There is something disconcerting about looking at the face of someone who has long departed from this world and realizing that they look just like you. That connection to the past has long intrigued archaeologists, for whom mummies represent an opportunity to gain firsthand information about ancient cultures.
Preserved tissues hold a treasure-trove of information: the diseases individuals had, their diet, their genetic information, the microbes they carried with them and, in many cases, clues about the politics and culture of their time.
Our minds may leap to Egypt at the word mummy, but cultures across the world have developed techniques meant to forestall decomposition. For many of these peoples, mummification preserved the perceived connection between the physical body and the immortal soul — just as they needed each other in life, so too were soul and body linked in the afterlife.
In many cultures, mummification was also a status symbol. Preparing a body took significant time and effort, which meant the process wasn’t available to just anyone. Receiving such lavish treatment signaled to others that you were revered and admired.
While King Tut is arguably the most famous mummy, many of the others found around the world are women. Young and old, these eternal princesses have taken on a second life as cultural and scientific ambassadors for the civilizations they left behind. When they were alive, they were women of significance. In death, they may be even more so.
Lady Dai's Lavish Life
She was a minor aristocrat, but Lady Dai clearly enjoyed the sumptuous trappings of her role as the wife of a provincial nobleman during the Han Dynasty in the second century B.C.
Buried deep within a hillside in south-central China, her perfectly preserved tomb was discovered in 1972 by workers digging an air raid shelter. The small room is filled with the objects that defined her comfortable life: exquisite lacquerware, dresses, slippers, beauty products and containers of her favorite meals, including swans and other birds.
Lady Dai’s veins are still filled with blood, and nearly all of her soft tissues are intact. Her skin is pliable enough that researchers were able to bend her arms and legs. One of the world’s best-preserved mummies, Lady Dai is so well-kept that Chinese doctors were able to perform an autopsy more than 2,000 years after her death.
They found that it was a love of the good life that probably took her out of it. She may have been pampered, but Lady Dai was anything but healthy. Although she was only around 50, the autopsy revealed a litany of health complications that included high cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension and schistosomiasis, a parasitic infection. Despite these ailments, Lady Dai maintained her lavish lifestyle until the very end, when poor health caught up to her.
“She overindulged, perhaps in a feast … and then she had a heart attack and that was the end of her,” says Charles Higham, a researcher at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who has studied Lady Dai extensively.
In keeping with her station, Lady Dai was buried in a tomb that also contained her husband and son, though their bodies were not so well-preserved. She was wrapped in 10 layers of silk and laid to rest in a series of four nested coffins covered in lacquer. To keep out air and water, the tomb builders encased her entire cypress wood sepulcher in a layer of charcoal and kaolin clay several feet thick. Archaeologists also found traces of mercury in her coffin, indicating that the toxic metal may have been used as an antibacterial agent.
“The Han had the idea that if you wanted to go into the afterlife and live forever, you had to preserve the body,” says Higham. “They were no fools, you know, they knew all about decomposition … which is why they took such pains to wrap her [and seal her tomb].”
Most Chinese nobles of this period made attempts to preserve their bodies after death, but few succeeded. Many of them were laid to rest in jade coffins or even jade suits of armor under the misguided notion the precious stone would protect them from decay. Lady Dai endured, however, simply because she was so thoroughly sealed from the environment.
The Siberian Ice Maiden
Found in Siberia’s Altai Mountains, the mummified remains of the Ice Maiden lay for millennia in an undisturbed tomb, surrounded by sacrificial offerings and valuable possessions. When Russian archaeologist Natalie Polosmak exhumed her body in 1993, locals decried the removal of the mummy, which they believed to be the remains of a legendary princess.
Finds at her burial complex do indeed indicate the maiden was an important member of the Pazyryk people, who roamed southeastern Siberia more than 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists working at the site found the remains of six horses — a costly sacrifice among the nomadic Pazyryk — complete with saddles and gold-trimmed harnesses. The excavation team also found the bodies of a teenager and a man with a fatal head injury, perhaps killed to accompany the maiden to the afterlife.
The maiden herself was wrapped in a silk tunic from India, stained with dyes of exotic origin, possibly from as far away as the Mediterranean coast. With her was an ornate Chinese mirror and a small pouch filled with cannabis.
A burial in permafrost, as well as an elaborate mummification process, preserved her. Her embalmers separated her head from her body and pulled out cartilage, eyes and sinuses. Her breastbone, rib cartilage and internal organs were also removed before the body cavity was stuffed with grasses and sewn up with horsehair. Researchers also detected evidence of mercury on her body.
Even though she was no older than 30, an eclectic collection of tattoos crowds her skin. The menagerie includes beasts both mythical and real, including a stylized, fantastical deer adorning her left shoulder.
