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[WARNING: This article contains graphic photographs of mummified bodies.]A mummy is a corpse whose body has been preserved by either intentional or incidental exposure to chemicals, extreme cold, very low humidity, or lack of air. Mummies of humans and animals have been found throughout the world – both as a result of having been embalmed and because of natural preservation through unusual conditions. Many mummies are thousands of years old and are famous because of the intriguing circumstances of the death or the remarkable preservation of the body. The following are ten of the most fascinating mummies, (mainly because of the story behind them or the incredible preservation of the body) most of which are still viewable today.
Elmer McCurdy (January 1880 – October 7th 1911) was an outlaw killed in a gunfight in the Osage Hills in Oklahoma. A newspaper account gave Elmer’s last words as “You’ll never take me alive!” His body was taken to a funeral home in Oklahoma. When no one claimed the corpse, the undertaker embalmed it with an arsenic-based preservative and allowed people to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up” for a nickel, placed in Elmer’s mouth, which the undertaker would collect later. Five years later, a man showed up from a nearby traveling carnival claiming to be Elmer’s long-lost brother wanting to give the corpse a proper burial. Within two weeks, however, Elmer was a featured exhibit with the carnival. For the next 60 years, Elmer’s body was sold to wax museums, carnivals, and haunted houses.
The owner of a haunted house near Mount Rushmore refused to purchase him because he thought that Elmer’s body was actually a mannequin and not lifelike enough. Eventually, the corpse wound up in “The Laff in the Dark” funhouse at the Long Beach Pike amusement park in California. During filming of the The Six Million Dollar Man shot in December 1976, a crew member was moving what was thought to be a wax mannequin that was hanging from a gallows. When the mannequin’s arm broke off, it was discovered that it was in fact the mummified remains of Elmer McCurdy, who was finally buried in the Boot Hill section of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma on April 22nd 1977, with 2 cubic yards of concrete over his casket so his remains would never be disturbed again.
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (10th April 1870 – 21st January 1924) was one of the leading political figures and revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century, who masterminded the Bolshevik take-over of power in Russia in 1917, and was the architect and first head of the USSR. In 1918, he narrowly survived an assassination attempt, but was severely wounded. His long-term health was affected, and in May 1922 he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. In December 1922, he suffered a second stroke that partly paralyzed his right side and caused him to withdraw from active politics. In March 1923, he suffered a third stroke that left him dumb and bed-ridden until he died on 21st of January 1924, aged 53, at his estate in Gorki Leninskiye. His body was embalmed and exhibited in the Lenin Mausoleum, Moscow where it can still be viewed today.
Saint Bernadette was born Maria-Bernada Sobirós (7th January 1844 – 16th April 1879) and was a miller’s daughter from the town of Lourdes in southern France. Despite her body not being technically mummified, she definitely deserves a place on this list. From February 11th to July 16th 1858, she reported eighteen apparitions of “a small young lady.” Despite initial skepticism from the Catholic Church, these claims were eventually declared to be worthy of belief after a canonical investigation, and the apparition is known as ‘Our Lady of Lourdes’ – the Virgin Mary. After her death, Bernadette’s body remains incorrupt and can be viewed in the Chapel of Saint Bernadette in Nevers. On December 8th, 1933, she was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Juanita (“The Ice Maiden”) was discovered on the summit of Mount Ampato, Peru, on September 8th, 1995. She was 12–14 when sacrificed 500 years ago – a great honour for an Incan – they believed the Ampato God supplied water and withheld avalanches in return for human sacrifices. A young girl, boy and the skeleton of a woman were discovered in later expeditions, as were items left as offerings to the gods. The eruption of nearby volcano Mount. Sabancaya melted 500 years of ice and snow encasing Juanita, who was almost entirely frozen – her skin, internal organs, hair, clothing, blood and even the contents of her stomach preserved, offering scientists a rare glimpse into the life of the Incas. Juanita was wearing clothing resembling the finest textiles from Cuzco and was the closest sacrifice to the Inca capital, suggesting she may have come from a noble Cuzco family.
Juanita was chosen as the most beautiful and innocent and would be ‘guaranteed eternal life with the gods’. As the other bodies were further down the mountain, they were not as pure and worthy as Juanita. It took incredible effort (and whole entourages of priests, villagers, provisions, water, as well as symbolic items used in the ritual – all carried on the backs of hundreds of llamas and porters) to hold sacrificial rituals in the thin air and life-threatening cold of Mount Ampato – 20,000 feet high. Juanita was killed by a powerful blow to the head and was probably given chicha, a strong hallucinogenic drink before the ritual was performed. In 1996, President Clinton saw a photo of Juanita and reportedly said, “If I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy!” Juanita is on display at the Museo Santuarios de Altura in Arequipa, Peru.
Ötzi the Iceman (also known as Similaun Man or Man from Hauslabjoch) is a well-preserved natural mummy of a man from about 3300 BC (53 centuries ago). The mummy was found in September 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch, on the border between Austria and Italy. The nickname comes from Ötztal, the region in which he was discovered. He is Europe’s oldest natural human mummy, and has offered an unprecedented view of Chalcolithic (Copper Age) Europeans. The cause of death was most likely a blow to the head. The body and his belongings are displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, northern Italy.
‘Ginger’ is the nickname given to the naturally preserved body of an adult man (believed to be the earliest known ancient Egyptian “mummified” body), who despite having died more than 5,000 years ago, had perfectly preserved golden hair, and even toe and fingernails. Ginger was found in at Gebelein, Egypt, and dates to the Late Predynastic period, around 3400 BC, or earlier. Before mummification was developed, human remains were placed in shallow graves, in direct contact with the hot, dry sand, which absorbed the water that constitutes 75% of the human weight. Without moisture, bacteria cannot breed and cause decay, and the body is preserved. However, it is uncertain whether Ginger’s mummification was intentional or not, though since Ginger was buried with some pottery vessels it is likely that the mummification was a result of preservation techniques of those burying him. Ginger is currently on display in the British Museum.
