Preservation: When bodies don’t decompose

Last week I discussed taphonomy and what happens when bodies decompose. This week, I want to discuss the reverse- what happens when they don’t decompose? I’m not talking about embalming (I did that a couple weeks ago), I’m talking about natural forms of mummification and preservation. This is not an easy thing to happen, the human body is meant for decomposition, and the process will occur rapidly after death. Natural preservation means that the conditions in the context of death have to be perfect for preservation to occur. Even in the perfect conditions, it doesn’t always mean that there will be preservation- many of the examples I will be discussing have others found in the same location under the same conditions and were preserved in different ways.

Preserved remains are interesting, but also challenging for bioarchaeologists- mainly because they technically don’t fall into the realm of human bones anymore! When humans are naturally mummified in some way they need to be cared for and examined in drastically different ways from skeletal remains. While bones do need to be stored in dry cooler environments, these preserved bodies like Otzi or the bog bodies have to have specific temperature and humidity controlled storage at all times. They need to be handled more delicately, and have have a drastically different analysis that falls more into the realm of biologists than osteologists. On the positive side, we can get a lot of information from them that isn’t possible from dry bones, such as evidence of tattoos, hair color, flesh wounds, makeup, clothing, and even remains from their last meal in their stomach. It gives us a better image of what the individual looked like, who they might have been, and how they portrayed themselves through dress and style.

While human remains can preserve in a number of contexts, I want to discuss what I see as the big three- environments with extreme climates and perfect conditions for preservation.

The Frozen Leg of George Mallory, via Giles Milton Surviving History

The Frozen Leg of George Mallory, via Giles Milton Surviving History

1. Ice: When an individual dies in conditions where there is constant snow and ice, there is no way for bacteria to grow or insects to attack the dying remains. The cells are frozen in place and preventing from decaying. It literally arrests the process of decomposition. There are numerous ancient, historic and modern examples of bodies preserved in ice. The most famous of these is the ‘Ice Man’ Otzi found in Alps in 1991. It was thought at first he was a modern hiker who had died, but further investigation revealed he died in 3,300 BCE. The preservation was so good that we now have information about his tattoos, his two last meals, where he grew up, and his DNA has been completely sequenced. There is continued study and debate over his death and whether he was buried or left to die (you can learn more about him at the Ice Man website). More modern naturally frozen remains can be seen all across Mt Everest, there are over 200 bodies frozen forever on its cliffs. Due to the harsh conditions and unpredictable weather, if an individual is lost, trapped, or dies on the mountain- they are unable to rescue and unable to retrieve the remains. George Mallory, the first man to reach the summit of Everest is still preserved in ice even though he died there in 1924. A number of other remains are found through the climb, and are now used as trail markers and reminders of the risk.

2. Bog: Bogs consist primarily of decayed vegetal materials which is inhibits decomposition in organic material due to constant wetness, acidic makeup and anaerobic conditions. The presence of mosses in the bogs further aid in preservation, as they act as an anti-bacterial.When a body is buried in a bog the cold water prevents putrefaction, the conditions of the bog prevent decomposition of proteins and tissue in the body, and further the lack of oxygen inhibits insect activity. Over the past century bodies have been found in a number of bogs, and are usually found with some of their clothing and their skin stained a dark brown from the bog. Bodies have been recovered in Ireland, England, Scotland, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and Florida. Notable bodies include the Tollund Man, who is one of the best preserved bodies and was mistaken at first for a recent murder victim even though he died in the 4th c BCE, or the Graubelle Man, who dates to the 3rd c BCE and was found with his throat slit open and bright red hair intact (though the color is likely changed due to the bog). (Wikipedia)

Gebelein Man, via British Museum Blog

Gebelein Man, via British Museum Blog

3. Sand: Arid sand is great for preservation because it absorbs fluid from the body and without moisture bacteria cannot break down the body. Also, the heat in sandy regions aids in drying and preserving. A great example of preservation in sand is the Gebelein man or Ginger as he is known to the British Museum. While he was found in Egypt, he wasn’t mummified by professionals- rather his shallow grave allowed the sand and heat to do the work naturally. He is so well preserved that they found a stab wound in his back, which was likely the cause of death (Furness 2012). He dates to the Predynastic period of Egypt, which means mummification wasn’t even being done formally! It is thought that these early natural mummifications led to the artificial ones. For more information on that, read about environmental change and the change to mummification in the Chinchorro of the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile.

What’s your favorite natural preservation body? Personally I like the Lady Dai body found in 1971 in China while workers were attempting to create an air raid shelter. The body was so well preserved that the skin was still supple, blood remained in her veins, and she had a lifelike appearance. It is still a bit of a mystery why she preserved so well, but it is thought that the airtight tomb and wrappings of silk around her body may have been the cause! (Bonn-Muller 2009)

Works Cited

Bonn-Muller 2009. China’s Sleeping Beauty. Archaeology Magazine Online.

Wikipedia. Bog Bodies.

Furness 2012. Revealed The Secrets of a 5500 Year Old Mummy. Telegraph.

14 responses to “Preservation: When bodies don’t decompose

  1. Lindow man, aka Pete Marsh! When the head of “Lindow Woman” was turned up by a peat-cutting machine, a man confessed to having murdered his wife and buried her on Lindow Moss, as he thought it was her head. Turned out to be the remains of a woman from the 3rd century CE. He was still convicted.

  2. It has never been proven that George Mallory was the first person to reach the summit of Everest (as stated in the article above). As much as I’d like to think that either he or climbing companion Andrew Ervine reached the summit 20 years before Hillary and Tensing, there is no concrete proof of this. The possibility remains intriguing though, and one day we may find that Mallory was indeed there first.

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