Category Archives: Mummies

Egyptian Mummification–On a Reality Show Coming Your Way

What sensational balderdash is this? A British production company is currently looking for a terminally ill person willing to undergo ancient Egyptian mummification. While some people might welcome immortality Tutankhamen-style,  there’s a huge catch.   The whole stomach-churning procedure will be caught on camera and shown later on high-def television across Britain.  Can you imagine watching anything worse on a 54- inch screen?

Steve Connor, a wonderful journalist at the Independent, broke this story a few weeks ago, and ever since fellow science writer Josie Glausiusz emailed me about it, I’ve been fuming.  In the late 1990s,  I flew down to Chile to attend a major conference of the world’s leading experts on mummies,  and later wrote a book about my experiences.   Two of the experts I met there,  Bob Brier, a senior research fellow at Long Island University, and Ron Wade,  director of the State Anatomy Board in Maryland,  had just completed an important project in experimental archaeology.  The two men had managed to mummify a modern human corpse in the lab by using ancient Egyptian methods recorded in early texts.

In other words,  we know exactly how the Egyptians did it.  Science will not  be gaining anything from this program.   And I have to ask myself how many viewers  in their right minds will want to sit down with their kids and watch a real mummification.   The procedure begins,  for example,  by piercing the subject’s cranial vault.  To do this,  the mortician has to thread a metal tool through one of the nostrils and puncture the ethnoid bone that sits between the eye sockets.  Then the mortician has to either draw or pour out the grey viscous brain matter.  And that’s only for starters.   The embalmers–who will not be skilled at this–will also have to haul out fistfuls of intestines and other internal organs by reaching blindly into  a small incision.  Good luck.

I find it hard enough to write about this.  Imagine watching it, particularly after you have gotten to know the terminally ill person in the opening episode.  That’s the particularly twisted part of the producer’s  plan.  He wants viewers to meet the subject as a living person,  so that they will have an “emotional response” during the mummification process.

The ancient Egyptians had far more sense.   Their morticians set up their workshops on the outskirts of towns,   away from prying eyes,  and they tended to guard their trade secrets very carefully.   I think it’s enough to know these secrets today.  I don’t see any reason at all to parade them ghoulishly in front of a sensation-hungry public.

Off with Their Mummified Heads

Why do so many of the world’s major museums hold bizarre collections of mummified body parts from ancient Egypt–a human head here,  for example,  and a withered hand there?   This is not the kind of question that often pops up in casual conversation, even in the circles I run in.   But it came to mind this morning after reading Josie Glausiusz’s excellent review in Nature of  a very cool new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

The museum’s  “Body Parts:  Ancient Egyptian Fragments and Amulets,”  explores artistic body parts from Ancient Egypt–bits and pieces of worked wood,  bronze and obsidian that curator Yekaterina Barbash found tucked away on storage shelves.  And Josie Glausiusz,  a writer whose work I like a lot,  makes several lovely points in the review.  She notes, for example,  that Egyptian artists were very fond of depicting human perfection.  (This is one reason,  I suppose, why we see so many young, slender, beautiful people painted on Egyptian tombs.)  But some artists were not at all shy about depicting human frailties such as dwarfism or scoliolis,  as artifacts in the exhibition demonstrate.

But back to my question about the mummified body parts.   While researching  my book,  The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead,  I toured dozens of museums around the world, and was stunned to  learn about  all the disembodied heads,  hands and the like.  The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford,  for example,  owns the head of a woman,  and a hand with a scarab ring.  The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicag0 possesses  five mummy heads.  The Louvre has two heads and a hand.  And on it goes.

So what’s going on?  The answer,  I’m afraid,  relates to an old antiquities trade.  During the nineteenth century, wealthy European tourists clamored to buy Egyptian mummies as souvenirs of their Grand Tours.  Indeed,  few stately homes were complete at the time without a mummy or two propped up in the corridors.   In 1835,  however,  the Egyptian government passed legislation to control the antiquities trade there:  it banned exports of its ancient treasures,  including mummies.

