"The Mummified Cultural Heritage. A Reflection on its Significance, Conservation and Safeguarding."
 
Written and translated by María Ritter Miravete
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Maria Ritter studied conservation of cultural heritage at the National School of Conservation, Restoration and Museography (ENCRyM).

In recent years, she has worked in different cultural institutions, among them: the National Coordination of Conservation of Cultural Heritage (CNCPC), within the direction of social education for conservation. She was part of the teaching staff of ENCRyM in the Ceramic Restoration Workshop Seminar and at the National Museum of Anthropology as a conservator in the restoration project of contemporary mural works. She has also worked as conservator/restorer of private collections at the Giles-Ritter restoration workshop.

Her primary interest is the conservation of mummified cultural heritage.

The conservation of cultural heritage is the discipline responsible for the safeguarding of tangible and intangible cultural products created by different societies over time. This involves a complex task that draws on the work of other social and exact sciences to find the best preservation route according to each specific case study. Although there are many different theoretical and practical methodologies that define how the intervention or conservation of our cultural heritage should be approached; there is a particular type of heritage that attracts attention due to the lack of information that surrounds it. Throughout this article, we will address the conservation of mummified heritage based on their material remains. This kind of vestige enables the study of individuals and societies from another perspective, one that we have tried to decipher for a long period. However, in Mexico, the information gaps and the lack of accepted methodologies surrounding these cases are grave, consequently there are no standardized criteria and guidelines to promote their preservation.

Mummified heritage is a broad and complex topic that encompasses different lines of specialized research. When dealing with a case of this nature, one should consider the implementation of an integral work methodology specifically designed for its treatment, handling, storage and conservation. Specifications vary greatly depending on each particular case, regardless of the existence of general guidelines designed for its conservation. [1] The necessity to apply a multi and interdisciplinary approach becomes evident since their conservation comprehends multiple factors of different nature.

In addition, one should consider that in many cases, mummified specimens are associated with other patrimonial objects related to the burial ritual processes of the culture to which the individual belonged. The nature and variability of elements associated with mummied remains as well as their funerary offerings are vast. These specimens possess heterogeneous physical characteristics (referring to the variability of the materials of which they can be constituted), as well as conservation needs that require specific conditions for their study. It becomes important to recognize the relationship between the entities that make up an ensemble to conserve them most appropriately. A clear example of this scenario are the textiles associated with mummified bodies in archaeological contexts. The discovery of archaeological textiles is not frequent, a factor that is attributed to the inherent organic nature of their constituent materials. Regarding the textiles associated with mummies, it should be noted that in many cases, if the corpse in question had not been mummified, it is likely that the garment would have been lost along with the soft tissues of the individual. This is an example of the importance of the study of the original context in which the specimen was found, as well as the relationship between the diversity of elements that make up a mortuary assemblage (Muñoz Cosme, 2012).

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Image 1. Infant mummy no. IV with textile (Digitization Department of the National Museum of Anthropology).

Mummies: what are they really?

Currently, the most accepted definition is the one proposed by paleopathologist Arthur C. Aufderheide: "a physically preserved body or tissue that resembles the morphology it had in life and resists further decay during a prolonged postmortem interval" while the term mummification refers to "the transformation of a formerly living body or tissue fragment to a state of suspended decomposition" (Aufderheide, 2003: 41).

Broadly speaking, a mummy is an organism that managed to avoid the process of decomposition that every living being undergoes after death, preserving remains of soft tissue. However, it must be taken into account that any mummified tissue exposed to certain physical conditions will resume its decomposition process culminating in skeletonization, i.e., being a mummy is not a perennial state. [2]

Another feature that complicates the study of this heritage is that there are different types of mummies with particular formation processes, so it is not possible to group them into the same category. The following classification is mostly used in the academic community (Aufderheide, 2003):

  1. Anthropogenic (artificial) mummification: Preservation of a body employing a direct anthropic procedure. It is associated with an ideological purpose by the culture that produced them. It provides information on operations performed by ancient societies and are associated with complex funerary practices, therefore with the rites of passage of different cultures (Van Gennep, 2008). Chinchorro mummies from Chile dating from approximately 5000 BC and those from Egypt where the practice reaches its greatest splendor, belong to this category (Nicola, Nicola and Nicola, 2008; García Morales, 2012).

  2. Spontaneous (natural) mummification: arises in different environments as a consequence of the inhibition of decomposition due to the physical and environmental properties of the burial context.

  3. Induced spontaneous mummification: it is postulated that some cultures were aware that mummification arose in specific environments and sought to reproduce these parameters to achieve the same results (García Morales, 2012).

