The Fascinating Stories Behind the World's Best-Preserved Mummies
Humans have always had a morbid fascination with death and the dead. Preserving the dead dates back thousands of years. To the ancient Egyptians, death was only the beginning, and embalming bodies was a regular occurrence, as was typical of many ancient cultures. Some dead are mummified as a political statement, others by complete accident.
Tutankhamun may be the most famous mummy in the world, but he certainly is not the most well-preserved. There are other examples of mummification, either natural or otherwise, that leave King Tut for dead, no pun intended.
Here are some of the world's best-preserved mummies; each has its tale to tell. The stories behind some of these corpses is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Eva "Evita" Perón's Remains
When she died from cancer in 1952, Eva Perón was perhaps the most beloved woman in Argentina at the time. She was the first wife of then Argentinean President Juan Perón. This fueled the decision to embalm her body.
The procedure was performed by renowned professor of anatomy, Dr. Pedro Ana. His embalming technique was so good, it was commonly referred to as the "Art of Death." The year-long procedure included replacing the body's blood and water with glycerin, resulting in the preservation of all internal organs, even the brain.
Her body was placed on display until a military coup overthrew the government and Juan Perón. The body was then secretly removed by the new government and hidden for sixteen years in Italy. During that time, the body was subject to many escapades, including vandalism with a hammer and the enactment of sexual fantasies of a caretaker driven mad by the body's lifelike appearance.
In 1971, the exiled Juan Perón was able to reclaim his wife's body and bring it to his Spanish home. In 1974, the body was returned to Argentina, where it was finally buried in the family crypt.
Evita's life has inspired many works of fiction: most notably, a movie in which Madonna played her and most recently, a musical play featuring music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Vladimir Lenin's Embalmed Body
He was the father of Russian Communism and the first leader of the Soviet Union. His death in 1924 marked the Soviet Union's decline into Stalinism.
The government decided to preserve the body of Lenin for future generations. As their culture had no practice or record of the process, the Russians had to invent a highly complex process of embalming. Unlike Evita's mummified corpse, which required little post-embalming maintenance, Lenin's requires extensive chemical baths, injections, and evaluation. The body's organs were removed and replaced with a humidifier and pumping system designed to maintain the body's core temperature and fluid intake.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people of Russia are split on the decision to bury Lenin for good.
John Torrington's Frozen Remains
Sometimes, mother nature can preserve a body in ways embalmers can only dream. Meet John Torrington, petty officer of the fabled Franklin Expedition to the Arctic Circle. He died of pneumonia and lead poisoning at age 20 and was buried in the frozen tundra along with three others at one of the expedition's camp site.
In the 1980s, his grave was exhumed by scientists in an attempt to discover the cause of the expedition's failure. When they opened the coffins and thawed the solid blocks of ice inside, they were astonished and frightened by what they saw. John Torrington stared back at them, literally.
Frozen in a block of ice for over 150 years, the body was nearly perfectly preserved. The only signs of decay were visible around the eyelids and lips. He still wore the cloths he died in, and his arms and legs were still tied together (which made burial easier). A handkerchief was even tied around his head to keep his jaw closed.
Blood samples revealed toxic levels of lead in his system, a result of poor food storage onboard the ship. In his lungs were found the preserved remnants of pneumonia.
In addition to Torrington, the expedition exhumed the bodies of John Hartnell and William Braine. Both were also frozen in time.
Rosalia Lombardo, the Child Mummy
Deep in the Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks in Sicily, inside a tiny glass casket, lies the body of little Rosalia Lombardo. When she died in 1918 of pneumonia, her father General Lombardo was devastated. He sought the services of Italian Embalmer Alfredo Salafia to preserve her.
Using a mixture of chemicals (including formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid and glycerin), the end result was nothing short of extraordinary. The body was so well-preserved she came known as "Sleeping Beauty."
