Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Questions and Answers about Mummies Around the World


On occasion, visitors to the Mummy Tombs have written with interesting (and sometimes strange) questions about mummies found around the world. Here is a selection of their questions with my answers. If you have a question about mummies, you can write to me. If I can, I will post an answer here.


Missing Sailor

QUESTION from Brian: After seeing your website, I decided to email you with a request. The 'Mummy Autopsy' series on Discovery Channel featured a mummy of a sailor in the British Navy (circa 1700). This particular sailor was of African descent, and had a particularly hard life. Unfortunately I am in England and I would like to know more about this episode of the series, as I couldn't view it when it was aired in the U.S. Do you have any information on this unfortunate person, as I'm not sure if it will be screened in England. I have a vested interest in this 'unknown sailor' and any help you are able to give me will be greatly appreciated. ANSWER: I did not see the show myself...but I suspect that this is the British sailor who is really a French sailor from LaSalle's last expedition. You may want to read a great book about the discovery of the sailor--and his ship: From a Watery Grave: The Discovery and Excavation of La Salle's Shipwreck, La Belle. Younger readers may be interested in my own book, Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America, which has a chapter about the French sailor and his facial reconstruction by artist Amanda Danning.

Shrunken Head

QUESTION from Jim: I have recently acquired a Jivaro head and wanted to seek proper cleaning and care tips from you. I am hesitant to take any steps prior to consulting with those more knowledgeable. Any assistance, tips or other informational sources would be greatly appreciated. ANSWER: Sorry, but I have no idea. Your best bet is to contact a museum and ask a curator there.

The Lyon Quintuplets

QUESTION from a visitor: I am researching the Lyon quintuplets who were born near Kevil, Kentucky, about 1896. They only lived approximately 2 weeks and were the first quints born in the US (?). Supposedly their mother would not let them be buried for fear someone would try to steal the bodies, and she left them under her bed for several years, finally selling them to a museum for $100. I am trying to find the name of the museum. The story was told on the History Channel, but I did not get the name of the museum and location. I live approximately 5 miles from where the quints were born and died. ANSWER: The mummified bodies of the Lyon quintuplets were given to the Army Medical Museum in Washington DC--it has since been renamed the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The accession number for the infants is 43411. There are two (brief) sources of information: Aufderheide's The Scientific Study of Mummies and Quigley's Modern Mummes. Both books have the same photo; the quality of the photo in Aufderheide's is better; the information in Quigley's is more detailed. Good luck with your research!

UPDATE: A relative of the family, RJ, wrote with further information about the quintuplets:  The children of  Oscar and Elizabeth Campbell Lyon, they were named Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul and were born April 29, 1896. According to RJ, they "were not the first set of quintuplets born in the US as the first set was born in 1875.  However, these were the first set of quintuplets that were born all male and all normal/average birth weight and all lived for several days/weeks. (The first set born in 1875 were all males, but one was stillborn and each only lived a few minutes/hrs. after birth, and their total weight was only about 10 lbs.) 

RJ continues, "Many have always said that the babies would have lived had they not been 'wooled to death'.  Oscar and Elizabeth Lyon lived near the railroad tracks in/near Mayfield, KY.  Hundreds of people upon hearing of the multiple births soon became spectators and  the train would even make  a special stop @ the Lyon household/farm.  So, as a result, the children were handled way too much for newborn infants and no telling what they contracted as a result. If born in today's world with modern standards/technology, each weighing in at 5+ lbs at birth and all healthy, with a lot of TLC, they would probably live to maturity.... The babies were heavily embalmed by an undertaker in/near Paducah KY, causing their mummified state." 

Fragonard Museum

QUESTION from Mark: I can find little in the way of the Fragonard Museum of Mummies, images, techniques, etc. I'm wondering if you know of any texts. Thank you. ANSWER: It's actully called Musée Fragonard d'Alfort which resides at the Ecole nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort.

It's not exactly a mummy museum but an anatomical museum near Paris. You'll find some information about the museum and Fragonard, an 18th Century anatomist, who created about 3,000 human "sculptures" before he was fired for reasons of insanity, in Brier's The Encyclopedia of Mummies. You might also find what you're looking for on the museum's website which does include many photos of some of his famous "works." The site is in French, but what you are interested in is called "Le cabinet de curiosités" (shown at the bottom of this page). If you can't make a trip to Paris, you can order Fragonard Museum: The Ecorchés which has photographs of the works you want to know more about.