Tollund Man is the naturally mummified corpse of a man (a ‘bog body’) who lived during the 4th century BC during the Pre-Roman Iron Age. He was found in May 1950, buried in a peat bog on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark, which preserved his body. The head and face were so well-preserved that at the time he was mistaken for a recent murder victim, however, he was later found to have died over 1,500 years ago. Autopsies have shown that the cause of death was hanging – the rope left visible furrows in the skin beneath his chin and at the sides of his neck, however, there was no mark at the back of the neck where the knot of the noose would have been located. The body is displayed at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, though only the head is original, and is attached to a replica of the body.
Rosalia Lombardo was an Italian child born in 1918 in Palermo, Sicily. She died on December 6th 1920 of pneumonia. Rosalia’s father was so sorely grieved upon her death that he approached Dr. Alfredo Salafia, a noted embalmer and taxidermist, to preserve her. She was one of the last corpses to be admitted to the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo, Sicily and one of the most well-known. Her preservation is such that it appears as if she were only sleeping, hence receiving the nickname “Sleeping Beauty”. She is considered one of the world’s best-preserved bodies and it is hard to believe she died nearly 90 years ago. For many years, the formula that preserved her so magnificently was a mystery, but it has recently been discovered that she was injected with a mixture of formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.
Formalin, now widely used by embalmers, is a mixture of formaldehyde and water that kills bacteria. Dr. Salafia was one of the first to use this for embalming bodies. Alcohol, along with the arid conditions in the catacombs, would have dried Rosalia’s body and allowed it to mummify. Glycerin would have kept her body from drying out too much, and salicylic acid would have prevented the growth of fungi. According to Melissa Williams, executive director of the American Society of Embalmers, it was the zinc salts that were most responsible for Rosalia’s amazing state of preservation. Zinc, which is no longer used by embalmers in the United States, petrified Rosalia’s body. “[Zinc] gave her rigidity. You could take her out of the casket, prop her up, and she would stand by herself.”
Tutankhamun (approximately 1341 BC – 1323 BC) was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty during the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom. Tutankhamun was 9 years old when he became pharaoh and reigned for approximately 10 years, until his death. Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings (where he still resides) was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 almost completely intact — the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found. Eternal life was the main focus of all Ancient Egyptians, which meant preserving the body forever. Egyptians mummified bodies because they believed in an afterlife. Believing that the afterlife was much like life in this world they had to preserve their bodies so they would be able to use them after they die. Egyptian culture believed the body was home in the afterlife to a person’s Ka, Ba and Akh, without which it would be condemned to eternal wandering.
The Ka was a less solid duplicate of the body. Without a physical body, the soul had no place to dwell and became restless forever. The Ba was able to leave the tomb and revisit the dead person’s haunts in the mortal world. The Akh was the immortal soul that emerged when the Ka and the Ba united after the deceased person passed judgement. The mummification process lasted for a period of 70 days, applied to all classes of Egyptians – rich or poor. The 70-day mummification process was as follows: 15 days spent on cleansing and purification, 40 day drying period and 15 days wrapping and bandaging. Tutankhamun has become one of the most famous Egyptian mummies, his death mask becoming one of the most iconic images of the world today. The cause of Tutankhamun’s death is unclear and is still the root of much speculation.
In 1971 workers in China digging an air raid shelter near the city of Changsha uncovered an enormous Han Dynasty-era tomb containing over 1,000 well-preserved artefacts, as well as “the most perfectly preserved corpse ever found”. The tomb belonged to Xin Zhui, wife of the Marquis of Han who died between 178–145 BC, around 50 years of age. Her body is so well preserved that when found it was autopsied as if recently dead and her skin was supple, limbs could be manipulated; hair and internal organs were intact; remains of her last meal were found in her stomach and type A blood still ran red in her veins. Examinations have revealed that she suffered from parasites, lower back pain, clogged arteries, had a massively damaged heart (an indication of heart disease brought on by obesity, lack of exercise and an overly rich diet) and was overweight at the time of her death.
The ‘mystery of Lady Dai’ has not yet been solved. Scientists believe contributing to her remarkable preservation was the 22 dresses of silk and hemp and 9 silk ribbons she was tightly wrapped in. Clothes filled the coffin, which was perfectly sealed, keeping air out. There were inner and outer tombs, which were more than 50 feet below the earth as well as the four coffins she was buried in, each inside the other. However, some scientists suspect the real key to her preservation lies in the mysterious unidentified reddish liquid found in the coffin she was discovered in. To intensify the mystery, two other tombs containing bodies in a similar state of preservation have been found close to Lady Dai – Sui Xiaoyuan and Ling Huiping. Her 2,000-year-old body is currently housed in the Hunan Provincial Museum.
One of the morbidly fascinating results of the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius is the number of holes found in the volcanic deposits around Pompeii, representing the corpses of people and animals killed by the pyroclastic flow and buried by the hot ash. The ash solidified before the corpses decayed so a mould of Vesuvius’s victims remained. Early in the excavation, Giuseppe Fiorelli discovered that filling these moulds with plaster resulted in highly accurate and eerie forms of the doomed who failed to escape, their last moment of life captured forever, the expression of terror often clearly visible. It is impossible to imagine the sheer terror these poor unfortunate souls must have gone through. This is a bonus because there is no single ‘famous’ mummified body, but an entire city frozen in time. The majority of plaster casts are situated around Pompeii and in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.