For over 80 years, she has remained perfectly preserved. Only in the last five years have signs of decay appeared. In response, the glass casket was moved to a drier end of the Catacombs and placed inside an airtight, nitrogen-filled glass case.
Changes in temperature within the catacombs have resulted in a unsettling phenomenon with Rosalia's tiny body. As the temperature fluctuates, the mummy's eyelids will partially open, revealing her intact eyes underneath.
To date, she receives more visitors than any other individual in the catacombs.
In this 2009 Italian documentary, Rosalia's body was sent through a CT scan. The scientists were shocked to find all of her internal organs perfectly intact! Her brain had shrunk to almost half its original size.
La Doncella, a Frozen Incan Sacrifice
Over 500 years ago, 15-year-old La Doncella and two other children were left to freeze to death in a ritual sacrifice. Sitting crosslegged high atop Mount Llullaillaco, she was drugged with chicha and coca leaves to induce a heavy sleep and left to die as an offering to the Sun God.
In 1999, archaeologists discovered the remains of La Doncella and the two other children, the latest of several unbelievable sacrificial finds in the Andes Mountains. The eldest of the three children, La Doncella, was a "Sun Virgin," a child chosen at an early age to be raised as a sacrifice for the Sun God. She lived a royal life until the day of sacrifice. Her elaborately braided hair simply astonished her discoverers. Scientists even found a few grey hairs, suggesting that her knowledge of her ultimate fate took a deep emotional toll.
The Wet Mummy Discovered During Road Construction in China
Imagine an average construction worker, digging a foundation for a new road with a backhoe, suddenly uncovers a national treasure. That's exactly what happened in China in March of 2012. Submerged for 600 years in a waterlogged coffin, a remarkably preserved Ming Dynasty mummy was discovered in the center of a modern metropolis during a construction project!
The five-foot-tall woman was fully clothed and buried with many fine pieces of jewelry, including a silver hairpin that still held her hair in place and a huge jade ring on her finger. Atop her wooden coffin was a simple silver medallion known as an Exorcism Coin placed there to protect the body from evil spirits.
The mummy has been transported to Taizhou Museum for study.
Lady Dai Xin Zhui, the Best-Preserved Mummy Ever
Lady Dai Xin Zhui is undisputedly the best preserved mummy ever found: not in terms of physical appearance, but in the simple completeness of her body. Unlike Lenin, her internal organs are perfectly intact, including her brain. Unlike Evita, her tissues are still soft to the touch, her limbs flexible. Her hair is complete and there is type-A blood in her veins!
Here is the most astonishing part: She is 2,100 years old! Meet Xin Zhui, aka Lady Dai, the Diva Mummy.
The wife of the ruler of the Han Imperial Flefdom of Dai, she died between 178 and 145 BC at age 50. She was buried in a titanic-sized tomb with exotic foods, dinnerware, and fabrics. The body itself was immersed in a mysterious liquid, no doubt responsible for the amazing preservation.
The state of the preservation has given archaeologists the single most complete medical profile ever compiled of an ancient human being. The pristine condition of the body allowed for a modern-day autopsy, which revealed many clues about her life. She was overweight, suffered from lower back pain, had clogged arteries, and had a severely damaged heart. She is the oldest diagnosed case of heart disease. Until her discovery, medical experts had argued that heart disease only existed in modern times.
The Greenland Mummies
In 1972, eight Eskimo mummies were discovered in a frozen tomb in Qilakitsoq. Essentially freeze-dried in the cold temperature, the mummies were a family. Carbon dating places the tomb at approximately 1460, making them the oldest mummies yet found in Greenland. Three of them were heavily tattooed women dressed in over 78 pieces of fur and skins. Piled on top of them was a young boy, equally well-dressed, whose face has the distinct features of Down syndrome. X-rays revealed he also suffered from Calve-Perthes disease, his hip joints nearly fused. Atop all the bodies was a little baby boy, about six months old, who was concluded to have been buried alive atop his mother.
