How incredible is it to be able to look upon the facial expression of a deceased man who lived and died thousands of years ago? Mummification, whether accidental or intentional, preserves the bodies of humans and animals with extreme cold, very low humidity, lack of air or exposure to chemicals. Mummies are found all over the world, both as a result of natural preservation through unusual environmental conditions or as the result of cultural burial traditions. Here are some of the most fascinating examples.
Accidental Mummies Preserved in Ice
Though we tend to think of mummies as being carefully preserved according to hierarchal social status, as was the case with the Ancient Egyptians, some mummies were created naturally. Some of the world’s best-preserved mummies were discovered high up in the summit of the Andes mountains of Peru and Chile; these children were ritually sacrificed about 500 years ago. Among the most famous is “The Ice Maiden”, also known as “Juanita.”
Otzi the Iceman is another, much older example – a natural mummy of a man who lived about 3,300 BCE, found in 1991 in the Alps. The Siberian Ice Maiden is even older, a mummy of a woman from the 5th century BCE who was found in 1993 on the Ukok Plateau of Russia, near the border of China.
Chinchorro: The Oldest Deliberate Mummies
The ancient Egyptians weren’t the first to deliberately mummify their dead. The South American Chinchorro culture of southern Peru practiced mummification up to two thousand years before the Egyptians. Rather than doing so on a hierarchal basis, only preserving those in the highest social classes, the Chinchorro mummified everyone – including the elderly, children, infants and miscarried fetuses.
Mummies of the Krakow Crypt
Because of a peculiar microclimate in the crypts, bodies that were entombed within the Reformed-Franciscan Monastery and adjoining Church of St. Casimir in Krakow, Poland have been naturally mummified. They include about 300 friars and 730 laymen. The former were laid to rest on the bare floor, without coffins – their legs covered in sand. Many of these mummies have interesting stories, like that of the lady on the right, above. As the story goes, she was poisoned by her father on her wedding day due to marrying a man he didn’t approve of, and buried in her wedding gown.
The Mummies of Guanajuato
The Mummies of Guanajuato were naturally mummified after being interred during a cholera outbreak in and around Guanajuato, Mexico in 1833. Between 1865 and 1958, the mummies were disinterred due to a law requiring relatives to pay a tax to keep the bodies in the cemetery; the mummified bodies (representing about 2% of the total dead interred) were stored in a building, and by 1900, they began attracting tourists. They’re now kept in El Museo De Las Momias, The Mummies’ Museum.
Bog Bodies of Northern Europe
The peat bogs of various parts of Northern Europe have preserved some human remains so perfectly, we can still see their facial expressions. Bog bodies retain their skin and internal organs, but the highly acidic water, low temperature and lack of oxygen causes their bones to dissolve. The Tollund Man is among the most impressive examples; his head and face were so well-preserved that when he was found in Denmark in 1950, he was initially presumed to be a recent murder victim.
Taka Makan Mummies of the Tarim Basin
Discovered in present-day China, the mysterious Tarim mummies date from 1800 BCE to 200 CE and are of Caucasian descent. The discovery of ancient remains of Indo-European people so far to the east challenged the common wisdom about the lack of cultural exchange between European and Chinese populations during that time. The mummies were also remarkably well-preserved due to being buried in a dry desert climate. They’re thought to be Tocharians, herders who traveled east to trade along what would later become the Silk Road.
Self-Mummified Buddhist Monks
Until these mummies were discovered in 2010, the story of Buddhist monks slowly committing suicide were thought to be a legend. But the bodies of the 24 monks from the Yamagata Prefecture in the early 1800s proved it to be true. The monks spent a year eating nothing but nuts and seeds to eliminate body fat, and then at only bark roots and drank poisonous tea for 1,000 days. The resulting dehydration – and causing their bodies to be poisonous, and thus inedible to maggots – led to self-mummification after death. During their last days, the monks locked themselves in stone tombs in the lotus position with nothing but an air tube, ringing a bell each day to indicate that they were still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the air tube was removed. Check out an incredible picture of a mummified Buddhist monk wearing sunglasses at The Telegraph.
The Infamous Mummies of Ancient Egypt
Of course, these mummies are the most famous of all. Ancient Egyptians discovered mummifications after realizing that burying their dead in sand pits in the desert resulted in desiccated, preserved corpses. Their method of mummification was very complex, and evolved over centuries. It’s still somewhat of a mystery, but what we do know about the process – including wrapping the deceased with linen cloth – continues to color our perception of mummies to this day. Ancient Egyptians only mummified the upper classes, covering the bodies with death masks and placing them in coffins with valuables that were thought to help the deceased in the next life. Cutting-edge technology is now being used to unravel the remaining mysteries; the UK’s Manchester Museum is set to perform full-body CT scans on all 24 of their mummies to learn more about how they lived and died.
Nowadays, if you want to be mummified, there are few places to turn. Summum is the world’s only modern mummification company, with clientele all over the world including celebrities and pet owners. The process of mummifying a pet takes about 90 days, using a spin on the traditional Egyptian method. Summum hydrates the bodies in a special solution rather than drying them out, to keep them looking as they did the day they died – even, according to the company, thousands of years later.