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....)

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