World's Best Preserved Mummies
Preserving the Dead
Humanity has 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 their bodies was a regular occurrence. This was typical of many ancient cultures. Some dead are mummified as a political statement, others by complete accident.
While Tutankhamun may be the most famous mummy in the world, he certainly is not the best preserved. There are other examples of mummification, either natural or otherwise, that leave King Tut for dead, no pun intended. I've collected some of the world's best preserved mummies. Each has a story to tell and the infamy behind some of these corpses is nothing short of mind blowing.
Eva "Evita" Perón
When she died from cancer in 1952, Eva Perón was one of most beloved women in Argentina. 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 procedure included replacing the blood and water weight with glycerin which preserved all internal organs, including the brain. The process took one year to complete.
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 those sixteen years, the body was subject to many escapades including vandalism with a hammer and the sexual fantasies of a caretaker driven mad by the body's lifelike appearance.
In 1971, the exiled Juan Perón was able to reclaim the body of Evita and maintained it in 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 which Madonna played Evita and most recently, a musical play featuring music composition by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
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 no attempts to mummify a body for generations had ever been attempted before, the Russians had to invent a highly complex process of embalming. Unlike Evita's embalming 30 years later which required little post embalming maintenance, Lenin's body 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 as to weather or not to bury Lenin for good.
Sometimes mother nature can preserve a body even better than embalming can. Meet John Torrington, Petty Officer of the fabled Franklin Expedition to the Arctic Circle. He died of tuberculosis and lead poisoning at age 20 and was buried in the frozen tundra along with three others at 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 block of ice inside, they were astonished, and frightened, by what was inside. John Torrington stared back at them, literally.
Frozen in a block of ice for over 150 years, the body was perfectly preserved. The only sign of decay, the shriving of the eyelids and lips. He still wore the cloths he died in, arms and legs still tied together to make 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 on board ship. In his lungs, 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.
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, to kill bacteria, zinc salts to petrify the body and its organs, alcohol, salicylic acid and glycerin. The end result was nothing short of extraordinary. The body was so sell preserved she came known as "Sleeping Beauty."
For over 80 years she remained perfectly preserved. Only in the last five years as 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 mummies eyes 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 it's original size
Over 500 years ago, 15-year-old La Doncella and two other children were left to freeze to death by the Inca in a ritual sacrifice. Sitting cross legged high at 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 sacrifice finds in the Andes. 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 would live her life as a royal until the day of sacrifice comes. Most remarkable about the mummy was the condition of her hair which was elaborately braided. Scientists even found a few grey hairs, suggesting deep emotional toll the knowledge of her ultimate fate had on her.
The Wet Mummy
Imagine the average construction worker, digging a foundation for a new road with a backhoe and you instead uncover a national treasure. That's exactly what happened in China in March 2012. Submerged for 600 years in a water logged coffin, a remarkably preserved Ming Dynasty mummy was discovered not in some rural village or a long lost mountainside crypt but in the center of town 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
She is undisputed, the single 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 and her limbs are bendable. Her hair is complete and there is Type-A blood in her veins! The condition of the body is such that an autopsy was performed. Now 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 autopsy revealed many clues about her life. She was overweight, suffered from lower back pain, had clogged arteries and had a severely damaged heart. Basically she is the oldest diagnosed case of heart disease.
The Greenland Mummies
In 1972, eight Eskimo mummies were discovered in a frozen tomb in Qilakitsoq. Freeze dried in the cold temperature, the mummies were of a family. Carbon dating placed the tomb at 1460, making them the oldest mummies in Greenland. The bodies were of three heavily tattooed women dressed in over 78 pieces of fur and skins. Piled on top of them was a young boy, equally as well dressed, who's face had 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 younger boy likely died from his Calve-Perthes disease. The infant was buried alive according to ancient Inuit custom. The cause of death of the other bodies 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, designated her status as a priestess, something rare with women. Lived 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.
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 same 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 outdoors to this day.