But enterprising and unscrupulous travelers  were not to be denied their souvenirs.  They began to smuggle mummies out–something that proved very tricky.   It was impossible, after all, to cram a whole mummy into the  steamer trunks of the day,  and larger shipping containers attracted too much attention.   So antiquities dealers developed a whole new trade.  They dismembered Egyptian mummies, hewing and chopping off heads,  hands, and feet–the very parts that travellers craved as souvenirs.  Back at home,  many travelers had these mementos  mounted in Victorian glass cases,  a fashionable addition at the time to many a mantel.

Grotesque,  isn’t it?  Particularly when the Egyptians deliberately mummified their dead so that their bodies would be preserved whole and intact for eternity.  I guess they didn’t count on Victorian souvenir hunters.

Arsenic and the Beginning of Mummification

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the artistically preserved bodies of nearly 200 ancient humans found along the Pacific coast of northern Chile and southern Peru.  The bewigged and clay-covered remains, known as the Chinchorro mummies, resemble statues and date back 7000 years, making them the earliest artificially mummified bodies in the world.   Later societies who practiced mummification tended to be politically and socially complex and reserved the privilege for adult elites.   But the Chinchorro were different.   They lived in a relatively simple society of fishers and seal and sea- lion hunters, and they started out mummifying young children.   Why?

Research from an international team led by anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza of the University of Tarapaca in Arica, Chile, currently sheds new light on the Chinchorro people and supplies a possible explanation.  By analyzing hair samples from 46 mummies from northern Chile, the team found that the Chinchorro ingested toxic levels of arsenic—a poison known to produce high rates of miscarriages and infant mortality—in their drinking water.  Arriaza now theorizes that world’s oldest mummies were created by grief-stricken Chinchorro parents who suffered repeated losses of their children and who wanted to preserve their infants’ bodies and keep them above ground in shrinelike areas.   This very early mummification practice, says Arriaza, “is an emotional response to an environmental contaminant.”

Excavators stumbled on the first Chinchorro mummies in Arica, Chile, in 1917, and subsequent studies by paleopathologists and physical anthropologists have revealed much about their preservation.  The Chinchorro created their earliest mummies of children,  including fetuses, by removing bacteria-ridden internal organs, packing body cavities with soil, strengthening limbs with sticks, coating the face with reddish-black clay, and adorning the head with a human-hair wig.   Moreover, analysis has shown that they repeatedly repainted some of the clay masks to cover nicks and dents, strongly suggesting the mummies remained above ground, most likely in a shrine, for years after death.  Eventually Chinchorro morticians extended the practice to adults, until they stopped making mummies in this distinctive style around 1700 B.C.

Arriaza began examining the possibility of arsenic poisoning among the Chinchorro in 2007, after reading about the toxic effects of this poison on human fetuses and infants.   Arsenic occurs naturally in geological formations in many parts of the world, and as water weathers these strata, it carries the poison into local rivers.  This hazard came to public attention in Chile in the 1960s, after the city of Antofagasta started drawing much of its water from a river that turned out to be laced with 860 micrograms of arsenic per liter— 86 times higher than World Health Association’s current provisional guideline.  During the peak exposure from 1958 to 1965, infant mortality rates in Antofagasta soared by an estimated 18 to 24 %.

Arriaza suspected that the Chinchorro had suffered a similarly high infant mortality for exactly the same reason.  The four earliest Chinchorro mummies—all children—came from the Camarones River Valley, where water tested as high as 1300 micrograms of arsenic per liter.  So Arriaza collected hair samples from both Chinchorro and Pre-Inca mummies excavated from ten sites in northern Chile with the help of heavy equipment for sale collected by mutual international support, – whose water all tested above the WHO guidelines for arsenic,  and then sent the samples to Dulasiri Amarasiriwardena, a chemist at Hampshire College in Amherst, for mass spectrometry testing. The mean arsenic values in hair from all ten sites pointed strongly to the chronic poisoning of the Chinchorro and other ancient peoples.