Microbiology of Mummies

QUESTION from Peggy: I am a nursing student (RN) at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond, Wisconsin and I am doing a research paper on microbes (microbiology) of ancient mummies. I can find quite a bit of information about the mummies and the discoveries themselves, but I can't seem to find any information (valid or otherwise) about how they determined that certain diseases existed or what particular problems that mummy had. I would like to report about the scientific evidence (i.e. DNA testing) of these mummies and how the authorities came to their conclusions. Do you have any insights? Any direction would be most helpful. ANSWER: One of the books you want to find is Disease by Joyce Filer. Not much DNA has been found in mummies--the conditions that help mummification seem to destroy DNA, so there's very little here. Some South American mummies (the Incas) have had a few minor studies done. The new book by Arthur Aufderheide, The Scientific Study of Mummies also has some helpful information. 

Elasticity of Mummies

QUESTION from Linda: I have been avidly reading your website, as well as the numerous, helpful links you have provided. Thank you very much for this great information! I have been unable to find any discussions, either on the internet or in the books on loan from my local library, about the degree of pliability or stiffness of a mummy.  Before X-Ray technology, the study of mummies required that the body be unwrapped and samples taken of skin, hair, etc. My question is how elastic is a mummy?  Can you move an arm joint or bend/unbend a finger?  Or is the body so stiff that an attempt to change the position of the hand causes it to break? Also, does this pliability relate to the age of the mummy?  Would a newer mummy bend easily, an older one hardly at all, and very old mummies not bend at all? ANSWER: Thanks for writing, Linda. I'm glad my website was able to help you.  Now for your question: mummies range in elasticity. Mostly, it depends on the manner of mummification more than anything else. For example, Egyptian mummies were dried; therefore, they are quite brittle when found. Bog bodies, on the other hand, were immersed in water for up to a few thousand years. This bath allowed the bodies of these accidental mummies to remain flexible (their bones often decalcified); when they were discovered, their limbs were so pliable that plaster casts of the bodies had to be made to make sure that (after study) they were returned to the original position in which they were found.. I'm glad my website was able to help you.  Now for your question: mummies range in elasticity. Mostly, it depends on the manner of mummification more than anything else. For example, Egyptian mummies were dried; therefore, they are quite brittle when found. Bog bodies, on the other hand, were immersed in water for up to a few thousand years. This bath allowed the bodies of these accidental mummies to remain flexible (their bones often decalcified); when they were discovered, their limbs were so pliable that plaster casts of the bodies had to be made to make sure that (after study) they were returned to the original position in which they were found.

Lady Dai?

QUESTION from Rebecca: I have enjoyed your website a lot. I have tried to obtain information about the tomb of the Marquess of Tai (Hsin Chui). She is considered the best preserved mummy at the present. She is from the Han period, 2000 years old. Her tomb is considered like King Tut's in China. All my inquiries on the Internet were in vain, and I was a little disappointed when I did not find any information about her on your site. Please let me know if you have any information about her on your site. ANSWER: You're right, I don't have any information about her on my site--and she is a very interesting mummy. She is sometimes called Lady Dai (so you might try researching this spelling). There is, however, a great book on the subject for younger readers. Christine Liu-Perkins' At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui was recently published to great reviews. Lots of photos and information inside!

The Drink of Buddhist Mummies? 

QUESTION from Mike: Several years ago, I caught the tail-end of a documentary about a self-mummification process practiced in Asia among monks. I think they drank some kind of terpene resin (i.e., extract from evergreens) over a period of months or years until they completely became immobilized and died (usually in the lotus position). I've done several searches to find more info on this topic with little luck. Am I imagining this or did this practice really take place, and if so among whom? ANSWER: Mike, I just came across a chapter in a book by Heather Pringle called The Mummy Congress which has information about the self-mummification process used by the Buddhist Monks in Japan. Pringle does mention the drink and the entire process plus gives some references to other sources of information.


Catholic Mummies

QUESTION from R: I recently watched a program about mummies. The most interesting bit of information was that the popes of the Catholic Church are mummified as the catholic religion is the only other group to believe in resurrection as the Egyptians did. Being raised a Catholic, this struck me as odd.  I have not been able to find any other information on the subject.  If you could point me in the right direction or provide information it would be greatly appreciated. ANSWER: I didn't see the program but I've had a number of enquiries lately about Catholic mummies. You will want to find a copy of the book Modern Mummes by Christine Quigley and Deaths of the Popes by Wendy Reardon. 