Natural mummification or incorruption is one of the stipulations the Catholic Church requires for an individual to canonized as a saint. In this case we have a remarkable example. Her name was Zita, a maid who passed away in 1272. She served a wealthy Italian family who often overworked her. A spiritual woman, several times she was caught stealing bread to feed the poor, never complained or rebelled. 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 discovered to have naturally mummified. She was canonized in 1696 and her body has remained on public display for over 700 years.
She was born a miller's daughter in 1844 in Lourdes, France. Throughout her life, she reported 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, miracles are still being reported.
Bernadette died at age 35 from tuberculosis in 1879. During canonization, her body was exhumed in 1909 and was discovered incorrupt. She was exhumed again in 1919 where 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 made and place 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 with 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 home area. She would spend the remainder of her life in service. In 1985 her body was exhumed and beautified and in 2003 was officially canonized.
Here is a mummy who's life after death was as bizarre as his reputation. Emlur McCurdy, was an unlucky robbery whose unsuccessful explotes cost him his life. In 1911, he and a gang of robbers attacked a train they believed contained a high value safe on board. They discovered the train the robbed was nothing more than a passenger train will little spoils. After escaping, 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 person. For five years, the body was on public display. A bizarre ritual soon formed where vistiors 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 the body began sixty 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 discovered McCurdy. Originally thinking it was wax mannequin, one of McCurdy's arms was accidentally broken off. When they discovered bone inside the arm, the authorities were alerted.
During the autopsy, the examinator opened the corpse' mouth and discovered a 1924 penny and a ticket stub. Backtracking later revealed the mummy to be none other than that of McCurdy. The body still had it's original autopsy and embalming incisions and it's 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. Where the average lifespan of an Egyptian was less than forty years, Ramesses lived to be 91.
Sitting on the throne for sixty-six 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. 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 every found in Egypt. Unlike other mummies, including that of Tutankhamun, where the nose was crushed by the pressure of the wraps, Ramesses' nose was intact. A distinctive hook shape nose that became his most famous feature.
A 1974 examination revealed old battle wounds, a severe abscess tooth and severe arthritis. A stick was discovered lodged in the neck of the mummy, leading some to believe the head was accidentally knocked off during mummification. Today Ramesses lies in state at the Cairo Museum.
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. So well preserved was this Pre-Iron Age corpse that he fooled his discovers 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-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 and 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.
Lying face down in the frozen Everest slopes, 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 be considered primitive climbing gear and bottled oxygen. Their last confirmed sighting was 800 feet from the summit top and they would never been seen alive again.
For 75 years the fate of the two climbers remained a mystery. Their disappearances made world headlines and the only evidence of the two men found 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 exception used extrapolation using the location of Irvin's ice axe as a center-point. 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 to have found Andrew Irvin, but instead the name tags on the body's tattered coats revealed the body as that of George Mallory.
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 the face was undamaged, a solemn expression remained frozen onto its features. How Mallory died became apparent when the researchers cleared away the rock from around the body. A broken climbing rope was found tied around Mallory's waist, suggesting that Irvin and Mallory were 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 an axe shaped puncture was found on his forehead also 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
Finding this mummy forced historians to rethink what they knew about the interaction of Eastern and Western Civilizations. For this 3,000 year old mummy is caucasian yet he was discovered 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 equally as baffling and the mummy itself. Perfectly preserved, they were made of european wool.
DNA testing confirmed definitively that the Cherchen Man and those buried with him were indeed of European decent. Yet how he ended up in China is still an unsolved mystery. Carbon dating of items found in the tomb itself 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 the artifacts which include wheat, wool cloths and blankets and even a baby bottle.
At first glance, one would wonder why this 200 year old body would make the best preserved mummies. In fact, it is not the body itself, it's what lies inside her. 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 from this infection. Along with many others buried alongside her were victims of a tuberculosis outbreak at the dawn of the 19th century. By comparing these preserved samples with those of modern Tuberculosis, scientists can see precisely how the disease has evolved in the last two centuries and thus pushing for better treatment.
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