Many researchers may have assumed that environmental contamination was a major problem only for later industrial societies, but the new findings strongly suggest that this is far from true.  “You can’t smell arsenic or taste it,” says Arriaza.  “So the Chinchorro had no way of knowing they were being poisoned.”

The Ancient Bird Catcher of the Cloudforest

I have been forcibly struck in my research this week by all the beautiful and mysterious things that we normally never see at most archaeological sites.   The rain that sheets down on sites, the meltwater that trickles and snakes in rivulets along the surface,  the groundwater that seeps and flows through buried subterranean layers all take a terrible toll on the world’s terrestrial archaeological sites,  often stripping them of their greatest treasures.

The chemistry of decay, after all, depends on water.   The destructive enzymes of bacteria in terrestrial sites require water for their chemical reactions, and over hundreds and thousands of years of downpour and dampness,  fine organic materials tend to rot away,  leaving no trace at all of their existence.  In this way we have forever lost some of the most exquisite works of art and artisanship of the ancient world, from cloaks of brilliant parrot feathers to carved and painted royal thrones. (Nautical sites and bog sites,  I hasten to add,  are subject to a different kind of chemistry.)

All this explains, of course, why archaeologists  love excavating in the desert,  and why we often know so much about cultures such as the ancient Egyptians or the Nazca who  buried their dead in these dessicated lands.  In ultra arid places,  organic materials decay at a much, much slower rate,  and archaeologists can see wondrous organic things they are otherwise denied:  beautifully dyed and woven textiles, fine wooden combs,  and delicate sandals,  familiar objects of beauty  that bring ancient people to life.

But in some rare parts of the globe,  such as the Peruvian cloudforest on the eastern slopes of the Andes,  archaeologists occasionally make discoveries that literally rock their worlds.  In 1997,  Peruvian bioanthropologist and mummy expert Sonia Guillen and her colleague Adriana von Hagen heard news that looters had found dozens of exquisitely preserved mummies in cliffside tombs at a place known as Laguna de los Condores,  northeast of Cajamarca.   Guillen,  now the director of Centro Mallqui in Lima,  and von Hagen immediately dropped what they were doing,  made an extremely difficult journey to the region, ultimately rescued  219 mummies and over 2000 artifacts,  and built a new museum for them in Leymebamba.

The mummies all date  to between 1300 and 1600,  and they were deliberately  mummified by the then inhabitants of that remote cloudforest region–the Chachapoya and their Inca occupiers. The mummifiers removed the bacteria-laden inner organs of the dead, wrapped them in cloth to wick away moisture,  and placed them in dry cliffside tombs.  In this way,  they  preserved these bodies  for more than half a millennia.

Sonia Guillen recently described to me one of these mummies with an unmistakeable note of awe in her voice.  The body was of a young man who had died between the ages of 18 and 22.   He was buried alone,  but wrapped around his body were the intricate tools of his trade:  16 finely woven collapsible nets,  all suitable for trapping the brilliantly-colored fowl of the cloudforest.  “I think you would have say that we have a bird-catcher,” Guillen told me.

The Inca kings and their courtiers loved to dress  in beautiful mantles woven from exotic birdfeathers of the cloudforest and Amazon basin. But until Guillen and von Hagen found the young man’s mummy,   we had never before seen a bird-catcher of this era  or the finely woven tools of his trade.

Readers interested in learning more about the amazing finds from Lagunade los Condores should check out a beautiful book with a deceptively dull title: Chachapoya Textiles:  The Laguna de los Condores Textiles in the Museo Leymebamba,  Chachapoyas Peru, edited by Lena Bjerregaard.

Galileo: Saint or Scientist?

As some readers may know,  I write a regular month-end blog for Archaeology magazine’s website (last Friday of the month to be exact.)  Today I  posted on the recent rediscovery in Italy of two mummified fingers belonging to Galileo Galilei,  the first man to gaze at the night skies through a telescope.   I think this seemingly freakish find in Italy tells us an awful lot about how Galileo’s admirers viewed the persecuted scientist after his death.  Indeed,  I think they saw him as a saintly martyr.

To read more about this,   please visit my blog post at Archaeology magazine.