Mummies of the world are some of the most powerful images of ancient history. Practiced by some cultures even today, the act of wrapping a body in bandages is best-known thanks to the Egyptians. But other cultures have their own take on this morbid yet essential activity. Here’s a world tour of the planet’s most intriguing mummy makers…
It isn’t all lengths of linen and sarcophagi. Several centuries ago in Ireland, the deceased were sometimes left sinking in a bog. People probably thought this murky grave would hide the evidence. In fact it preserved the deposits in showroom condition, by archaeological standards at least.
How does the peat work its magic? A lack of oxygen fends off bacteria, though anything genetic is long gone. Bog bodies aren’t a rich source of DNA so experts can only make general guesses about the unfortunate person’s identity, based on diet and lifestyle.
National Geographic writes, “Some scientists think that the Irish bog bodies were former kings…tossed into the bog because they failed to protect their people from disease or famine.”
Examples of peat-packed bodies have also been found in Scandinavia, with cases such as Denmark’s Tollund Man achieving bizarre fame in many a classroom.
The Egyptians may have the monopoly on mummies, but there are older examples. The mighty Atacama Desert has a cemetery in northern Chile, which is one resting place of the mysterious Chinchorro culture.
Living in Chile and Peru around 9,000 years back, they apparently sustained themselves by hunting, gathering and fishing. They also created some distinctive-looking mummies, known as the Black Mummies.
These are thought to predate Egyptian practices by approx. 2,000 years. The black came from the manganese (metal) paint used as a final coat after the body had been prepared. Mummification was elaborate and macabre, with the deceased turned into a kind of jar. Head and limbs were removed and the insides taken out, with a hole made in the skull to get at the brain.
As described by National Geographic, “The skin was peeled away from the body and reattached later, like taking off and putting on a sock”. Smithsonian.com picks up the story, saying “They would then fill out the body with plants, clay and wood before sewing the skin back on and covering the face with a mask.”
Just because the mummies are ancient (believed to be the world’s oldest), doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by the modern world. Changing weather patterns are believed to be contributing to deterioration, as humidity in their formerly dry environment rises. A museum is being built to prevent the Black Mummies becoming puddles of black ooze…!
While not associated with mummies in popular thinking, China has provided archaeologists with fascinating examples of posthumous preservation. The discovery of red-haired mummies shows the way populations spread across the globe thousands of years ago.
Celtic in origin, the finding of Chinese mummies from far flung locations was covered in 2006 by the Independent. It writes about a reconstruction, stating “the man’s hair is reddish brown flecked with grey, framing high cheekbones, a long nose, full lips and a ginger beard. When he lived three thousand years ago, he stood six feet tall, and was buried wearing a red twill tunic and tartan leggings.”
He’s referred to as Cherchen Man and was first seen by modern civilization in 1978, in the arid area of the Tarim Basin. That’s part of the Taklamakan Desert, western China. Cherchen is the name of a river oasis town. Its famous “visitor” was entombed alongside 3 women plus an infant.
The article notes the baby “was wrapped in a beautiful brown cloth tied with red and blue cord, then a blue stone placed on each eye.”
What brought these individuals to this inhospitable zone is unknown. But it gives experts an insight into the extraordinary journeys Celts undertook.
Ancient Egyptians cemented the idea of mummification into the world consciousness. National Geographic writes, “Celebrated by researchers for offering a window into the past and sensationalized by Hollywood, embalmed Egyptian corpses are the créme de la créme of mummies.”
Pharaohs such as the legendary Tutankhamun and Ramesses II were sent on their journey to the next life gift-wrapped in linen and encased in a colorful sarcophagus. Though the glamorous image is affected by some of the gruesome details, most notably the liquefying of the brain, so it could be extracted through the nostril.
But it wasn’t just Kings and high society who received this treatment. The animal kingdom played its part also. For example, mummified birds have been found on sites such as Tuna el-Gebel in Middle Egypt, the famed Necropolis of Khmun. Millions of sacred ibis birds were given the treatment in order to attract favors from the gods. Cats were also prized pets that got the mummy treatment.
The Guardian quotes academic Sally Wasef, who explains, “The ibis was considered [to represent] the god Thoth, the god of wisdom, the god of magic, the god of judgment, writing all sorts of things… If you had a boss that annoys you and… you want fairness and justice, you go and ask Thoth to interfere and in return you promise to offer him an ibis, a mummified ibis, in his annual feast.”
The Best of the Rest
“When the end was near,” National Geographic writes, “the monks moved to a tomb, equipped with only an air tube and a bell. These devout men meditated, ringing the bell each day to tell those on the outside they were still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the air supply was cut off, and the tomb was sealed.”