Welcome to the Mummy Blog!

Why mummies? What can we learn about ancient people from well-preserved human remains? Why should we care? Come explore the world of mummies and all their spin-offs (museum exhibits, movies, books....)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New Tricks from an Old Mummy

The University of Illinois Roman-period Egyptian mummy at the Spurlock Museum has undergone two sets of CT scans twenty years apart. In 1990, an interdisciplinary team was convened to investigate the mummy before it went on display. Since autopsy was not permitted, we concentrated on non-destructive imaging supplemented by materials analyses of tiny bits of hardened resin, cloth, and insects from the damaged lower end of the mummy.

The initial results showed that the mummy was a child (because of dental development and open growth plates) with a broken head and a collapsed chest. CT images showed some kind of packing material (cloth or mud?) around the limbs and a wooden, so-called "stiffening" board under the body inside the linen wrappings. The insects turned out to be flesh-eating beetles, implying that the child’s body was partially decayed before it was wrapped up.
The brain, heart, and lungs appeared to be still in place inside the mummy, but as our consulting radiologist Dr. Joe Barkmeier at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, IL, commented, “they’re all dried up and moved around.” 

Lack of evisceration and a concentration on the exterior decoration instead of tissue preservation are features of many Roman period mummies. So is the wooden board underneath the body, inside the wrappings. Sex could not be determined because the pelvic region was obscured by layers of tissues and wrappings and sexing a young child based upon skeletal remains alone is difficult in the best of circumstances.

In 2011, we decided to re-scan the mummy with vastly improved imaging technology and computer software. David Hunt, Physical Anthropology Collections Manager at the Smithsonian’s NMNH, was a consultant on the new project.

Internal organs, packing, and bone fractures are much more visible from the new CT scans. Dr. Hunt was able to age the mummy child more precisely to about 8.5 years at the time of death by identifying key molars and tooth positions in the jaw. 
However, the measurements of the long bones of the legs came up a bit short, suggesting that the child suffered a period of malnutrition. Unfortunately, sex is still unknown because the pelvis is collapsed and the similar densities of bone, tissue, and wrappings make accurate observations problematic.

In the thoracic cavity, desiccated organs lie up against the spine, which shows signs of compression fractures (probably post-mortem). The occipital fracture is more severe than we originally thought, and a piece of the skull was pushed inside the cranial cavity. Some brain tissue is clearly visible, but it is possible that the embalmers attempted to take out the brain through the back of the head instead of through the sinus at the back of the nose.

New images show that the embalmers used wads of cloth rather than mud or plant material to pad the thin little body and make it appear more life-like. A recent pigment analysis by the Getty Conservation Institute confirms that the red colorant on the stucco surface is lead oxide, or minium, from Rio Tinto, Spain, and that it matches that of nine other “red shroud,” Roman-period mummies published the new book Herakleides:A Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt by Lorelei Corcoran and Marie Svoboda. This finding confirms our conclusion that the Spurlock mummy child came from a well-to-do family in Roman Egypt that could afford expensive ingredients such as the red pigment and gold leaf seen on the mummy wrappings.

At Dr. Hunt’s request, Joe Mullins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children used the new CT scans to digitally reconstruct the child’s head and face. The result shows that the mummy child was of West Asian or Mediterranean heritage, just as one might expect from the mixed population living in the Fayum region of Egypt at that time.

This mummy is also the star of a mystery, Bound for Eternity, by Sarah Wisseman.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Meet Lazarus, the Mummy Who Will Never Die

My husband nicknamed our local Egyptian mummy "Lazarus" because it keeps coming back to haunt me. Twenty years ago, I led a team at the University of Illinois in a largely non-destructive examination of a Roman-period Egyptian mummy. We X-rayed it, CT scanned it, studied snips and bits from its deteriorated lower end, and wrote it all up for an exhibit at the World Heritage, now the Spurlock, Museum on the Urbana-Champaign campus. Results: the mummy is a child from a well-to-do family living in the Fayum oasis district of Egypt. He (or she) had a broken head and a collapsed chest, but these injuries could have been from mishandling after death. Images showed packing material (cloth or mud?) around the limbs, and a wooden "stiffening" board under the body inside the linen and ramie wrappings.

