Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

10 Ways to Make a Mummy


The Perfect Corpse homepage

For many people the word "mummy" conjures up images of linen-wrapped royalty from ancient Egypt. But for scientists it describes any body that retains soft tissue—most often skin, but sometimes even eyes and internal organs—long after death. Peat bogs in Europe made mummies, and so did a cave in Greenland and a mountaintop in Argentina. In this slide show, examine both natural forces and artificial techniques that have created a wide range of mummies around the world.—Susan K. Lewis

Flower petal
Enlarge this image

 

Bog Bodies
Northern Europe

The key to the remarkable preservation of bog bodies, as with all mummies, was that bacteria and fungi, nature's agents of decay, couldn't carry out their usual work. For many years it was assumed that merely the acidic, oxygen-free environments of peat bogs kept microbes away. But recently a new explanation has emerged: a substance called sphagnan, found in the Sphagnum moss that blankets many bogs, acts as an antibiotic. Sphagnan also tans skin, giving bog bodies their characteristic coffee color.



Pollen Grains
Enlarge this image

 

Natural Mummies
Egypt

Centuries before the art of embalming or "artificial" mummification was developed in Egypt, bodies were naturally mummified in pits dug into the desert sands. These arid graves were inhospitable to fungi and bacteria, which need water to thrive. In addition to being relatively microbe-free, the desert in Egypt is rich in a mineral called natron that contains both salt and baking soda; it's an ideal disinfectant and desiccant that drew the moisture from buried corpses and kept them more or less pristine.



Spiked ribbon seed
Enlarge this image

 

Classic Mummies
Egypt

Most of the well-known royal mummies of ancient Egypt were prepared for eternal life through an elaborate process called classic mummification. It involved the removal of all internal organs other than the heart, which Egyptians believed was the source of intelligence. Embalmers then cleansed the body with wine, dried it for 40 days in natron, made it supple with oils, and wrapped it in resin-coated linen bandages, which protected it from oxygen, microbes, and moisture.



Fig wasp
Enlarge this image

 

Pazyryk Mummies
Southern Siberia

Mummies discovered in the Altay Mountains of southern Siberia were shielded from decay by both natural and artificial means. Pazyryk embalmers removed internal organs and muscles, then stitched skin back together with horsehair thread. The bodies were buried in graves marked by great mounds of stones that allowed water to seep down and deflected the sun's heat. This, together with long winters, kept the ground below permanently frozen, safeguarding woolen rugs, sacrificed horses, and the embalmed human corpses.



Mushroom
Enlarge this image

 

Lady Dai
Central China

She's been called the best-preserved mummy in the world. When unearthed in 1971, her flesh body was still supple, and her veins contained type-A blood. What accounts for her conservation? Some researchers point to her airtight coffin. Like a Russian doll, her coffin lay nested in a series of six caskets, and the entire burial chamber, with over 1,000 Han Dynasty artifacts, was encased in charcoal and clay 50 feet underground. Other scientists suspect that a mercury bath after death was her ticket to immortality.



Planthopper
Enlarge this image

 

"Ötzi" the Iceman
Northern Italy

When hikers in the Ötztal region of the Italian Alps stumbled upon this man's corpse, his unusual bearskin cap and copper axe hinted that he wasn't modern. Indeed, radiocarbon dating confirmed that "Ötzi," as he is affectionately known, lived between 3350 and 3100 B.C. An arrow shot into his back killed this Stone Age man, but conditions in his glacial tomb gave him an afterlife. His body, first buried in snow and then embedded in ice, remained deep-frozen for over 5,000 years.



Planthopper
Enlarge this image

 

Ürümchi Mummies
Northwestern China

In the windswept desert region near the city of Ürümchi, China, dozens of natural mummies have come to light, conserved by dry and salty sands as well as severely cold winters. These 3,000- to 4,000-year-old bodies are surprising not just because they retain lifelike features, but because many of these features, including reddish-blond hair and long, narrow noses, seem distinctly Caucasian. Archeologists think these people may have belonged to an ancient civilization that existed at the crossroads between Europe and China.



Butterfly
Enlarge this image

 

Guanche Mummies
Canary Islands

The Guanche people mummified their dead for centuries before Spain conquered the Canary Islands in 1402. Most of the mummies have disappeared, but historic sources describe the embalming process, and at least one mummy survived. His body had been eviscerated, smeared with sheep butter, and dried in the sun for several weeks. The body cavity had then been filled with sand and other packing material, stitched up, wrapped in animal skins, and laid to rest in a funerary cave.



Moth fly
Enlarge this image

 

Qilakitsoq Mummies
Greenland

In 1972, hunters roaming near an abandoned Inuit settlement called Qilakitsoq chanced upon the graves of eight people. Six women and two children had been buried in the mid-15th century beneath an overhanging rock that sheltered the burial site from sunlight, rain, and snow. Slowly but steadily, dry winds and subzero temperatures freeze-dried their remains as well as their sealskin and fur clothing. Museum curators today sometimes use a similar process of freeze-drying to conserve unearthed bog bodies and organic artifacts.



Spiderlings
Enlarge this image

 

Incan Mummies
Andes Mountains

While ritual sacrifices were rare in Incan culture, explorers have discovered dozens of sites where such ceremonies took place. Those sacrificed were invariably children, whose purity made them fit to enter the realm of the mountain gods. Frozen for over 500 years, their bodies retain beautifully braided hair, internal organs, even eyelashes. They are also stirring reminders that, no matter how they appear today, each mummy was once a living, breathing person.



Back to top




The Perfect Corpse
America's Bog People

America's Bog People
Near Florida's Disney World, archeologists unearth an 8,000-year-old cemetery.

10 Ways to Make a Mummy

10 Ways to
Make a Mummy

See how peat bogs and other environments preserve corpses around the world.

Bog Bodies of the Iron Age

Bog Bodies
of the Iron Age

Examine a dozen spectacular finds on a bog-body map of Northwest Europe.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man
Meet the most famous bog body of all—and hear a Seamus Heaney poem about him.



Send Feedback Image Credits
   
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site