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Unquiet Mummies

  • By Jan Adkins
  • Posted 11.24.98
  • NOVA

Ancient Egyptian mummies—named after the bitumen tar, mum, used to coat the linen winding strips around them—have long held an almost magical fascination. The "civilized" British world of the 19th century was titillated by Egypt's elaborate cult of death and by the extreme care devoted to preserving bodies for eternity. It was not uncommon in the 1800s to pick up a box of "mummy pills" made of ground, compressed mummies; they were thought to impart some measure of the eternal. In proper Boston, the mummy of a pharaoh's son stood on the bar of a venerable men's club until the late 1960s, when he was returned to his homeland.

Egyptian mummy unwrapped

Like thousands of others, this mummy of an unknown Egyptian man was unearthed in the 19th century, unwrapped, and put on display—hardly the fate intended for him in his own time. Enlarge Photo credit: University of Chicago.

We have come to understand "mummy" as meaning a remarkably preserved body, a corpse that has withstood decay and putrefaction. By design or accident, the corpse's dissolution has been arrested, the effects of time slowed, and this human form, with its trappings and ornaments and clothing, becomes the physical representation of another time—a time machine bearing both gifts of knowledge and prickly questions as to how best to handle the remains.

A Case Study

The Siberian Ice Maiden, a well-preserved mummy unearthed on the steppes of eastern Russia in 1993, was a spectacular discovery. She was dressed in glorious finery—fine-woven wool skirt, wild-silk blouse, an elaborate high-status headpiece, and jewelry of wonderful craftsmanship. Interred with household items and familiar treasures, she was laid to rest with respect and reverence. Her finely wrought coffin, sealed with massive metal nails, was accompanied by six horses, ensuring her status and freedom of movement in the next world. The finds suggest that the society of tribal horse nomads she left behind must have been stable and wealthy.

Mummies such as the Siberian Ice Maiden bear a tombful of questions for the inquiring mind. Who was this person? What caused his or her death, and when? Was foul play involved? Could the mummy be the result of a ritual sacrifice? What can this mummy and its arrangement tell us about the society in which the person lived? To answer these and other questions, scientists bring a host of tools and techniques to bear. For example, they can inspect the mummy's DNA to study its genealogy, X-ray its bones for injuries or congenital malformations, examine its stomach contents to learn something about the person's diet and cause of death, and search for parasites or other evidence of disease in the internal organs.

Siberian Ice Maiden on lab table

The Siberian Ice Maiden, also called the “Altay Princess” after the region where she was buried, bore intricate tattoos that may have signified her status in society. Enlarge Photo credit: © RIA Novosti / Photo Researchers, Inc

Knowledge at a Price

For one thing, to study an artifact is often to destroy it. Soon after the Siberian Maiden was found, for example, her protective shroud of ancient ice melted away and she began to decay. Preserved intact for two millennia, she was now assaulted by airborne fungus and bacteria, dehydrated by low humidity, and struck by the first sunlight she'd seen in thousands of years. A vampire would fare better at such a rude daylight awakening. Within days it became apparent to the Russian archeologists who had discovered her that the mummy was degrading rapidly.

They helicoptered her to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, but the unrefrigerated delay, including almost a week of transport, took its toll. Even in the freezer labs of Novosibirsk the mummy slept uncomfortably. Hardy fungus attacked air-exposed skin and began to damage it. Desperate to stop the decay of their prize, Russian scientists chose to inter her in the same kind of pickling vat that preserved the bodies of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.

Decay can be far easier to control than the political or social controversy that can arise over a mummy. The Siberian Ice Maiden's tomb was excavated by Russian archaeologists, and its mummy and artifacts shipped to a Russian city. But when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics faltered, its former member-states, including the Republic of Altay where the mummy was found, rose up with demands for, among other things, restitution of stolen objects such as the Siberian Ice Maiden. This was a thorny issue. The mummy had been taken for the sake of science. But what are the criteria for scientific ownership? A better lab? A more outspoken archeologist? Scientific clout? The people of the Altay maintain a strong connection with their ancestors. How does science balance with the respect due a people's heritage? What about this intangible: the respect we all owe to the obvious solemnity with which the mummy's tribe laid her to rest?

Altay Festival with horseback riders

The people living in the Altay Mountains today, who may be descendants of the Ice Maiden's tribe, have a cultural tie to the past. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Similar kinds of questions hold sway whenever a mummy is unearthed. Decay and controversy attended the removal and study of the Iceman and Inca children as well. The more recent the remains, the more controversial they are likely to be. Witness the contentious debate in the United States over the bones of Native Americans, both those uncovered in archeological sites and those already housed in museums. Many people would argue that the dead, whether recent or thousands of years old, should be left to rest in peace, undisturbed. But others would argue just as strenuously against the loss of knowledge and understanding of the past that would result in leaving such sites alone—sites that artifact-seeking graverobbers might destroy anyway. One thing is clear: handling human remains is a tricky issue.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Ice Mummies.

Jan Adkins is a writer, illustrator and designer who has produced more than 30 books and many magazine articles on history, science and how things work. He is a contributing editor for the Smithsonian/Cricket non-fiction children's magazine, Muse.

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