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Iranian Salt Mummies

Amazing Chehrabad salt mine discoveries

 

Although they are sometimes called 'Salt Men,' it is not clear that all of the mummies found so far were men (at least one news account refers to one of the mummies as being a woman). News has been sketchy, and scientific studies were not begun until late 2006. Here is a summary of what is known:

 

Background of the accidental mummies

From 1993 to December 2005, a series of salt mummies were found in the Chehrabadsalt mine near Zanjan in northwestern Iran. Details of the discoveries are somewhat vague. In fact, until November 2006, information about the mummies indicated that four had been found. However, a news report in November 2006 announced that five had been discovered. Now a sixth has been discovered. According to this last account, here are the dates and details of the discovery:

Salt mummy 1:  This body was accidentally discovered by miners in 1993 (or perhaps 1994; different dates are given in news accounts) in the Chehrabad salt mine. According to the Tehran Times, the man was approximately 35 years old and he "lived over 1700 years ago.... He has long white hair and a beard and was discovered wearing leather boots and with some tools and a walnut in his possession." Since only the head and booted left leg were displayed, it may be that a good portion of his body was either not recovered or not well-preserved. A Wikipedia account gives a more complete list of the items found with the body: "three iron knives, a woolen half trouser, a silver needle, a sling, parts of a leather rope, a grind stone, a walnut, some pottery shares, some designed textile fragments, and finally a few broken bones." He was wearing at least one earring.

Head and left leg (in his boot) of Salt Mummy 1, as displayed at the National Museum of Iran in Teheran 

 

Salt mummy 2:  The second salt mummy, nicknamed the Twin Salt Man, was reported to have been found in November 2004 some 50 yards away from the site where the first salt mummy was discovered. The body seems to have become mostly a skeleton, though some preservation was noted: it still had hair and nails. According to mehrnews.ir, the remains of the second salt mummy's skeleton "are almost perfect, and they include parts of the skull, jaw, both arms, as well as the left and right legs and feet.Several pieces of wool cloth and a piece of a straw mat with a unique style of weaving were also discovered beside the second Salt Man." This description seems to indicate that the first salt mummy may not have been as complete.

Salt mummy 3:  In January 2005, the third salt mummy was discovered, buried under a two-ton rock that caused considerable damage to the body (and resulting skeleton). According to mehrnews.ir, the body was accompanied by "[s]everal items such as a leather sack full of salt, a clay tallow burner, two pairs of leather shoes, and two cow horns....[all] in excellent condition." The director of the excavation revealed that 'The...leather sack was full of crystals of salt and was completely tightened. This indicates that the owner was about to carry it out of the mine, but was suddenly crushed by the heavy rock, leaving him no chance to escape."

Salt Mummy 4Salt mummy 4:  The fourth mummy was discovered in March 2005 and was the most preserved body to date. Researchers conducted X-ray and CT scans on the body and concluded that the mummy was a 15- or 16-year old male. Recent studies indicate that he died about 2,000 years ago. 

 According to Iran's Cultural Heritage News Agency, excavators found a number of possessions with the young person: he wore two earrings and an iron dagger in a scabbard around his waist. Salt Mummy 4Nearby were two pottery vessels (containing oil) that may have been used as lanterns.The teenager was wearing a knee-length quilted garment and thigh-high leggings (or gaiters).

Reports appear to indicate that Salt Mummy 4 is in the best and most complete condition, though descriptions of the six mummies are sketchy at best.Reports indicate that the bodies of the other salt mummies are no longer intact, except for Salt Mummy 4.

Salt mummy 5:  A report from Iran's Cultural Heritage News Agency indicates that a fifth salt mummy was discovered in December 2005, but no information about that mummy was given. When details are provided, this posting with will updated.

Salt mummy 6:  Reports from Iranian news agencies in early June, 2007, suggest that a sixth salt mummy has been found. No specific information about the mummy has been provided to date, however. Scientists will not excavate the mummy and remove it from the mine until better preservation techniques have been found. Archaeologists worry that the first five salt mummies are in danger of deteriorating unless better preservation techniques are found. In the meantime, the sixth salt mummy will be left under a pile of salt and dirt until excavators have found a better way to preserved him.

A new report states that the sixth mummy is the body of a person buried under rocks during an earthquake. Archaeologists in Iran have contacted scientists at the German Mining Museum in Bochum for help in studying the mummy, the Chehrabad Mine, and the plant life found there.

What's special about them

1. Very few salt mummies have ever been found, making the Iranian salt mummies very unique. Other mentions of mummies created in salt include the missionary-explorer David Livingstone (whose body was preserved in salt on purpose in the hopes of preserving his corpse for the long journey back to London) as well as naturally-created mummies in Halstatt, Austria.

2. The first salt mummy was dated to 1700 years ago, referred to as the Sassanid era. Researchers believe that the others "as far back as the Achaemenid period some 500 years earlier."

3. The mystery of their death also makes them of great interest to scientists. After the third mummy was discovered buried under the boulder, one excavator concluded that a mine collapse had killed all of the salt mummies. Further study will be necessary, however, to prove this intriguing idea.

4. Their DNA will be studied. According to Daniel Potts of the University of Sydney (Australia), the salt mummies could provide "a huge amount of important data on the entire millennium between the Persian Empire and the coming of Islam."

5. Over 300 pieces of fabric, some of them with designs, have been found in addition to the mummies. Although the textiles are different sizes, some are as large as a square meter. The salt appears to have kept the dyes used in the fabrics well-preserved.

Controversy surrounding their discovery

The first two salt mummies were discovered by miners in the Chehrabad salt mine. After the second discovery, mining operations were stopped in the areas of the mines considered useful to archaeologists. The company that owns the rights to the salt mines wishes to renew its permit with the Mines and Industries Ministry; the renewal would allow mining in even the most archaeologically sensitive areas of the mine. Archaeology and tourist groups are attempting to block this renewal, but no decision has been made as of May 2007.

Where to see them

 The head and leg of the first salt man are displayed at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.

According to the latest report, the second, third, fourth, and fifth salt mummies are now on exhibit at Zanjan's Anthropology Museum (formerly the Zolfaqari House).

The sixth remains in situ.

National Geographic has posted a short video about the salt mummies at this link.

Where to find more information about them

 Researchers from Oxford University (Mark Pollardand York University (Don Brothwell) have been invited by Iran's Archaeology Research Center to study the salt mummies. According to Iran's Cultural New Heritage Agency The fourth salt mummyand Iranian archeologist Abulfazl Auli, the two scientists As they report their findings, further information will become available.

Additionally, Niels Lynnerup, a mummification expert from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, will be attempting to perform a reconstruction of the face of the fourth salt mummy. To do this, he will use around 1,000 MRI images of the body and face.

Finally, excavations by a multinational team of archaeologists will begin in the salt mine (in 2008) to discover perhaps more information, if not more mummies.