Sunday, January 18, 2015

Show Me the Mummy!: A Journey into the World of Mummy Studies

This week I embarked upon my first collaborations with an amazing person that I met my very first semester here. She was an undergraduate back in those days, but she has since grown into working on a graduate degree through a dental program and...oh yeah, she's a Fulbright scholar. ;) She spent a year in Chile examining the hair (which, apparently wasn't always attached to the head) of mummies. I am honored to be joining the effort to get a few papers out from the data that she collected before she made her way back here for dental school. Until these data are published, I can't really say too much about what we are doing, but meeting with her earlier this week got me to thinking that I should do a blogpost on mummy studies.

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"
As soon as you read the word "mummy", I'm sure your first thought was "EGYPT!"...or at least that word was in whatever your first thought was. Yes, there are some awesome mummies in Egypt and those are the mummies that have garnered the post popularity in global media. However, there are LOTS of other places in the world that can boast of their own mummies. There are mummies in Asia...that's right, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, China all have mummies. In fact, one of the most well-preserved mummies ever discovered was the body of a noble woman named Xin Zhui who died in 163 BCE. She lived a lavish lifestyle, but died of a heart attack around the age of 50. The care taken to preserve her body along with all of the artifacts found over 2,000 years after she was entombed have earned her the nickname "The Diva Mummy". Her body was so perfectly preserved that when researchers examined the body, they commented that it was almost like doing an autopsy of a recently deceased person. Her limbs were flexible and her organs were remarkably in-tact. Mummy researchers learned a lot about the health of this person, including that she harbored tapeworms! (Yay parasites!)

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
However, there's more than one way to make a mummy. Some of the most famous mummies in the world are the bodies of people who were mummified unintentionally as a product of the environment in which they died. These of most frequently referred to as "spontaneous" mummies. Arid environments are particularly good for naturally drying out the body. Thus we have some excellent mummies found in desert regions, like the Chinchorro mummies found in South America's Atacama desert that I mentioned earlier. Mummies can also be found in arid environments that are cold, like the mummy known famously as Ötzi the Iceman. This mummy was discovered by some Germans hiking in the Alps. The hikers thought they had stumbled upon the body of another hiker who had had an accident, but it turns out that the body was 5,000 years old. Political issues arose when Italy and Austria both tried to claim the body, but in the end it was determined to have been on Italian soil.

Head of the Tollund Man
Bodies can also be preserved by the environments peat bogs. When a person's body is left in a peat bog, the bones tend to dissolve because of the acidity of the bog itself (remember that bones have lots of calcium phosphate, which is basic in nature). However, the acidity of bogs along with having little to no oxygen, and lower ambient temperatures creates an amazing preservation environment for human skin. The skin preserves extremely well, though it does get crazy dark in color making them appear almost like statues in the photographs that I've seen. These conditions include highly acidic water, low temperature, and a lack of oxygen, and combine to preserve but severely tan their skin. While the skin is well-preserved, the bones are generally not, due to the acid in the peat having dissolved the calcium phosphate of bone. The Tollund Man is one of the most famous bog bodies, belonging to a man who was hanged sometime between 375-210 BCE.

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.

Mummy Studies
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.
One of the coolest things about ectoparasites is that they tend to preserve well since we are typically referring to arthropods like ticks, fleas, and lice when we use the term "ectoparasite". In terms of human mummies, lice are the paydirt of ectoparasite-related archaeoparasitology. Lice can not only be found in their adult states on mummies, but also exist in the form of nits and nymphs. For those who don't know, "nits" are cases that house developing lice and are cemented onto the shafts of hair in an infested person. These nits, both with and without nymphs inside of them, can be found on the hairs of mummies. Counting the number of these nits on a small section of hair can allow for quantified comparative data across various analyses of head lice and their mummified hosts. Currently, I'm involved in the preparation of a paper or two that will look at the lice of mummies from the Atacama desert of South America. I'll be sure to post all about it when this paper (or papers) is (are) published. Be on the lookout! ;)

Stole this one from my major professor's Facebook page.
It's an adult louse from a South American mummy!
Most of the studies published with regard to archaeoparasitology of mummies focus on the discovery of parasitic helminths. In fact, the first archaeoparasitological study ever published (Ruffer in 1910) described the discovery of calcified Schistosoma sp. eggs in the kidneys of two 12th dynasty Egyptian mummies. Since those days, mummies from around the world have  revealed evidence of infections with roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides, Strongyloides stercoralis, Trichostrongylus sp., Trichuris trichiura, etc.), tapeworms (most often Taenia sp.), and flukes (Clonorchis sinensisDicrocoelium dendriticum, Gymnophalloides seoi, Metagonimus yokogawai, Schistosoma sp., etc.).

Paragonimus westermani eggs from
the liver of a female, Korean mummy.
Click here for a link to the paper.
My personal experience with mummies is limited, but growing with every passing semester. I've seen Ascaris lumbricoides and Trichuris trichiura eggs in a mummy from Lithuania and Clonorchis sinensis eggs from a Korean mummy. I've also analyzed mummies from other places and not found any parasite eggs. I'm hoping to expand this in the future as I become more involved with mummy studies.

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.

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