Within the classification of spontaneous mummification there are several mechanisms through which a mummy can be formed, these are: desiccation, thermal effects (freezing), chemical effects (mummies from peat bogs), anaerobiosis, excarnation, miscellaneous and undetermined. From this point on, we will only address mummification by desiccation, since this scenario predominates in specimens found in Mexican territory and is most commonly found.

It is necessary to understand the process of formation of a body in suspended decomposition to distinguish between the deterioration effects generated in the organism as a consequence of the mummification process or due to all the activities in which it has participated after its excavation from a burial context.

What is the significance of mummies and why is it important to preserve them?

Understanding the definition of mummified remains, we can now discuss the importance surrounding the study of this heritage. Depending on the perspective from which they are observed, mummies offer an enormous amount of biomedical, sociocultural, technological, and chronological information of past societies (Aufderheide, 2003). Some of the disciplines that are directly involved in their analysis are archaeology, history, anthropology, ethnology, biology, art history, museology, medicine and conservation (Renfrew and Bahn, 1994).

A concrete example is that mummies allow us to observe closely a fraction of the funerary practices developed by a specific society; since the body prevails unchanged from its deposit in a funerary context until it is found in an archaeological excavation, thus enabling us to witness a close version of what the deceased person resembled in life. This provides valuable information regarding mortuary rites of passage because the preservation of the corpse displays the physical disposition in which it was placed and in many cases the composition of the funerary trousseau of the deceased (Van Gennep, 2008). Depending on the state of preservation, the study of a mummy may allow the application of DNA analysis in order to understand the genetic composition of these individuals, such as proclivity to certain diseases, as well as dating, dietary requirements, ritual and technological practices, etc. Studies can be translated from an individual to a population level if there are enough mummified individuals available (Valentin and Garcia, 2012).

When analyzing the material remains of any culture, we are trying to achieve a greater understanding on the way they lived, this includes their daily activities, their technology, their beliefs, among others. Having access to a mummy allows us to delve deeply into these issues and obtain information that transcends the mere study of an inanimate object.

 

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Image 2. Tollund man (Christian Als, Smithsonian Magazine).

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Image 3. The Ice Maiden, mummy by freezing (Johan Reinhard, NBC news).

Mummies in a museum context: people or cultural property?

Many of the mummified specimens to which we have access are kept in museums. Institutions that are in charge of their study, safeguarding, storage, in some cases exhibition and diffusion. The question arises: how should a mummified body be considered when it is immersed in this context? The ability to function as an object of study and transmit information should not limit the concept of "mummy" to that of "heritage object". Therefore, we can also question where does the subject end and the object begin? (Herráez, 2012). It should always be kept in mind that we are dealing with human remains; a mummified body is a deceased person. Therefore, despite its insertion in a museum context, they are not inanimate objects, even if the specimen is kept inside an institution for security, registration, study, etc.

There is another circumstance worth reviewing: "the museumization of mummies justifies the efforts to preserve them, but at the same time any action aimed for this objective, adds new meanings that modify their value" (García Morales, 2012:25). This expresses that any inappropriate intervention can lead to irreversible damage to this heritage. This can range from material damage, decontextualization or loss of information, modification of the values contained in the specimen, to an ideological affectation in its quality as a person (Muñoz Cosme, 2012).

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Image 4. Analytical studies performed on a mummy by desiccation (Dirección de Antropología Física, INAH).

The outlook for mummies by desiccation in Mexico

Most of the specimens found in Mexican territory belong to the category of mummies by desiccation. The complication regarding their study and documentation begins with the cataloging of the findings from archaeological contexts.  Usually, the remains from funerary contexts containing objects of different nature (mummies and movable goods), are documented and safeguarded according to the properties of the materials that constitute them. Anthropological remains are sent to physical anthropology laboratories, while the objects are treated by the conservation discipline. Granting the storage of the assets according to their materials is understandable, however there are situations in which this is not possible or it is simply not the correct route of action for the preservation of assemblages of different nature. Meaning, they should not be separated regardless of the variety of materials that compose them, especially when there is no exhaustive record of the context from which they originated.

This problem arises because mummies are considered to be a consequence of natural formation processes, therefore are not cultural products themselves, thus they lack pertinence in the field of conservation. As a result, the guidelines that exist to protect this heritage, especially when it is not associated with movable goods, tend to be insufficient since there are no specific regulations for its management and safeguarding in Mexico. The existing guidelines do not meet their exact requirements, need revision, and update as soon as possible.

Besides, conservators are not always present in the archaeological excavations that involve mummied remains and therefore there is no record of the material state of the bodies from the conservation perspective. Furthermore, the feeble relationship between researchers from both areas, makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the deterioration effects that are a consequence of mummification mechanisms and those that have occurred after the moment of discovery and during their stay in cultural institutions.