In March 2011, we re-CT scanned the mummy at the same hospital, Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, IL, to see if modern imaging technology could answer lingering questions about the mummy child's sex, cause of death, and the packing around its body. A DNA test from a foot bone is in progress, but the result may not tell us whether the mummy was a boy or a girl unless we are awfully lucky (ancient DNA samples tend to be contaminated). Still, we have exciting new images of the mummy's insides to show, and some new information about the condition of the body.

All will be revealed at a symposium, "The Return of the Mummy," on Wednesday, November 2, 2011, at the Spurlock Museum auditorium. A panel of experts including an archaeologist, a physical anthropologist, two Egyptologists, and two physicians will discuss the latest results on our mummy and how this mummy study compares to others conducted at other universities. Time: 4 pm, free admission. Address:  600 S. Gregory St., Urbana, IL

Saturday, July 2, 2011


You might say the mummy congress I recently attended in San Diego opened up whole new worlds of esoteric knowledge for me. For example, I knew a fair amount about embalmed Egyptian mummies, but nothing at all about smoked mummies from Papua New Guinea.

Where do you want your physical body to reside after you die and your spirit goes elsewhere?  Different cultures have different answers for the question. In ancient Egypt, your body must be preserved for the soul to have an afterlife, and so the mobile part of the spirit, the Ba, can go back and forth between the entombed mummy and the world of the living. But in the remote village of Koko in Papua New Guinea, the Anga people believe the spirit roams around the jungle after death. They also want the bodies of key people, such as chieftains, to be preserved and remain on view for their descendants. 

So bodies are smoked in a special smokehouse, dressed in ritual garments, and in some cases, mounted in a chair before being carried up to a prominent viewing gallery in a cliff overlooking the village of Koke. Unfortunately, the jungle environment is not kind to dead bodies, so they deteriorate over time.  In a restoration project led by Prof. Ronald G. Beckett of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, the condition of the former chief, Moimango, and several other mummies was evaluated and discussed with native villagers. Instead of bringing in modern materials to patch up holes, bind flaking skin, and prop up mummies whose faces could no longer be seen, the team decided to use local jungle materials such as bark and sap. They also removed lichen on the mummies’ toes (ugh!) and other debris using brushes made from local plants.

See pictures of the process here.

The villagers assisted the scientific team in the restoration and now know how to restore their own mummies with materials available nearby. Thus a new cultural tradition is born…

Saturday, June 18, 2011


There is quite a lot to consider when you put a human mummy on display. Who was the person who is now mummified, and did he or she believe in an afterlife? Surely any concept of an afterlife does not include being in a public museum case! Is the body naked (bare bones, as in unclothed and skeletonized, or just unwrapped)? What culture does it belong to, and what does having the mummy on display teach us about ancient belief systems, health, and disease?

Last week I had the great good fortune to attend the 7th World Congress on Mummy Studies in San Diego. Aside from the fact that I am apparently allergic to the flora of California, I really enjoyed the conference. Where else can you hear about a waxwork on display out west that turned out to be a mummy, or “piggies in peat” (experimental animal mummification using piglets in peat bogs in Europe)? I can truthfully say I attended more papers than I usually do because I was absolutely fascinated with the content and the range of subjects.

The first session was on the ethics of mummies—both the study of dead bodies and the display of them. The concept of stakeholder theory was introduced: who are the stakeholders in a mummy display?  The scientists, the museum staff, the public, the mummy itself…and the descendants of the mummy, if they can be identified. And here is a lesson for the unwary: a protest about a “stuffed Eskimo” in a museum case incensed Greenlanders until a DNA analysis proved that the body in question was of Dutch origin. Then, the protesters said it was okay to call it a “stuffed Dutchman,” just not an Eskimo. But, as we all agreed, it was clearly not respectful to label any mummy, a dead human being, a “stuffed” anything.

But how do you show respect for a dead body or a mummy of unknown origins? Although most Western societies require permission from the family before an autopsy or a burial of a recently dead body, the correct procedure for dealing with ancient remains is often unclear. Scholars such as the anthropologists, physicians, chemists, and curators at this conference strive to balance the advancement of knowledge with cultural sensitivity whenever they can. For example, many agree that modern displays of Egyptian mummies should not reveal bare bones, large areas of dried up skin, or lone body parts. This was not always the case, as many early displays showed mummies unwrapped or dissected after autopsies. In contrast, Native American human remains, such as those formerly on display at Dickson Mounds in Illinois, are now covered up completely and are only available for scientific study on a very limited basis.