The cause of death is unclear. Some suggested an accidental drowning of the entire family, but no evidence could be found to support this. One of the women did have a tumor growing at the base of her skull and the boy likely died from his Calve-Perthes disease. The infant was buried alive according to ancient Inuit custom. The cause of death of the women remains unknown.
The Beauty of Xiaohe
In 2003, archeologists excavating China's Xiaohe Mudi Graveyards discovered a cache of mummies, including one that would become known as the Beauty of Xiaohe. Hair, skin, and even eyelashes perfectly preserved, the woman's natural beauty is evident even after four millennia. Her coffin was a wooden boat filled with small pouches that contained herbs. She was dressed in a felted wool hat which designated her status as a priestess, something rare for women. More than 3,800 years ago, she was a village leader.
Due to the natural salinity, aridity, and freeze-drying properties in the air, Xinjiang has produced some of the best naturally preserved mummies in the world, of which the Beauty of Xiaohe represents.
Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buddhist Monk Mummified in Prayer
He was a Russian Buddhist lama monk who died mid-chant in the lotus posture in 1927. His last testament was a simple request to be buried how he was found. True to his wishes, he was buried in the lotus position, wearing the robes he died in. In 1955, the monks exhumed his body and discovered it to be incorrupt. It was again exhumed in 1973 to the same discovery. In a time when Soviet antitheistic authorities policed the Russian State, the findings were not announced until 2002.
After being declared a sacred relic by the Buddhist conference, the body was placed in a namesake shrine where it remains to this day.
Natural mummification (or "incorruption") is one of the stipulations the Catholic Church requires for an individual to canonized as a saint. One remarkable example is Zita, a maid who passed away in 1272 who served a wealthy Italian family who often overworked her. A spiritual woman, several times she was caught stealing bread to feed the poor. After 48 years of service to the family, she passed away at age 60.
Her body was exhumed in 1580, 300 years after her death, and was discovered to have naturally mummified. She was canonized in 1696 and her body has remained on public display for over 700 years.
St. Bernadette's Remains
She was born a miller's daughter in 1844 in Lourdes, France. Throughout her life, she reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary on an almost daily basis. One such vision lead her to discover a spring which has been reported to cure illness. 150 years later, the water's miracles are still being reported.
Bernadette died in 1879, at age 35, from tuberculosis. During canonization, her body was exhumed in 1909 and was discovered incorrupt. She was exhumed again in 1919, when doctors noted that the body had mummified with some mold and deterioration to the skin in some areas. In 1925, her body was exhumed a third and final time. Two of her ribs were removed and sent to Rome. In a common move during the French canonization process, molds were taken of Bernadette's face and hands and wax casts were made and placed over the face and hands. The body was placed in a reliquary in the Chapel of St. Bernadette, where it remains today.
St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli
She lived 350 years ago in Genoa, Italy, and after her arranged marriage ended in the death of her husband, a wealthy noble, Virginia began a life of service. She founded Cento Signore della Misericordia Protettrici dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in the 1620s to help the needy in her area. She spent the remainder of her life in service. In 1985 her body was exhumed and beatified, and in 2003 she was officially canonized.
Elmur McCurdy's Mummy
Here is a mummy whose life after death was as bizarre as his reputation during life. Elmur McCurdy was an unlucky robber whose unsuccessful exploits cost him his life. In 1911, he and a gang of robbers attacked a train they believed contained a high value safe. However, they discovered it was nothing more than a passenger train. After fleeing, McCurdy took refuge in a barn and was later shot by the Oklahoma Sheriff's Office on October 7, 1911.
Now here's where the story takes an interesting turn. McCurdy's body was taken to Pawhuska, Oklahoma. When the corpse wasn't claimed, the undertaker who embalmed the body put it on display for 5¢ a look. For five years the body was on public display, during which time a bizarre ritual formed where visitors would stuff their ticket stubs and coins into the mummy's mouth.
