Posted by Tamsin Wilde on

Alice is an example of natural mummification, a process in which the tissues and organs of an individual are preserved without the interference of chemicals by people. Natural mummification can occur in multiple ways, one of these being extreme cold, i.e. being frozen in glaciers – one of the most famous examples of this being Otzi the iceman, found in the Otzal Alps on border between Austria and Italy. Otzi died between 3400 and 3100 BCE but is so well preserved, his tattoos are still visible. Secondly, mummification can be caused by a lack of oxygen, for instance in a peat bog, an example of this is the Tollund man, who was discovered by peat cutters in Denmark back in the 50s. He was so well preserved, the men who discovered him believed they had found the remains of someone recently deceased, possibly a victim of suicide, or homicide as he was found with a noose around his neck – however, he died between 375-210BC, but due to the noose, it is theorised he is the victim of ritual sacrifice. There is also mummification by an arid environment, probably the best known of the lot. One of the finest examples of this would be China’s Tarim mummies found in the Taklamakan desert. The oldest of these mummies is the ‘Xioahe princess’, or the ‘Beauty of Loulan’ who  was preserved in the dry, salty soil of the Silk road trading route, 3800 years ago with over 200 other individuals who have continued to change our idea of travel and migration as many of the tattooed remains were of European origin, with indications they migrated from Siberia – home to the tattooed mummy of The Siberian Ice Maiden, also known as the Princess of Ukok who was perfectly preserved in a glacier in the 5th century BC.

Generally speaking, the human body begins to decompose within four minutes of death, this initial stage is called cellular autolysis where basically, within organs containing digestive enzymes, the lysosomes that contain them begin to have their cell membranes broken down, causing the walls to rupture and release the digestive enzymes to continue chowing down on the cells and eating you from the inside out. In most cases these enzymes need an aqueous environment to travel about and digest you from the inside, however in the event of natural mummification in an arid environment the body loses the moisture faster than the enzymes destructive actions can decompose the tissues. Different parts of the body also desiccate at different rates, with the fastest body parts including extremities like hands, toes, and the low hanging fruit as it were – the scrotum, whereas some internal organs including the heart, for obvious reasons will take longer to desiccate. The environment in which the body is placed is obviously key to the speed of the mummification as we know extreme temperatures or pH levels have a direct effect, but also the soil surrounding the remains can be another big factor, either through osmosis or heavy metals can impede the enzymes. As well as this, these environmental conditions also defend against other external threats to the preservation of the body including bacteria, fungi and animals and bugs who may fancy a snack. This mummification process can take anywhere from 2 weeks to a number of months to end up like Alice, and examples of arid desiccation can be found across the globe, if the air is dry enough– we have Santa’s little helper in the shop, a mummified dog who was named because he was found perfectly preserved in a box of Christmas decorations in the UK – certainly not the warmest of places.


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