People vary in their reactions to human remains in a public museum according to their upbringing and religious beliefs, so some modern displays give the visitor a choice: you can push a button on an unlit case to see the mummy inside, or if such a display offends you, just move on. One of the curators for the traveling “Mummies of the World” exhibit told us that the public response to seeing mummies on display has so far been overwhelmingly positive. A mummy shown in a scientific context (rather than in a curio cabinet with snakes and rocks), with interesting information about the person’s life as revealed by medical imaging or DNA analysis, usually fascinates rather than horrifies.
 The Iceman Otzi (new reconstruction)

Scientific studies can humanize a mummy by revealing unseen facts about the person inside. Two examples: a CT scan can reveal that a mummy is a child, not an adult, by showing adult teeth coming in right behind baby teeth, and DNA analysis has recently proven that the Tyrolean Iceman’s eyes were brown, not blue.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Red pigment and silver mining

As I get ready to head to San Diego at the weekend for the World Mummy Congress, I am reflecting on all the places our University of Illinois mummy has taken me.

One of the strangest: the world of pigment analysis. Our red stucco covering was analyzed twice, once by a lab at the U of I, and the second time by the Getty Conservation Institute. Both times, lead oxide was identified. This is interesting because you might expect an iron oxide for the color red. But red lead, or minium, was popular in antiquity, and that is what our pigment turns out to be. Even better, the Getty researchers linked the composition to that of nine other Roman period mummies from Egypt, and to the source: the silver mine of Rio Tinto in Spain.

Why is this so cool? Because it provides additional evidence that our little mummy, a child of perhaps mixed parentage who lived in Roman Egypt, came from a relatively well-to-do family. Not only did he or she have parent who could afford exotic ingredients like minium and gold leaf for the mummy wrappings, but the portrait was originally very detailed and probably gorgeous to look at. Take a look on our website, and check out the wonderful new book on Herakleides by Lorelei Corcoran and Marie Svoboda on the red shroud mummy group.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Mummies, clogged arteries, and child abuse

Recently two good articles have popped up: one on clogged arteries in Egyptian  mummies, and one on using imaging to detect child abuse.

In the first, we read that atherosclerosis is not as uncommon in earlier societies as we thought. Egyptian mummies show the disease, despite consuming a mostly vegetarian diet and not using tobacco. The article points out that we must be missing a risk factor in heart disease--clogged arteries must not be only a result of poor choices in diet but other conditions (such as inflammation) or things we have not yet identified.

The second article points out how medical imaging of ancient bodies can teach us something about the present. The CT scan of a mummy with a damaged head led to a three-dimensional reconstruction that produced insights on modern deaths due to child abuse. As one of the medical team pointed out, it was helpful that the mummy experiment was performed on a long-dead body so that high dose X-rays could be used. Similarly, in our recent CT scan of the University of Illinois Egyptian mummy, we used more radiation than a living patient could tolerate. Result: gorgeous, high definition images that show more damage to our mummy's skull than before. However, we don't know whether the damage occurred before or after death...lots more work ahead.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Austrian Iceman

My day job is archaeology, which means I tend to think in layers and I love dirt—both real dirt as in soil, and “dirt” as in good stories about squabbling academics trying to steal each other’s research. Fortunately for me, the archaeological profession is full of multilayered, dirty stories, just like the strata of an excavation.

Take the Iceman, the mummified Neolithic man found in a melting glacier in the Tyrolean Alps. His story has at least three layers: his life in ancient times, his discovery about fifteen years ago, and the saga of the international investigation and border dispute over his body.

When Ötzi, as he is now known, was discovered, his finders thought he was just another dead hiker who’d strayed off the trail in bad weather. Granted, he was a bit leathery-looking, but the folks who ripped him out of the ice and hauled him away (leaving a couple of crucial body parts behind) hadn’t a clue they’d just found one of the most sensational archaeological discoveries of all time.

Ötzi was alive 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists have reconstructed his equipment: he carried a knapsack and a medicine bag, and wore an ingenious set of leggings and a warm, furry cloak. He also had a knife, bows and arrows, and a fire-making kit. But who was he? Where did he come from, and where was he going? Despite the best techniques known to science, many questions about Ötzi remained unanswered.

