Embalming is the preservation of the corpse. Egyptian mummies, painstakingly washed, eviscerated, dried, embalmed, and then bandaged, are perhaps the most famous of the mummies. However, in other cultures, various types of mummification were widespread, and mummies sometimes formed naturally. In Europe, the dead could have been embalmed 8000 years ago – and thus much earlier than previously thought. A research team led by Rita Peyroteo-Stjerna from Uppsala University in Sweden has found cautious indications of this.
The group analyzed re-discovered images of 13 individuals whose remains were found in the 1960s at a Mesolithic site in Portugal’s Sado Valley. Scientists have looked closely at the placement of bones in their graves and have also included information about how human bodies have decomposed over time. They also used the results of decomposition experiments conducted by forensic anthropologists in Texas on corpses and mummies.
In some of the 8,000-year-old skeletons, they were able to detect signs of what the authors call “natural directed mummification.” It appears that the bodies were allowed to dry over a longer period of time while they were fixed in a squatting position with tapes or bandages. This may have made it easier to transport them afterwards and they could be buried anatomically properly, say the researchers I write in the European Journal of Archeology.
This process is supported by the fact that some of the bodies were apparently buried in a very bent position, with the legs bent at the knees and pulled toward the upper body. In addition, the joints were preserved even in “weak” joints such as the feet – which is also unusual in the absence of mummification.
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