Tag Archives: Mummies

The Bog Bodies’ Very Sad Fate

In late June 1904,  a Dutch farmer named Hilbrand Gringhuis was out cutting peat on the Netherlands side of  Bourtangermoor  when he uncovered something very unsettling:  a withered, nearly headless body resting,  it seemed, upon the arm of a second corpse.   Gringhuis immediately notified the local police,  who came out to investigate.  And,  in a time long before modern forensic science, the local constabulary decided to transfer the soggy cadavers to the nearest morgue in a very peculiar  fashion.

They rolled up the bodies of the two men like human scrolls, wrung them out, and stuffed them into what Wijnand van der Sanden,  the provincial archaeologist in Drenthe and the author of  Through Nature to Eternity: The Bog Bodies of Northwest Europe,   describes as a “starch box.”

The Weerdinge men,  shown drying out on a piece of cloth in today’s photo,  were of course bog bodies.  Radiocarbon-dated to some 1980 years ago,  they are two of the nearly 1900 such bodies either reported or recovered from bogs stretching from Ireland to Norway.  Like many of these bodies,  one of the Weerdinge men was the victim of extreme violence.   Modern forensic study shows that someone almost certainly stabbed him to death:  the victim’s withered brown intestines now tumble from the wound.

But the violence that these two bodies suffered after death disturbs me almost as much as the m.o. of their demise.  And I’m sorry to say that this unthinking destruction is part of a much larger pattern.  All across Europe,  companies are excavating,  mining and draining bogs.  Land developers, for example, are keen to reclaim wetlands for new housing developments.  And gardeners love to spread peat on their flower beds.   All those big plastic bags of peat you see in European plant nurseries come from once great bogs and wetlands.

Eerily preserved by the peculiar chemistry of bog water,  the bog bodies can tell us enormous amounts about subjects as diverse as ancient clothing,  diet,  and sacrificial practices.  But ironically,  as our interest in these curious-looking mummies grows and our ability to draw knowledge from their witheed flesh increases,  we are less and less likely to find them.  The large excavators that companies use to mine peat from bogs tend to chew up bodies before their drivers even realize what is happening.

And there is one other sad note to all this.  Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundqvist has posted a very thoughtful entry on his blog this morning about the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, which destroyed precious bogland in Sweden for what Rundqvist calls “no practical gain.”  In other words,  the money-making schemes behind all this environmental destruction never panned out.  And who knows how many bog bodies were obliterated in the process?

Photo courtesy of the Drents Museum, Assen.

Leonardo da Vinci: Taking His Last Secrets to the Grave

Did you catch the news headlines yesterday about the Italian researchers who hope to open the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci in France in order to reconstruct his face?  They are keen to see whether the Renaissance artist was indulging in his well-known love of riddles when he painted the Mona Lisa.  For years,  some some scholars have hypothesized that the mysterious beauty in the painting was a self-portrait in drag.

My first reaction to this proposed project was to shake my head in disbelief.  Is this really a valid reason to disturb the sleep of the dead, particularly someone so deserving of our respect? Are we so driven by curiosity that we need to rummage through chill church tombs and peer at the bones of the dead in order to answer a question that is on the level of a barroom bet?

And  I was not  reassured when I Googled the team’s spokesperson, Giorgio Gruppioni, a bioanthropologist at the University of Bologna.  In 2009, Gruppioni and several colleagues  reconstructed the face of one of Italy’s greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, using the cranial data that researchers recorded in 1921 when officially identifying Dante’s remains.  And just a few weeks ago,  Gruppioni and colleagues recovered what they hope will be the remains of  the great 17th century Italian painter, Caravaggio.   Once again, the team announced plans to reconstruct Caravaggio’s face.  Gruppioni and his colleagues seem awfully interested in surface appearances.

But the more I thought about it,  the more I began to see a legitimate context for  these projects.  For the past two decades,  several Italian research teams led by pathologists and anthropologists have been prying open Renaissance tombs and reliquaries to gather vital scientific data.  One of the leading researchers in this field, University of Pisa pathologist Gino Fornaciari has spearheaded several of these projects,  exhuming such Renaissance luminaries as Cosimo I de’ Medici,  Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Maria D’Aragona,  one of the greatest beauties of her day.

I have met and talked at length with Fornaciari,  and can attest to his interest in serious science.  And I was really intrigued today when I checked out his recent publications to see what science had learned from all these rude awakenings of the dead.   His papers covered a wide range of subjects–the methods that Renaissance embalmers employed to artificially mummify royalty  in 16th century Europe;  the species of lice that clung to the mummified remains of Ferdinand II (revealing that these parasites plagued even the wealthiest  during the Renaissance); and the human papillomavirus  (HPV) that infected Maria D’Aragona.  The latter study will permit medical researchers to study the evolution of this important virus, a major cause of cervical cancer, perhaps giving them clues to new treatments.

If the team that wants to open Leonardo da Vinci’s grave obtains permission to do so, I strongly suspect that they will make the most of this rare opportunity,   gathering all the relevant samples and data to do key pathological and bioarchaeological studies.  I personally don’t care whether the great artist painted the Mona Lisa in his own image. But I’d love to know more about the health and life of this great Renaissance artist.

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.”

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.