestern Japan and in South America. The new work provides an explanation for the select distribution of the virus but has yet to explain why there is a small population in the Caribbean which also carries it.

The researchers write: "Analysis of these ancient viral sequences could be a useful tool for studying the history of human retroviral infection, as well as human prehistoric migration."

70 Million Mummies In 3,000 Years For Faith And Profit

September 4,1999 - FOX News - New York

In the second century A.D., when the last Greco-Roman mummies were laid to rest in a subterranean tomb near Egypt's Bahariya Oasis, three millennia of continuous tradition was nearing an end.

Plailly/Eurelios Mummification is essentially a precise art of preservation by extracting moisture from the body with minimal damage

It meant the end of one of ancient Egypt's great industries: embalming.

A new faith was sweeping the land. Like that of the Egyptians, it preached resurrection after death. Unlike the Egyptians, however, Christians believed the material body was unnecessary for the afterlife.

"It was big business " it is the best business in ancient Egypt," said Dr. Zahi Hawass, field director of the recent excavation in Bahariya Oasis. Embalmers were among most important people in Egypt because they provided something everybody wanted, Hawass explained, comparing the embalming business of the time to today's computer industry.

Attaining Immortality

Mummification was widespread prior to the days of King Zer, a pharaoh of Egypt's First Dynasty (before 3100 B.C.), and one of the oldest mummies yet found. In predynastic times, the Egyptians buried their dead in the open desert, the land within the Nile floodplain being too valuable for tombs. The dehydrating properties of hot sand naturally mummified the corpses interred there.

But the growing complexity of Egypt's agricultural society brought class divisions, leading to more stylized forms of burial: Animal-skin shrouds, brick enclosures, coffins and so forth, all of which removed the body farther from the sand. Fluids thus remained within the corpses for a longer time, leading to a greater degeneration of the body " a body that the Osiris religion believed was absolutely intrinsic to life after death.

It was around 3150 B.C. that the funerary cult of Osiris came to mainstream power. At the core of their mythos was the story of Osiris, god of the Nile, being dismembered by his evil brother, Seth, who then scattered the pieces of the corpse. But the goddess Isis, Osiris's wife, gathered the pieces together and made them whole by the recitation of spells. Osiris was born again.

Likewise, the pharaohs " the living gods of Egypt " believed they could achieve eternal life if, after death, all the king's men put them back together again. This idea eventually filtered down through the masses, and anyone " pharaoh, priest, artisan, or laborer " could get a piece of the afterlife action for a price.

The Key to the Kingdom: Preservation

Early embalmers realized the key to preserving the body for all time was dehydration. This led to a precise and studied way to extract moisture from the body while minimally damaging it, and hence to the rise of a class of specialists who could do so.

Embalming was a family business in ancient Egypt, an oral tradition passed down through the generations. Even so, Hawass stressed the meritocratic aspects of Egyptian culture, saying embalmers were made and not born.

"I believe it depends on the talent of the individuals," Hawass said. "They could be common laborers promoted to do this because they had talent."

"It's true the traditional picture of Egyptian society that's always been presented is of a fairly rigid one," said Roger Bagnall, professor of classics and history at Columbia University. "That view has pretty much broken down and people now recognize that actually society was more fluid than it was once thought."

Death and Commerce

A great deal of ritual was involved in preserving the dead. Mummifiers wore jackal masks to identify themselves with the embalming god Anubis, and the man who made the incision to remove the organs was afterwards ritually chased and abused by his coworkers, a play act to underscore the sanctity of the corpse. Yet Egyptian embalmers were a secular class, more artisan than priest.

Both Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, two Greek historians divided in time by 400 years, wrote not just of the mummification process but also about the trade that it was. Herodotus, writing around 450 B.C., stated embalmers would present a mummy-to-be's next of kin with a choice of three services, using painted wooden figures to show clients what they could expect.

Diodorus, writing later during Egypt's Greco-Roman occupation, claimed embalmers' customers were given a price list from which they could pick items or services. Archaeologists have discovered such a list, priced in Greek drachmae, offering everything from myrrh, oil and linen, to professional mourners who would wail and moan beside the mummy as it was carried to its final resting place.

Caveat Emptor

"We know that a lot of these Roman-period embalmers cut corners in their work so that they may not have been giving the complete value for money received," said Bagnall.

Plailly/Eurelios The mask on a mummy of a woman with a Roman hairstyle and Egyptian clothing

Mummies have been found with their limbs broken or simply discarded so as to squeeze them into too-small coffins. Embalming shops attached wooden ID tags to mummies to prevent mix-ups. But even so, mistakes probably happened. An X-ray of one mummy revealed a second skull between the legs, suggesting the embalmer was trying to hide evidence of an "extra" skull in his shop.

"They put the effort into the outside because that was what people were going to see, and inside " well, the loved one may have suffered," Bagnall said.

Like businesses anywhere, embalmers' income probably reflected that of their neighborhood, making it no coincidence so many mummies have been found in Bahariya Oasis. "They were people who [sold] wine to the Nile Valley," said Hawass, "And therefore they were rich " they could afford really to have mummies like this." Hence, the embalmers "could be the richest individuals in the country."

"It wasn't cheap," Bagnall said of the cost.

But necropolises like the one at Bahariya were some of the last. When the Christian emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism in A.D. 392, Egyptian mummification and its practitioners faded from history, leaving 3,000 years of tradition behind them " and, by one estimate, almost 70 million mummies.