Unfortunately, we know little about who the Ice Maiden actually was during her time on Earth. She was probably in pain for the last several months of it, though, based on evidence from medical imaging and forensic analysis.
Possibly weakened from what appears to be breast cancer — MRI scans revealed abnormal tissue growth that may have been malignant tumors — she fell from her horse. The fall injured her right hip and shoulder; she also suffered a blow to the head. Even then, researchers think she may have hung on to life for some time before finally succumbing, based on healing at the fracture sites.
During this period, she probably relied on cannabis to soothe her pain. The copper compounds she likely inhaled with the cannabis — a byproduct of scattering the plant material on hot stones in a copper pot to create incense — likely created psychedelic visions that may have given her status as a shaman or healer, according to Polosmak. The fact that she was buried alone — the other individuals were found in a separate part of the grave complex — may be another sign of her special status.
The presence of cannabis in her tomb may not be that meaningful, though, says Adrienne Mayor, who wrote about the maiden in The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World. Most of the Pazyryk people were found buried with cannabis, and Mayor doesn’t believe that she was necessarily a priestess or medicine woman — she could have just been a woman of high standing attempting to cope with debilitating pain.
La Doncella of the Andes
High among the Andes in Argentina, La Doncella, the maiden, was taken to the top of a mountain and left to die. Some 500 years ago, she was a capacocha, a sacrifice offered to the gods by the Inca in exchange for continued prosperity.
Not just anyone was fit to be a capacocha. Children were selected from among the villages, likely chosen for their beauty and purity. The boys were taken to the Incan capital of Cuzco and sacrificed immediately; the girls were sent to compounds where they assisted priests. These chosen girls, called aclla, helped prepare chicha, a fermented corn beverage, and other ritual items, says Johan Reinhard, an independent researcher who has done extensive work on high-altitude archaeological sites. He discovered La Doncella’s body in 1999 just beneath the summit of Llullaillaco, one of the tallest mountains in South America.
During annual religious ceremonies, or in extreme circumstances such as severe drought, the most perfect of the aclla would be chosen to become capacocha and offered as tribute.
Preparatory rituals could be lengthy and sometimes involved a monthslong procession that wound its way from village to village through the empire, each stop an opportunity for the residents to celebrate the sacrificial victim’s passage.
During these final months, La Doncella, in her early teens, would have been treated like royalty. Chemical analysis of her hair shows a dramatic change in diet, as well as regular doses of coca leaves and alcohol from a special ritual beer. These substances were thought to enhance spiritual experiences but were likely also used to ensure that the children remained in a state of drugged compliance.
La Doncella’s journey ended some 22,000 feet above sea level in the mountains. Her body was discovered tucked into a hollow in the rock, head slumped sleepily onto her chest.
She was dressed in finely woven alpaca fur and adorned with ornaments of gold and silver. With her was a spondylus shell, a type of mollusk native to Ecuador and highly prized by the Inca, for whom it likely signified the life-giving water that sustained their crops.
The young woman died peacefully, in all likelihood. There is no sign of trauma, and it was probably a combination of coca leaves, alcohol and the deadly cold that allowed her to slip into a final sleep. To the Inca, however, a sacrificial death may have been more transcendental than final. According to Reinhard, the children who served as sacrifices were in effect deified and worshipped as intermediaries to the gods.
The Beauty of Xiaohe
In the middle of the desolate Taklamakan Desert, on the far western edge of China and surrounded by forbidding mountains, a necropolis descends for five levels into the sands.
Inside the Xiaohe tomb complex are about 300 burials dating to around 2000 B.C. The bodies belong to an ancient society of farmers and herders who once managed to eke out a living in their arid surroundings.
First found by a local hunter in the early 20th century but not extensively excavated until 2002, the burial complex’s extreme environment was a boon to archaeologists. The low humidity and freezing winters spared some of the bodies from the ravages of decomposition. And none endured better than the Beauty of Xiaohe, whose body has survived even down to her delicate eyelashes.
“She’s stunning. I call her the Marlene Dietrich of the desert,” says Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
Her name lost to the ages, the Beauty wore a tall hat of white felt and fur-lined boots. Her body was surrounded by grave goods, including an intricately carved wood phallus placed on her chest; in the harsh climate, fertility was likely highly prized, says Mair. Overt sexual symbolism adorns the graves, and both men and women were buried with wooden decorations representing sexual organs.
Their erstwhile homeland falls within China’s borders now, but the bodies — many with red or light brown hair — have distinctly Western features.
So where did these desert dwellers come from? The clues we have only hint at their possible origins. DNA tests indicate that their ancestry was a mix of Eurasian populations. Mair believes, based on their genetic signatures and fragmentary evidence about their language, that they came from somewhere between southeastern Europe and the Ural Mountains.