Reardon's book presents material on the exhumations of Silvester II, Clement II, St. Leo IX, St. Gregory VII, Hadrian IV, Innocent III, Urban IV, Celestine V, Boniface VIII, Urban VI, Antipope Benedict XIII, Innocent IX, and Blessed John XXIII, among others. Admittedly, some of the information is rather slim, but readers interested in knowing which popes were preserved will be rewarded.

A typical example is Reardon's report on Innocent IX. She quotes a church historian (from 1606) who wrote (after he witnessed the exhumation): "The body was wrapped in a gold chasuble with other papal insignia, with a gold miter, rind, and crucifix on his chest. The body was whole, but the head is not decomposed."

In all, Reardon covers 404 popes and antipopes, along with a brief description of the legend of Pope Joan who may have died after she was bound to a horse's tail, dragged through Rome, and stoned until dead. The book also includes 147 photographs, and nine appendices

Princess Fawn Hoof

QUESTION from Heather: I recently visited Short Cave in Park City, Kentucky. This is a privately owned cave but on the tour it was mentioned that an Indian mummy had been found in this cave. Her name was Princess Fawn Hoof. I have no other information. If you have any information or can tell me where to look for information I would greatly appreciate it. ANSWER:

A quick check on the Internet revealed that Fawn Hoof is mentioned on the Mammoth Cave website--Short Cave and Mammoth Cave are part of the same cave system but no details about the mummy are given there. The only written information I can find is in a book entitled Prehistoric Mummies From the Mammoth Cave Area, Foundations and Concepts, edited by Angelo I. George.

A brief history according to George's book: she was found in Short Cave in September 1811, was named Fawn Hoof in 1853, was exhibited at two world's fairs (1876 and 1893), was given to the Smithsonian Institution in 1876, and was later dissected and "her bones stored in a box out of public view." I do not know if the Smithsonian still has her bones in its back rooms or if they have been repatriated to a tribe of Native Americans for reburial...but it would be interesting to find out. You will find more details in the George book.

Soap Mummies

QUESTION from Calvin: My sister told me that North Carolina (where I live) is the home of soap mummies. She told me that the proper equation was an obese person, the soil of the Piedmont area, proper moisture, the person to have been in clothes and either no coffin or perhaps a primitive coffin. She said that with the humidity here and all those other ingredients that the people literally turned into soap and were mummified. Is this true? I've tried to look it up but have not been successful. Thanks again. ANSWER: I don't know if North Carolina is the real home of soap mummies--they have been found many places. They are mummies that have been produced by the formation of adipocere. According to Christine Quigley's Modern Mummes, "adipocere is a waxy or greasy decomposition product resulting from chemical changes in soft tissues under conditions of high humidity and high environmental temperature"--like NC in the summer? These mummies have been found in other places too including underwater. According to scientists, fatty acids combine with sodium to form "hard soap" (quite crumbly)--later potassium can be added to the mix and turn the hard soap into "soft soap" (more like toothpaste). Some adipocere mummies look pretty good (though not like artificially-made mummies in Egypt or South America), but most are pretty gross. Quigley's book includes one photo on page 23.

Little Al

QUESTION from David:I am in the 6th grade in Illinois. I cannot find information on the mummy called little Al. Can you help me? ANSWER: The mummy you are interested in is Little Al (though he was originally called Little Alice--somebody made a big mistake). A naturally-mummified member of the Woodland Indians, he was found in a Kentucky Cave March 8, 1875. According to Bob Brier's book The Encyclopedia of Mummies, "the body was lying on a ledge protruding from a wall of the cave with ashes and charred sticks in front of it. There was a bowl, pipe, arrow points, and several pairs of moccasins." He is supposedly one of the best preserved Native American mummies ever found. 

Non-Status Mummies

QUESTION from D: I'm a student at Western Washington University, I was doing some internet research looking for information on mummies. I'm doing a paper for my Anthropology class my subject for the paper is "Bodies were Mummified for Reasons other than Status," at least something close to those lines. I was wondering if there was any information you could give me. Your web site was very informative. ANSWER: The mummies you want to research are the Chinchorros--they did not appear to mummify based on status. Many of their mummies were children. On my site you will find information on two books that cover the Chinchorros: the Bernardo Arriaza book Beyond Death and the book Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures--as well as many Chinchorro articles. You will want to read the books, though, since they have the most comprehensive information. A good research library should have them.