The mummy - a silent witness of the past
By Kim Susan Se-jeong
The word “mummy” makes most people think of horror movies, but these preserved bodies are valuable time machines scientists can use to learn about the past. Scientists have been studying mummies both to learn about past generations and to apply the knowledge to future ones.
Mummies are preserved bodies whose skin has not decayed. The word mummy refers to both naturally formed and manmade mummies.
Out of the manmade mummies, Egyptian mummies are the most well-known. Egyptians, who believed that the soul was immortal, removed the organs from the body and treated it with preservatives to prevent decay.
On the other hand, naturally formed mummies are created from coming into contact with chemicals or extreme temperatures and having limited exposure to moisture. These naturally preserved bodies have not been treated by human hands. Thus, all their organs are intact, giving more information about their past lives.
For example, “Otzi,” the Iceman discovered at the Alps, was buried by snow approximately 5,300 years ago. On the other hand, dried-out mummies have been found in the hot, desert-like areas of China and Peru. Also, some mummies from the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) are the results of a Korean burial method of encasing the coffin in plaster.
Studying the past:
Scientists can find out a lot from these mummies, but studying mummies was not always a scientific procedure.
In the early 19th and 20th century, studying mummies, especially those from Egypt, was more for entertainment value than for educational purposes. Rather than treating these mummies like valuable cultural artifacts, these early ‘scientists’ dissected the preserved bodies and threw out the remains afterwards.
Contrarily, in the recent years, mummies have been receiving star treatment from excavation to transportation, research and storage. Scientists also opt for non-destructive research methods to keep the mummy intact.
The first step in the research process is taking photographs of the mummy exactly as it is found. The mummy then undergoes X-ray and CT scans, which tell scientists about the bone structure, any physical damages and diseases it may have had in life.
The most important part of the research is the mummy’s body itself. The teeth are especially interesting because the amount of decay and wear can show what the mummy ate in its past life.
In most cases, the body is only pierced when there are absolutely no other possible alternatives, and even then in a relatively unseen area. Advanced scientific procedures, such as mass spectrometry, can usually give more information than simply dissecting the body, such as the age and the cause of death.
For the future:
Studying mummies can do more than just give information about the past. It can also be beneficial to present-day generations.
One example is influenza research. The 1918 flu epidemic, aka the “Spanish Flu,” took the lives of 50 million people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is using this virus to find a cure for H5N1 bird flu.
But just how did they get a sample of a virus that disappeared 100 years ago? The CDC found the virus from the lungs of a female mummy in Alaska, and extracted it for experimental purposes.
Mummies are not just monsters in horror films and Halloween costumes. They can be valuable links to the past and the future.
The writer is a Korea Times intern.