As a consequence of this situation, we emphasize on the importance of assembling a thorough report on the state of conservation of each mummy from the moment of its excavation, or at least when the specimen enters a museum. If it already belongs inside an institution, it is called to review and document each one of the specimens stored to keep a record of the deterioration effects present, thus confirming that their stability is not endangered. In the event of subsequent damage, this method will allow us to identify and control the deterioration mechanisms that are currently manifesting.

 

Where can we observe mummies in Mexico?

The exhibition of mummified specimens is a complex issue in the sense that it involves the corpse of a person. Depending on the location around the world, different legislations regulate the exhibition of this type of heritage. For example, in the United States, federal law has been in charge of the repatriation of anthropological remains belonging to Native American cultures, along with the objects associated with their burials. This law is known as NAGRPA and it was established with the objective of treating such remains with respect and dignity as well as the ethnographic cultures to which they belong, this act has been in effect since 1990. (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 2021).

In the case of Mexico, there are no specific regulations that dictate the exhibition of mummified heritage, however, there are some places where we can observe vestiges of this nature, mostly of historical nature:

  • Museum of the Mummies of Guanajuato: this institution houses the largest collection of natural mummies in the world, counting with 57 specimens of different antiquity (1870 - 1984).

  • El Carmen Museum: this precinct safeguards twelve mummies attributed to the end of the XIX century, most of them still conserve their clothing.[5]

Although there have been exhibitions of pre-Hispanic mummies in specific events, this situation is not common.

Conclusions:

Discussing a subject as broad as mummified heritage is complicated. There is a wide range of information that is worth researching exhaustively to learn more about the mysteries surrounding these cultural entities. However, we hope that this small introduction awakens your interest and curiosity regarding the formation and protection of our mummified bodies. Let us remember that these vehicles of information were also our ancestors and it is our responsibility to care for them and demand that they are presented in the most respectful way possible.

Another point worth noting is that the classification of all our mummified anthropological heritage should be regulated. Making an exhaustive record of all the information to which we have access, information that involves the activities in which the specimens have participated throughout their life history, the analytical studies applied, movement, changes in packaging, exhibitions, etc. This will allow us to maintain greater control over the condition of our collections and prevent their mishandling. Therefore, conservation professionals in Mexico should be involved in the safeguarding of mummified heritage, regardless of whether they are associated with cultural objects or not, and this should be inculcated throughout the university studies during the restoration and conservation career.

To conclude we would like to emphasize that mummies should be understood as entities with cultural and symbolic connotations that can help us to decipher more information about our past, so the ideological meaning they contain should be exalted, understanding that they are vestiges that against all odds have achieved preservation over time.

[1] Existen algunos documentos internacionales que abordan la conservación de momias. Sin embargo, fueron escritos hace tiempo y tratan pautas generalizadas. Cada país debería elaborar un manual metodológico desde la perspectiva de la conservación donde se trate la conservación de las momias encontradas en su región.

[2] Dependiendo del tipo de momia las condiciones para reanudar el proceso de descomposición son variadas: si se trata de una momia por desecación, la humedad sería una causa que actuaría en su detrimento; en el caso de una momia por congelación, el aumento de temperatura tendría las mismas consecuencias.

[3] El término “intervención” debe entenderse como cualquier acercamiento a este tipo de patrimonio, no hablando específicamente de una restauración.

[4] Para efectos de este artículo solamente nos referiremos al ámbito de las momias arqueológicas.

[5] Estas momias se encuentran bajo resguardo del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH).

References:

  • Aufderheide, A. C. (2003). The Scientific Study of Mummies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • García Morales, M. (2012). Objetos o Sujetos. ¿Qué Significado tienen las momias? In N. Valentin, y M. (. García, Momias. Manual de Buenas Prácticas para su Conservación (pp. 15-30). Madrid: Ministerio de Educación Cultura y Deporte.

  • Herráez, I. (2012). Cuestiones éticas y legales. Siempre sujetos, pero aunque fueran objetos tendrían sentido. In N. Valentin, y M. (. García, Momias. Manual de buenas prácticas para su conservación (pp. 31-44). Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte.

  • Muñoz Cosme, A. (2012). Prólogo. In N. Valentin, & M. García, Momias. Manual de Buenas Prácticas para su Conservación (p. S/N). Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte.

  • Nicola, G. L., Nicola, M., y Nicola, A. (2008). Preservation and Conservation of Mummies and Sarcophagi. E_conservation, The Online Magazine, 22-47.

  • Renfrew, C., y Bahn, P. (1994). Archaeology. Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames and Hudson.

  • Valentin, N., y García, M. (. (2012). Momias. Manual de Buenas Prácticas para su Conservación. Madrid: Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte.

  • Van Gennep, A. (2008). Los Ritos de Paso. Madrid: Alianza Editorial.