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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....)

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.

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