We cover the way people in Victorian Europe used (and abused) Egyptian mummies, whether or not mummies were burned for fuel, Catholic saints who do not decay, natural mummies preserved in ice, moss, and salt, child mummies of the Andes, and Buddhist monk mummifying themselves.
We’ll be using the timing of this episode to talk about bandaged bodies, the preserved passed-on, those desiccated decedents, mummies. Ancient Egypt knew its business when it came to preserving their dead, there’s no two ways about it. By some estimates, over the course of three millennia, more than 70 million people and animals were mummified. While the earliest Egyptian specimen we’ve found dates to 3,000 BCE, the oldest anthropogenically modified mummy, that is a body that someone intentionally preserved through drying, dates back to approximately 5050 BCE, in the high, dry, cold mountains of South America. Even older still is a natural mummy found in the Atacama Desert in modern-day Chile; that person is believed to have died in the year 7020 BCE, over 9,000 years ago. The Atacama Desert is an ideal place for the creation of mummies, as it gets less than an inch of rain, annually.
Mummies were considered very Gothic. In the Victorian era, when Gothic equalled cool, unwrapping mummies became a must-have for any self-respecting party host. “Come to Lord Longsberry’s at 2 p.m., Piccadilly, for the unwrapping of a mummy from Thebes. Champagne and canapés to follow.”
Mummy, often sold as “mummia”, was applied to the skin or powdered and mixed into drinks as a treatment for bruising and other ailments. The belief may have come from ancients such as Pliny the Elder, who wrote that the bitumen used to embalm mummies offered healing powers. Adherents included the French King Francis I, who kept a pouch of powdered mummy on his belt and ate rhubarb and mummy powder every day — because he “thought it kept him strong and safe from assassins.”
Natural mummies are a widespread phenomenon, appearing all over the globe. You’re probably on a first-name basis with the best known, Otzi, the ice man. Also frozen in ice but much more elaborately tattooed is a mummy known as the Siberian ice princess. The remains of the immaculately dressed woman, approximately 25 of age and preserved for two and a half millennia in the Siberian permafrost were discovered in 1993. Where Otzi only had lines, the princess had both arms covered with tattoos of animals, in large, bold designs, which can still be seen as clear as day on her leathery skin.
One of the most heavily-relied-upon preservatives in the world, salt, has also given us natural mummies. Half a dozen mummies have been found in a salt mine in Iran. The first salt mummy, dated to 300 CE; the oldest is truly ancient and has been carbon dated to 9550 BCE.
No salt is needed in the high Andeas mountains and the Atacama desert that lies between them and the sea. The Children of Llullaillaco are three Inca child mummies rediscovered in 1999. Dryness and cold temperatures are both major reasons for the excellent preservation of the mummies for 500 years. Children were usually chosen from nobles families, but were picked primarily based on their “physical perfection”. The mummies have been the subject of controversy, especially with regards to indigenous rights, with their display called “a violation of our loved ones.”