Ata, Ötzi and Tutankhamun: What′s so fascinating about mummies? | Culture Slot | DW | 26.03.2018
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Ata, Ötzi and Tutankhamun: What's so fascinating about mummies?

Mummies tell us stories of past times, with some going as far back as thousands of years ago. But how does mummification work? And what are the world's most famous mummies?

In the science fiction TV series "The X-Files," two FBI agents chase aliens. By now, however, there's a good reason why protagonists Fox Mulder and Dana Scully could close up shop. The mummy discovered in the Chilean Atacama desert in 2003, long thought to have been an alien, has turned out to be human after all. Researchers found out that the mummy was a prematurely born female baby with genetic defects. It's the unusual form of the head that makes the skeleton resemble an alien — or, at least, how we imagine them. 

We thought it was a ...

It's anything but easy to scientifically categorize such findings. A mummy resting in the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum was long believed to have been a singer from Ancient Egypt, but wave scans eventually revealed it was actually a castrated man.

The causes of death are also often less spectacular than initially thought. For instance, intensive, multi-year research proved that Tutankhamun had not been assassinated, as was previously assumed.

Read more: Syphilis-ridden Swiss mummy identified as Boris Johnson's ancestor

The golden mask of Tutankhamun (Getty Images/H. Magerstaedt)

The mask of Tutankhamun was also recovered from his tomb

Mummies are not all the same

Generally speaking, a mummy denotes a corpse that has not decomposed over time. Researchers distinguish between intentional mummification, which results from an artificial procedure, and passive mummification, which results from a natural process. Both types of mummification, however, hamper the bacterial activity that usually destroys a body's soft tissues.

Read more:  Egyptian mummy gets a new face

In the case of intentional mummification, the inner organs are removed. In Ancient Egypt, the empty body cavity was filled with herbs. Sodium carbonate was the embalming agent of choice because of its ability to draw water out of a body. After the corpse was rubbed with essential oils, it was then wrapped in strips of linen. In some regions, goat skins were also used. Nowadays, a solution of formaldehyde and menthol alcohol is used for embalmment.

Heat and cold hamper bacterial activity

A neolithic man looks out over the ic-covered mountains (Picture-alliance/dpa/M. Rattini/Port au Prince Pictures)

Ötzi was the subject of a film screened at the Locarno Film Festival in 2017 

Passive mummification, in contrast, is a purely natural process. Bacteria that normally destroy soft tissues cannot be active when it's either extremely cold or hot over a long period of time, meaning a body is spared from decomposing. The most famous example of a mummification process under extremely cold conditions is the glacier mummy Ötzi.

To see more fascinating mummies and the histories behind them, please see our picture gallery at the top of this article. 

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