23 June 2007

New Salt Mummy from Persia (with multiple updates)

Not long after the last Parthian emperor fell before the sword of Ardashir, the first Sassanian Persian King of Kings (228 AD) -- thus setting off the events that would lead to the death of Severus Alexander and his mother, Julia Mamaea, and to a lot more blogging on my part -- an insignificant salt-mine worker from northwestern Iran lost his life in a catastrophic rock collapse. Just this month, the man's body — preserved in salt — was discovered in the very same spot where he died. The unlucky fellow is the sixth "salt man" to be found at the Chehr Abad mine in Zanjan province.

The head pictured above is not from the new mummy -- who will be left in situ under a pile of salt and dirt until better means of museum preservation are developed -- but part of a body discovered in 1993/1994. This miner was about 35 years old, with long white hair (bleached by the salt?) and a beard. When discovered, he was wearing leather boots and had on or near him three iron knives, a silver needle, a sling, parts of a leather rope, a grindstone, a walnut (one?!?), some pottery sherds, a woollen half trouser and other textile fragments, and a few broken bones. He sported at least one earring. C14 tests date the mummy to ± 1745 BP ("Before Present", as scientists like to say).


Salt Mummy 4, found in March 2005, is the best preserved body. He was about sixteen years of age and 165-170 cm (5' 3-4") tall. The lad wore two earrings and was dressed in a knee-length quilted garment and thigh-high leggings, and had an iron dagger in a scabbard around his waist. Nearby were two pottery vessels (containing oil) that may have been used as lanterns. Niels Lynnerup, a mummification expert from the University of Copenhagen, will attempt to reconstruct the teenager's face, too youthful to have had any trace of a beard. To do this, he will use around 1,000 MRI images of the body and face. After the reconstruction of the face, a polymer statue of the 'salt boy' will be produced.

The salt mummies are virtually unique. Two flattened 'salt men' were recovered in the world's most ancient salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria in 1573 and 1734 . This mine was in operation until the 4th century BC, and closed down after a catastrophic landslide which devastated the Salzberg Valley and buried the unhappy miners. Their skin was said to have been intact and only tinged brown from the effects of salt. Both were both given decent burial but, as heathens, outside of the church graveyard.

No chance of that today: we are all ghouls now.

Mark Pollard of Oxford University (with whom I had the pleasure of working many years ago) and Don Brothwell of York University will study the mummies in the coming year. They’ll take DNA samples of the five ‘salt men’ and will examine their diet, health, and age before death. It is ironic in a way that, when the scientists are finished, we shall know more about their way of life and genes than we do about Ardashir, King of Kings.

You can stay updated on the fate of the 'salt men' on the excellent Mummy News site.



Further update (8 February 2008): New Mining License Endangers Ancient Iranian Salt Mummies http://www.cais-soas.com/News/2008/February2008/07-02.htm

Update 2 (16 May 2008): Ancient Salt Men of Zanjan Find Permanent Residence
http://www.cais-soas.com/News/2008/May2008/14-05-ancient.htm

Update 3 (1 July 2008): Iranian, foreign experts to excavate salt men’s necropolis . A joint team of Iranian and foreign experts will collaborate on a project to excavate the Chehrabad Salt Mine, where all six of the “salt men” were discovered. Archaeologists from Germany, England, and Austria will participate in the project expected to begin in spring 2009. http://www.mehrnews.ir/en/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=708534
(via Antonio Lombatti).

Update 4 (12 June 2010): Iran's Salt Men Saved! (Via RogueClasicism)

In February 2009, Iranian media reported that four of the salt men kept at the Zolfaqari Museum were in a critical condition due to loose plexiglass cases that had been designed for storing these mummies. The cases were not hermetically sealed and changes in air temperature and pressure had created cracks in them, allowing bacteria and insects to enter and do damage to the mummies.

A year and a half and $ 75,000 later, we hear that three showcases, each at a cost of 250,000,000 rials (about $25,000), have been specially designed for the salt men. The cases have been equipped with devices, which enable experts to monitor conditions inside and keep them under full control.

Inshallah!


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