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Modern Mummy Mystery

27 June 2001 7:00 pm
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A royal hoax. Scientists have debunked claims that this mummy was a Persian princess.

Last October, police in Pakistan seized an ornately carved mummy coffin on offer to art dealers for $11 million. A golden plaque on the coffin included an Old Persian cuneiform inscription suggesting that wrapped inside were the 2600-year-old remains of a daughter of King Xerxes. But like a pulp-fiction mummy unraveling in front of horrified onlookers, the exalted Persian princess's pedigree has fallen to pieces. The female mummy now appears to have been a relatively recent murder victim or else a body snatched from a grave shortly after death--two grisly scenarios that have scientists digging for clues to her true identity.

Soon after the discovery, archaeologists became dubious about the breastplate inscription, which bore a few textual mistakes. They also looked askance at the preparation of the mummy, which was not fully desiccated. Further inspections and computed tomography scans of the body, now in a Karachi mortuary, showed that the woman's back was broken and that her mouth and stomach were "full of a powder," samples of which are now being analyzed, says curator Asma Ibrahim of the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi.

Ibrahim sent samples from the coffin, the matting under the mummy, and the bandages and resins to Pakistani experts and to the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin for analyses. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission's laboratory agreed to stray outside its bailiwick to radiocarbon date some of the materials. In April, Ibrahim issued a report finding that the materials were of recent origin and concluding that the mummy is a fake. Ibrahim says that recent tomography scans and other analyses indicate that the body--whose bones show signs of osteoporosis--is that of a woman older than 50 who died probably within the past 5 or 6 years.

However, to chase Ibrahim's hunch that the mummy is a murder victim or was dug up by grave robbers shortly after it was interred, Pakistani detectives would need a better idea of the time and place of death. The detective assignment is being taken on by physicist Gerhard Morgenroth, who says his lab at the Friedrich Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, is working "to give as exact a time frame as possible" for the woman's death. Meanwhile, Ibrahim fears that a ring of mummy-fakers may try to produce and sell similarly false artifacts.

If there's a lesson to be learned, Ibrahim says, it's that it pays to scratch below the surface of any archaeological claim. "The wooden coffin was beautiful and very convincing, so the flaws were not obvious at first," she says.

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