July 11, 2012

Mycenaean mummy

Kristina Killgrove links to an article on Schliemann's Mycenaean mummy. The mummy hasn't actually been unknown, and I had seen a picture of it (presumably Schliemann's engraving?) in Louise Schofield's the Mycenaeans (2007) where it was said to be under study.

But, the new article does include a very good reproduction of the painting that looks a little Giger-esque to me. Perhaps there's room here for some National Geographic-style documentary; after all, mummies seem to be quite popular, and this ought to be a very interesting one, assuming 19th century attempts at preservation stood the test of time, and there's something to show.

From the paper:

Plate 203 is not a photograph but an oil-painting (Fig. 6). This is the painting made of the supposed ‘mummy’ burial in Shaft Grave I (now V) which formed the basis for the published engraving (Schliemann 1878, 297 no. 454). It is on stiff card, measuring some 585 mm in length and 382 mm in width, and shows the corpse about three-quarters life size in sombre shades of brown against a lighter yellowish brown background. The engraving omits the lower part of it in which the region of the pelvis and the tops of the femurs are visible. The painting had been folded in half to fit it into the Album, but I had it removed and framed behind glass for its better conservation.
 Schliemann gives a long and highly dramatized account of the uncovering of this burial. ‘The round face, with all its flesh, had been wonderfully preserved under its ponderous golden mask; there was no vestige of hair, but both eyes were perfectly visible, also the mouth, which, owing to the enormous weight that had pressed upon it, was wide open, and showed thirty-two beautiful teeth. From these, all the physicians who came to see the body were led to believe that the man must have died at the early age of thirty-five. The nose was entirely gone’. 16 In his initial enthusiasm Schliemann even claimed that ‘the corpse very much resembles the image which my imagination formed long ago of wide-ruling Agamemnon’. 17
 ‘The news that the tolerably well preserved body of a man of the mythic heroic age had been found, covered with golden ornaments, spread like wildfire through the Argolid, and people came by thousands from Argos, Nauplia, and the villages to see the wonder. But, nobody being able to give advice how to preserve the body,’ Schliemann telegraphed to Nauplion for an artist ‘to get at least an oil-painting made, for I was afraid that the body would crumble to pieces. Thus I am able to give a faithful likeness of the body, as it looked after all the golden ornaments had been removed’. 18
 Schliemann does not give the name of the artist; but he describes how ‘to my great joy’ the body ‘held out for two days, when a druggist from Argos, Spiridon Nicolaou by name, rendered it hard and solid by pouring on it alcohol, in which he had dissolved gumsandarac’. 19 It was then lifted with some difficulty and transported to Athens, where I can remember seeing it on the bottom shelf of a glass case in the Mycenaean room of the National Museum on my first visit to Greece shortly before the Second World War. Schliemann duly acknowledges that ‘all the trouble and expense of drugging the body so as to render it hard and solid, and raising it from the sepulchre’ and transporting it, were incurred by the Archaeological Society at Athens.20 

I'm no biochemist, but alcohol and gumsandarac doesn't sound good with respect to any potential DNA preservation.

Schliemann’s Mycenae Albums


Sinclair Hood

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1 comment:

Annie Mouse said...

The alcohol is a disaster for DNA. Gum Sandarac is a tree resin used as a varnish. On par with Amber I would expect. I am always of the opinion that it is worth a shot,