Over the course of generations, they must have worked their way east across the windswept steppes, moving herds from pasture to pasture. They settled in the Taklamakan Desert, Mair believes, because it offered protection in the form of isolation. Their surroundings were desolate, he says, but they must have built a vibrant society, as evidenced by their richly symbolic burials.
“Human beings are very adaptable and no matter where they settle, no matter what difficulties they face, they try to create some quality of life,” Mair says. “You don’t have to have luxurious conditions and material wealth to have an interesting, meaningful life.”
The Search for Nefertiti
Nefertiti may be the most famous missing woman in the world. Her story has all the elements of a good mystery: a beautiful woman, a missing body, political intrigue and a decades-long debate over her fate. We know that she existed, thanks to hieroglyphic writings that indicate she was a queen and mother of six during Egypt’s 18th dynasty, around 1300 B.C. And we have an idea of what she might have looked like from the Berlin Bust, an iconic piece by the sculptor Thutmose created during her lifetime that now resides in a German museum.
That’s about all we know, though. What her role was in life, whether she was Tutankhamun’s mother and the circumstances surrounding her death all remain unknown. Identifying her body would answer some of those questions, but we have not yet discovered a tomb bearing her name. That’s not for lack of trying, of course. The search has gone on for decades, with competing and often hotly contested theories. The latest chapter in the saga began in 2015, when University of Arizona Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves claimed to have discovered evidence of another chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, based on radar scans. He theorized that the room could contain Nefertiti, inciting a storm of controversy. Further scans cast doubt on his conclusions, however, and it appears that the search for her body has again come up empty-handed. Another theory holds that a mummy called “the younger lady,” discovered in 1898, is actually Nefertiti. The mummy was found in a side chamber of the tomb of Amenhotep II, the great-grandfather of Nefertiti’s husband. Its age is right, and other clues point to a royal burial, including the symbolic positioning of her arms. A comparative analysis of her facial features indicated a match to the Berlin Bust. But other researchers believe, based on a controversial DNA study, that the younger lady is Tutankhamun’s mother — but not Nefertiti.
The controversy over Nefertiti’s resting place is in some ways an extension of the tumult she experienced in life. The pharaoh Akhenaten, her husband, upended centuries of polytheistic tradition and converted Egypt to the worship of the sun god Aten, even going so far as to construct a new capital city some 250 miles to the north of the previous capital, Thebes. This swept the country into disarray, and the changes he wrought would ultimately be overturned. During this time, some Egyptologists believe that Nefertiti came to rule as a pharaoh in her own right, possibly under the name Smenkhkare. She would have reigned for no more than a year or two. When she died, pharaoh or not, her royal status meant she would have been mummified according to tradition: Priests would have removed her organs and washed her body with a solution of natron, a naturally occurring soda ash similar to modern baking soda. They then would have placed packets of linen, resin and natron in her body cavities and anointed her body with oils and resin. Finally, they would have wrapped layer upon layer of resin-soaked linen around her body, sealing the queen in an antimicrobial shroud. While we know that she lived, and what would have happened to her after death, we are still missing the critical piece of evidence that would tie her story together: Nefertiti herself. It’s a cold case for the ages.
How to Become a Mummy
Put simply, mummification is the full or partial preservation of soft tissues, accomplished by arresting the process of cell disintegration and bacterial growth that begins soon after death. The many ways to become a mummy share two characteristics: the absence of liquid water, and an environment free of, or at least hostile to, bacteria.
Freezing: Bacteria cannot survive without liquid water; keeping a body below freezing halts microbial activity.
Hermetic environments: If a burial chamber or coffin is sealed tightly enough, water and foreign microbes cannot get in, leaving the corpse largely untouched.
Desiccation: In extremely dry environments, moisture leaves the body rapidly. Without water, the bacteria that usually begin to eat away at tissues are unable to survive, and the formation of cell- and organ-destroying enzymes is halted, leaving the body intact, if a bit shriveled.
Naturally anaerobic environments: Some cultures in Europe buried bodies in nearby peat bogs; the oxygen-free environment kept microbes out as well.
Artificial Mummification Although practices differed across cultures, most methods of artificial mummification involved removing the internal organs and replacing them with grasses or linens to re-create the body’s original shape. The body was then closed up and usually treated with some sort of chemical agent. This could be a salt solution, as in the case of the Egyptians, or mercury or some other mixture. Finally, the preparers wrapped the body in cloth and placed it in a sealed coffin.
The Ultimate DIY: Self-Mummification This rare type of mummification was practiced mostly by Buddhist monks who attempted to attain divinity by purposefully preserving their bodies. The process was long and painful, and involved surviving solely on a diet of tree bark, pine needles, nuts and berries for up to a decade. The ascetic diet of slow starvation eliminated body fat — which tends to decay faster than other types of tissue — and built up chemical compounds toxic to bacteria associated with decomposition. Just before death, the individual would bury himself alive with the help of other monks.