So here I am...finally getting back into that series that I wanted to start back in October, when things got crazy. I hope y'all enjoy this journey into the exciting and totally underrated world of mummy studies.
Mummies Across Time and Space
|Xin Zhui, a.k.a. "The Diva Mummy"|
Mummies have also been found in other parts of the world like Europe and South America. I've done a little bit of work with European mummies (from Lithuania and from Italy) that were much younger (1700s and forward) than the Egyptian mummies or most of the mummies from Asia. The previously mentioned work with the Chilean mummies will be the first work I'll have ever done with South American mummies. The Chinchorro mummies, found in present day Chile and Peru, are the oldest artificially mummified human remains in the world. You heard that right. The oldest of these mummies predates the oldest Egyptian mummies by about 4,000 years!
Now, I could easily spend hours talking to you about the differences in mummies across the world because they are just so diverse and fascinating, but this is a blog post...despite my propensity to sometimes get a little long-winded. Suffice it to say that mummies can (and are) found in a variety of places on this planet and that they range in age from around 7,000 BC to much more modern mummies who died in say, the early 1900s (AD).
Types of Mummies
There are several ways that would could split up mummies by "type", but I'm just going to break it into two broad categories for today's purposes. First, you could have a "prepared", "artificial", or "anthropogenic" mummy. These terms all refer to bodies that did not undergo natural mummification as a product of the corpse's depositional environment. These mummies were instead created by intentional preparation of the bodies. Most people think of these kinds of mummies when they picture mummies. Long before embalming, mummification was common practice for dealing with the remains of the deceased in certain parts of the world. Most people think of Egypt, with their whole wrapping, organs in jars, and pulling the brain out through the nose things, but the way that various cultures prepared mummies are as unique as the cultures themselves. Often times, the bodies were eviscerated and packed with plant material like straw to help maintain the shape of the now hollowed out body. There were frequently local (or sometimes imported) oils, vinegars, and herbs used on the bodies. Bodies were typically tightly wrapped in linen or other textiles and placed in a well-ventilated area to allow for drying. Some bodies were later placed into coffins, sarcophagi, or even glass viewing cases.
|Ötzi the Iceman|
|Head of the Tollund Man|
As a fun side note, mummies don't have to be humans. (But you've probably heard of how the Egyptians mummified cats...because you're a smart one!) Egyptians also mummified dogs...and lots of them. I read a neat study a while back that looked at the ectoparasites on Egyptian dog mummies. I did a post about it, and later a presentation at a parasite seminar. (You can read it here, but please keep in mind that I wrote it a few years ago and I've learned a lot more about taphonomy and parasitology since then.) Egyptians also commonly mummified pet monkeys, gazelles, mongooses, and a variety of birds. Aside from pets, Egyptians mummified other animals, including crocodiles, baboons, fish, snakes, and even bulls, for religious purposes. I haven't really heard of any other cultures that mummified animals, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if such cultures existed.
The field of mummy studies is an ever-growing one. As we become more technologically advanced, we are given the opportunity to really examine mummies to help us answer questions about life in the past. Mummy studies give us insights into the worlds of people who lived long ago. By analyzing mummies, we are able to understand when these people died and often times under what circumstances. We learn about their diets, medical practices, and funerary rituals. We learn about their societies and are able to tell their long-since forgotten stories.
Mummy studies brings together researchers from all kinds of educational backgrounds. The expertise of archaeologists, anthropologists, radiologists, epidemiologists, forensic scientists, palynologists, medical historians, and, of course, archaeoparasitologists, are brought together to put together the stories of these mummies. The patterns of culture, diet, and disease begin to emerge as mummies reveal their secrets to these researchers.
If any of you are interested in mummy studies, I'd like to inform you of a mummy field school that is currently in the making to begin in the summer of 2016. The course will consist of 15 days in Italy studying the mummies of the region. You'll actually get to do hands-on analyses of some of these mummies as class projects after you learn from experts all about how such analyses are conducted! There's even a possibility that yours truly will be there as either faculty or staff...but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves! (Dissertation OP.)
Mummies and Archaeoparasitology
Many of you may have gotten this far asking the question, "So, when do we get to learn more about parasites?!?!" Okay, okay...let's get to the parasites! Like other areas of mummy studies, the recovery of parasite data is largely dependent on the preservation environment and on the available technology of the people studying mummy parasitism. The analysis of mummified remains can (and has) revealed evidence of ectoparasites (as you already know from talking about the ticks and hippoboscids found on the mummies of dogs from Egypt), helminths (i.e. "worms"), and even protozoans. Yes, there's a little something for every kind of parasitophiliac when it comes to mummy studies!
|Lice from a pre-columbian, Chilean mummy.|
Click here for a link to the paper.
|Stole this one from my major professor's Facebook page. |
It's an adult louse from a South American mummy!
|Paragonimus westermani eggs from |
the liver of a female, Korean mummy.
Click here for a link to the paper.
Another aspect of studying mummy parasites is to look for things that can't actually be seen with our human eyes. I'm talking of course about protozoan parasites (one of my favorite groups of parasitic organisms!). Because these are delicate, single-celled organisms, they don't preserve in the way that helminth eggs preserve. Instead of leaving behind a physical form that can be found with the aid of a microscope, these parasites leave behind molecular traces that can be detected with the use of serological test kits, such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA), or through the use of DNA detection techniques, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR). These techniques have been most frequently utilized to identify parasites in archaeological materials such as coprolites and latrine sediments, but they have also been applied to mummy studies. For example, researchers have revealed that ancient peoples were infected with malaria (caused by Plasmodium sp.) by analyzing bone, muscles, and skin.
The conclusion of this section brings us back to the infinite awesomeness that will be the mummy field school mentioned earlier. Students will be working on independent research projects with the mummies. Some of those students will be looking specifically at the parasites that infected these individuals in life. It will be fascinating to see what new information will come from the systematic examination of these individuals over time.
The Moral of the Story
The world of mummy studies is a complex, interdisciplinary area with lots of discoveries just waiting to emerge from hard work of enthusiastic researchers. What we can learn from the past through archaeological material is always a puzzle, but mummies give us the unique ability to equate data with a particular individual rather than guessing at how many people are represented by a group of coprolites or a gram of latrine sediments. Understanding the diets, medical advancements, seasonality of death, and of course the diseases of mummies allows us to paint an epidemiological picture of past societies one person at a time. As I grow to be a more competent archaeoparasitologist, I can only hope that my path will cross with more and more of these astoundingly interesting individuals and the parasites that they hold on or within them.