In 1916, a man claiming to be McCurdy's brother asked for the body, wishing to give it a proper burial. Instead of burial, the body was sent on tour for 60 years of public display in wax museums, carnivals, and fun fairs all across the country. Eventually, the knowledge of the body being a real corpse was forgotten. Owner after owner purchased it, thinking it was nothing more than a bad wax figure.
In 1976 at Queens Park during the filming of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, the film crew was rearranging the displays and mannequins and discovered McCurdy. One of McCurdy's arms was accidentally broken off, and when they discovered bone inside the arm, authorities were alerted.
During the autopsy, the examiner opened the corpse's mouth and discovered a 1924 penny and a ticket stub. Backtracking later revealed the mummy to be McCurdy. The body still had its original autopsy and embalming incisions and a gunshot wound to the chest. The bullet was discovered lodged in the pelvis.
In 1977, the state finally buried McCurdy under two yards of concrete.
Ramesses the Great
Ramesses II, who became known as Ramesses the Great, could be considered the most powerful and influential pharaoh to ever rule Ancient Egypt. While the average lifespan of an Egyptian was less than forty years, Ramesses lived to be 91.
Sitting on the throne for 66 years, he was literally considered a living god, outliving everyone around him. He even outlived many of his wives (including Nefertari) and some of his 100 children. He built more temples, monuments, and cities than any other pharaoh, and the Egyptian Empire expanded greatly during his rule. He lead several campaigns in Syria, Nubia, and Libya. His spoils of war brought extreme wealth to the kingdom.
As he neared the end of his life, Ramesses was plagued by health problems, including rotting teeth, arthritis, and heart disease. Dying after his 91st birthday, Ramesses was buried in the Valley of the Kings in an enormous tomb. Yet the journey of the pharaoh was not over.
Tomb robbing forced Egyptian priests to remove the body for repair. Afterwards, it was brought to the tomb of Inhapy. Three days after that, it was moved again to the tomb of a high priest.
Ramesses was discovered buried amongst forty other mummies in a cache in 1881. The mummy itself was one of the best-preserved ever found in Egypt. Unlike other mummies (including Tutankhamun's, where the nose was crushed by the pressure of the wraps), Ramesses's nose was intact. That distinctive hook-shaped nose became his most famous feature.
To date, Ramesses II is the only ancient Egyptian to be issued a modern passport. In 1974, the passport was issued when the mummy was sent to France for examination. His birthdate was listed as 1303BC and his profession: "King (deceased)". The examination revealed old battle wounds, an abscessed tooth, and severe arthritis. A stick was also discovered lodged in the mummy's neck, leading some to believe the head was accidentally knocked off during mummification. Today, Ramesses lies in state at the Cairo Museum.
The Remains of the Tollund Man
Would you believe this peaceful, careworn face is that of a 2,000-year-old bog body? Discovered by accident in 1950 in the bogs of the Danish jutland peninsula by some unsuspecting peat farmers, the mummy of this pre-Iron Age corpse is so well-preserved that it fooled his discoverers into thinking he was a present-day murder victim. Turns out he's a relic from the past, one of many bog mummies that have been found in Jutland.
So who was this ancient mummy? Nearly sixty years of examination have revealed that this was a hanging victim, possibly as a sacrifice. Rope marks were discovered around his neck and his tongue was swollen, as is common with hanging victims. An autopsy of the man's stomach revealed a last meal of veggies and a variety of seeds, some wild, some not.
Unfortunately, preservation techniques in the 1950s were limited. Ultimately, only the Tollund Man's head, feet, and right thumb were permanently preserved. Today they are on display in Denmark attached to a replica body crafted using the original skeleton.
George Mallory's Frozen Remains
Lying face down on a frozen Everest slope lies the body of one of history's lost pioneers, George Mallory. In 1924, he and his partner Andrew Irvin attempted the impossible: to be the first humans ever to summit the tallest mountain on Earth. They set off with what would now be considered primitive climbing gear and bottled oxygen. Their last confirmed sighting was 800 feet from the summit; they would never be seen alive again.
