Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Mummies: The dream of everlasting life

by Kathryn Hadley

‘Mummies: The dream of everlasting life’ opened last week at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. The exhibition includes a display of over 60 mummies, both human and animal, from all over the world, providing an insight into mummification from prehistory to the present day. Mummification is a phenomenon which occurred, and still occurs today, in different periods in time and in places all over the world. The mummies on display range from bog bodies discovered in northern Europe, to an Egyptian mummy complete with its sarcophagus, to mummies from Asia, Oceania and South America and include naturally mummified bodies, as well as mummies which are the result of human intervention. The main feature of the exhibition is the body of the 5,300 year-old Iceman Oetzi, discovered in the Alps in 1991. The mummies are displayed along with artefacts used in rituals and thus showcased in their cultural context. Interactive features also complete the exhibits with information on the origins, living conditions, nutrition and illnesses of the mummies, which extensive research and examination of the cadavers has revealed.

Mummies tend to be traditionally associated with Ancient Egypt and, for a long time, the term only referred to these embalmed corpses from Egypt. Mummification, however, describes the general process whereby the natural decomposition process of a body is inhibited and the corpse is preserved as a result of certain specific chemical, physical and climatic circumstances. Mummification can be applied to human bodies as well as animals and to bodies from any age in which the soft tissue has been preserved.

A distinction should be made between natural and artificial or intentional mummification, which involves an embalming process or laying the body in a natural area favorable to mummification. Natural mummification can occur in various environments, such as caves, deserts, ice and bogs. In caves, for example, the constant temperature, humidity and darkness prevents the growth of bacteria and mummies have notably been discovered in caves in desert areas, Siberia and in Central Europe. In desert areas, both hot and cold, bodies are naturally stripped of their fluids by aridity and wind and preserved as a result. Mummified corpses have also been discovered in salt deserts, salt lakes and seas, where the salt has dried out the body, preventing bacterial growth and eventually mummifying the corpse, as well as in bogs, where bodies are depleted from oxygen due to an excess of water and preserved by certain acidic and antibacterial substances.

Mummies have been discovered across the world, from Ancient Egypt, to Asia, South America and Europe. In Asia, both naturally and artificially mummified bodies have been found, primarily in desert areas. In South America, mummies have similarly been discovered mostly in desert areas on the Pacific coast and in the Andean mountain range. In some areas mummies were also intentionally mummified in accordance with the beliefs and cults of local Andean culture groups. In Europe, prehistoric groups did not practice mummification and mummified bodies were the result of natural preservation. In the late Middle Ages, however, mummies were brought to Europe from Egypt along with medical knowledge from the Orient and at the end of the 19th century, Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition gave rise to a second wave of imported mummies. Whilst in the Middle Ages in Europe only the bodies of emperors, kings and popes were embalmed, the process subsequently spread to members of the nobility as the practice of organising large and lavish funerals also developed. The practice continued during the 20th century. Lenin’s body has been preserved, for example, in a mausoleum in the Red Square since 1925; Eva Péron, who died in 1953, was also embalmed.

For further information about the process of mummification, read our article The Making of a Modern Mummy

Mummies: The dream of everlasting life
Until October 25th
South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
Via Museo 43
I-39100 Bolzano
Telephone: 00 39 0471 320 100
Photos: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. From top to bottom: Ancient Peruvian Mummy from the Inca period (Native American Dept. of Bonn University); Howler Monkey, Gran Chaco, Argentina (Schleswig Holstein Museum Found.); woman with two children, pre-Columbian period, South America (Reiss-Engelhorn-Museums, Mannheim); Michael Orlovits (1765-1806), Dominican Church of Vác, Hungary (Hungarian Natural History Museum).

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