Friday, October 21, 2016

Mummies have been starring in horror movies as early as the 1930s. While they have certainly lost their scare factor in the more modern era, action films like The Mummy have kept them in popular culture. Mummies are commonly associated with archaeology. Egyptology is often seen as one with archaeology and I am often asked if I have ever wanted to work in Egypt. However popular, mummies are not only found in Egypt. Mummification has been used in cultures around the world for centuries. Examples of mummies can be found on every continent of the world, whether human or animal. The process of mummification can either be intentional, in a process conducted by humans, or naturally through environmental factors. While popular culture has portrayed mummies as bandage wearing ancient kings, not every mummification technique involves wrapping up a body and mummification wasn’t always used on kings.

Humans have been mummifying remains for thousands of years. While Egypt is thought of as the birthplace of mummies, there are actually older mummies in North America. The Chinchorro mummies, found in southern Chile and northern Peru, date as early as 5050 BC. To compare, the oldest Egyptian mummy dates to around 3000 BC. Chinchorro mummies weren’t just leaders or kings, they mummified anyone from all social classes of their society. There are however no clear answers as to why the Chinchorro people chose to mummify their dead. The Chinchorro preparation of their dead varied and became more complex over time. Preparation mostly involved disassembling and reassembling the body after treating it with heat. The bodies were also covered in clay and given clay masks.
A clay mask covers this Chinchorro mummy

Though mummies are often associated with antiquity, mummification can be found in the 1900s. In 1920 one year old Rosalia Lombardo passed away in Italy, her father distraught over her death, employed an embalmer, Alfredo Salafia to preserve her body. The preservation technique worked so well, that she looked to be alive. She became known as the Sleeping Beauty of the Capuchin Catacombs, and is arguably one of the best preserved bodies of mummification. The techniques were more modern using chemicals like glycerin, formalin, and salicylic acid.
Rosalia Lombardo

Natural mummification is the process by which a body is mummified by their surrounding environment. This normally happens in extreme cold, low humidity, and environments that lack air. The Windover bog people are examples of natural mummification that can be found in Florida. The Windover people existed approximately 7,000 to 8,000 years ago in the area around Titusville. The Windover people buried their dead in a pond, why this site was chosen is still unknown. A possible theory was that without shovels, grave digging would be much easier in swampy mud than hard dry soil. The pond was rich in peat, which covered the bodies creating an anaerobic atmosphere, which helped prevent the bodies from decomposing. While the human remains found on the site aren’t the typical mummies, they are skeletal remains not bandaged remains with remnants of skin tissues, the peat preservation had some advantages. Preserved human brain tissue was able to be recovered from several skulls as well as the last meal of a female skeleton that was still in her stomach. Natural mummification still occurs today, albeit not intentional. Mount Everest contains the mummified remains of climbers who were not able to return from their climb. As of 2011 there are over 200 known climbers who have passed away ascending the mountain. Their remains are left in their place of death and have mummified over time from the extreme cold.

Skeletal Remains from the Windover Site
A climber from Mount Everest 

While mummies are viewed as an object of horror movies, real life mummies have interesting stories to tell. Archaeologists study mummies from around the world to learn about their lives and the stories they can tell us about their culture. Mummies have not always been as protected and valued as they are today, they used to be burned for fuel and used as color pigments, but we continue to learn from what they leave behind.

Written by: Megan Liebold, FPAN Staff

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