For 75 years, the fate of the two climbers remained a mystery. Their disappearance made world headlines, and the only evidence found of the two men was one of their empty oxygen bottles and an ice axe which belonged to Irvin.
In 1999, an NOVA-BBC sponsored expedition led by Eric Simonson was launched to try to find Mallory and Irvin. This expedition used the location of Irvin's ice axe as a center-point for a search. Within hours they made history: 700 feet below the location of the axe, expedition member Conrad Anker discovered a frozen body dressed in wool and fur. They believed they had found Andrew Irvin but instead, the name tags on the body's tattered coats revealed it to be George Mallory's remains.
The body was perfectly preserved. The skin and hair were sun bleached by the harsh UV rays at that altitude. Only his clothing was in bad shape, ripped to shreds by the unrelenting wind. While no photos were ever taken of the body's face, Anker reported that it was undamaged, and a solemn expression remained frozen onto its features. How Mallory died became apparent when the researchers cleared away the rocks from around the body. A broken climbing rope was found tied around Mallory's waist, suggesting that Irvin and Mallory had been tied together and one of them fell. His ice axe was found just feet from his body, leading researchers to believe that Mallory had stopped his own fall, but the axe-shaped puncture found on his forehead suggested that he was killed in the process. Before leaving, the researchers buried Mallory's body in a cairn.
The biggest mystery of all still remains: Did Mallory reach the summit? An extensive search of the body's pockets revealed that his camera was missing, along with a photo of his daughter that he intended to leave at the summit.
Andrew Irvin has never been found.
The Cherchen Man
This discovery forced historians to rethink their beliefs about the interaction of Eastern and Western civilizations, because this 3,000-year-old mummy is caucasian yet was buried in China. One of several hundred mummies that are now known as China's Celtic Mummies, he was found alongside three women and a baby in Turkestan, China. The clothes he was wearing were as baffling as the mummy itself: Perfectly preserved, they were made of European wool.
DNA testing has confirmed that the Cherchen Man, and those buried with him, were indeed of European decent. Yet how they ended up in China is still an unsolved mystery. Carbon dating of items found in the tomb confirmed it was an ancient site and not a modern hoax. The dry, salty air of the tomb is responsible for the perfect condition of the mummy and artifacts which include wheat, wool cloths, blankets, and even a baby bottle.
At first glance, one would wonder why this 200-year-old body would make it on a list of best-preserved mummies. In this case, it's not the body itself, it's what lies inside her that puts her on this list.
In 1994, a cache of 242 naturally preserved mummies were found in the crypts of a church in Vác, Hungary. Among them, 28-year-old Terézia Hausmann. This unassuming young woman, who died in 1797, would hold a medical milestone that could potentially help in the fight against disease.
When tissue samples of Terézia's lungs were tested, they found the perfectly preserved genome of tuberculosis hidden inside. No doubt the young woman died during a tuberculosis outbreak at the dawn of the 19th century, along with many others buried alongside her. By comparing these samples with those of modern tuberculosis, scientists can see precisely how the disease has evolved in the last two centuries.
Ötzi the Iceman
Imagine stumbling onto a corpse so well-preserved that you think it may be a modern missing person only to later discover that you've come across the oldest naturally preserved mummy ever found. Meet Ötzi the Iceman.
Found half-submerged in ice in the Italian alps in 1991 by a group of mountain climbers, Ötzi the Iceman was first thought to be a modern corpse, the latest in a string of lost mountaineers. Instead, they found that this one had been on the mountain far longer... some 5,000 years longer.
In the decades since his discovery, we've learned that Ötzi the Iceman was between 35-45 years old when he died. He had a cache of weapons, hunting tools, and food with him and an arrowhead was found lodged in his shoulder. While the exact cause of death is unknown, prevailing theories range from exposure to the elements to a ritual sacrifice. The most accepted theory was that he bled to death as the result of the arrowhead.