Archaeologists know the kind of settlement he came from, but not which one. They say that he was probably an important man in Neolithic society, but no one knows his name or family. And everyone thought he died in a blizzard until new imaging revealed an arrowhead in his shoulder—poor Ötzi was shot from behind. Then someone—the murderer?—removed the arrow, moved the body, and the evidence of the crime was covered up by 5,000 years of glaciers and silence.

The intrigue doesn’t stop there. Scientists and archaeologists from several countries collaborated in the modern studies of the Iceman’s tissues, tattoos, and diet. Did they all get along as well as the news media claimed? Or were some researchers angered as others published their findings in prestigious journals and appeared on Nova? And since the Iceman was found near the border between Austria and Italy, officials from both countries argued over who would ultimately own the mummy and build the museum to display him.

Italy won. Two years ago, I visited Ötzi in his new home in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. He’s resting in a special climate-controlled case looking very small and lonely. Although the museum has done a great job of displaying the scientific and archaeological account of his death, a good mystery writer needs to tell the story of his life. Takers, anyone?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mummy exhibit in Milwaukee until May 30, 2011

An unusual exhibit is touring the country and is currently at the Milwaukee Public Museum. It's called Mummies of the World, and it's only there until the end of May. A great way to learn about mummy science and stories involving mummies from not only Egypt, but South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. The exhibit (and the online links) explore natural vs artificial mummies, mummy ethics (how to display ancient bodies respectfully), science (DNA studies, medicine, paleopathology, materials analyses) and much more. One of the featured mummies is the Detmold Child, a naturally desiccated baby from South America. It's 6,500 years old--older than any of the Egyptian mummies we know about.

I don't know yet whether I will be able to get up to Milwaukee in time to see it, but I plan to buy the catalogue. If any readers get there before me, write a comment and tell me how you liked it!

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Earlier this year, I learned about the best-preserved mummy in the world for a talk I was giving. Surprise: it’s not Egyptian, but Chinese. The Lady of Dai, or “Diva” mummy of the Western Han Dynasty was prepared and buried over 2,000 years ago and is so well preserved that type A blood still runs in her veins and physicians can autopsy her body as if she died yesterday.

How did the Chinese undertakers do it? First, they swaddled her body in 20 layers of silk, then they immersed her in a salt solution that was mildly acidic with some magnesium in it, they encased her in four separate coffins. Finally, they sealed her in a cold chamber under many layers of charcoal and coal.
Who was she? Her name was Xin Zhui, and she was the wife of the ruler of Dai near the city of Changsha. Researchers have discovered that the woman was middle-aged and obese, with clogged arteries and a damaged heart. Seems like heart disease is not unique to modern American society—this lady overate the wrong stuff. She also showed evidence of several parasites and probably lower back pain at the time of her death.

The Diva starred in a National Geographic special in 2004. She continues to be a person of fascination for mummy enthusiasts, and I expect to hear more about her at the World Mummy Congress in San Diego in June.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Introducing The Mummy Blog

Was it a boy or a girl? How old? Who were his or her parents? What did he or she eat? How did the person live and die in Roman Egypt? These are only a few of the questions you can ask about an Egyptian mummy.

My name is Sarah Wisseman. I am a mummy enthusiast, archaeologist, and mystery writer. Since my colleagues and I have just CT-scanned our Egyptian mummy at the University of Illinois for the second time (after a twenty year gap), I've decided to start a blog that brings together all my interests together in one place.

A mummy is inherently interesting and mysterious since it contains secrets about a person's life and death inside its wrappings. Although Egyptian mummies are the most familiar, there are also Chinchorro mummies in Chile, Peruvian Ice Maidens, the Diva Mummy ("Lady Dai") in China, bog bodies (Denmark and Germany), Canary Island mummies, and many more.

The study of mummies seduces anthropologists and museum curators, but also paleopathologists, dentists, physicians, biochemists, textile scientists, and entomologists. When we are allowed to take samples from ancient bodies, we can learn about DNA, diet, disease, tissue preservation, ritual burial, and religious practices. Although the body is important to science because of what it can reveal about ancient health and disease, the materials used, the decorations and symbols on the wrappings, the burial position, and the accompanying artifacts can teach us so much about lifestyle and belief systems.

And the fascination for mummies can take you strange places--in my case, all the unanswered questions about our mummy made me write a mystery novel, Bound for Eternity. A museum curator discovers that an Egyptian mummy holds the clues to two murders in her Boston museum...a story that continues in several other books and short stories: www.sarahwisseman.com