Mystery of the Mummies

Concluding this week is the historical documentary series that explores ancient civilisations. Using CT scans, advanced imaging and DNA testing, this programme attempts to unlock the stories behind a series of mysterious deaths in northern Europe’s ancient bogs.

Across the moors of northern Europe, peatcutters digging into the soil for fuel have unearthed hundreds of well-preserved mummies. Investigators have puzzled for decades over the victims’ various injuries, which have included slit throats, decapitation, disembowelment, smashed bones and stab marks. Some bodies have even been found with nooses still snug around their necks. Who were these people, mangled and mired in the bogs of northern Europe?

Science proves that most of the bog bodies belong to ancient times, dating to the Iron Age, roughly 500 BC to 400 AD. Years spent buried in the antiseptic, tannic peat of the bogs mummified the bodies, turning their skin to leather, preserving their features and fingernails and often dyeing their hair a garish shade of orange.

In this programme, a number of bog-mummy experts from across the world discover new evidence obtained through cutting-edge technology and share their own theories as to why these people died. Heather Gill-Robinson of North Dakota State University introduces viewers to a mummy known up until now as Windeby Girl. Discovered in northern Germany in 1952 alongside the body of an adult male, Windeby Girl was thought to be an example of a victim thrown into the bog as punishment for a crime – in this case, adultery. Gill-Robinson’s investigation, however, turns this old hypothesis into ancient history.

Ned Kelly, the keeper of Irish antiquities at the
= National Museum of Ireland has his own theory. Kelly introduces viewers to one of the most horrifically wounded mummies from the Iron Age. All that remains of Old Croghan Man is a dismembered torso with cut nipples and pierced biceps. These curious wounds and the geographical location of the torso’s discovery have led Kelly to theorise that Old Croghan Man was ritually killed in a practice some people might find surprising – but one that has deep roots in Celtic lore.

Christian Fischer, the director of the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, points to imagery on early gold foils dating from 400 AD in support of his own theory about the death of the Tollund Man – perhaps the most famous bog mummy. The expression on Tollund Man’s face and artefacts found in the bog near the body also contribute to Fischer’s conclusion. However, scientist Ulla Mannering has some remarkable new evidence that might test Fischer’s conviction.

Continuing this week is the historical documentary series that explores ancient civilisations. This film travels to a remote part of China where hundreds of mummies with Caucasian features were found buried in the desert. Using forensic techniques, archaeological experts attempt to explain the origins of these mysterious remains and unlock a secret that could throw new light on human history.

More than 1,000 years before any known contact between the East and West, hundreds of mummies – many with Caucasian characteristics – were buried in a distant Chinese desert. Miraculously preserved in the dry environment, these fragile human remains now represent an extraordinary puzzle for modern-day archaeologists. Who were these people and what can they reveal about mankind’s distant past?

The Tarim Basin in China is an arid, forbidding landscape. It was long thought to be one of the natural barriers that enabled people and civilisations in the East to develop separately from those in the West. But the remarkable discovery of a series of Caucasoid mummies by a Chinese expedition in 1978 called into question theories about migration.

The mummies were transferred to a regional museum and remained all but hidden for a decade, until Victor Mair, an expert on ancient Chinese texts, chanced upon them and realised their importance. The remains of their clothes and the artefacts buried nearby provided some clues as to their ancestry. But it was not until 2007 that explorer Spencer Wells reopened the mystery of the Tarim mummies. This film follows Wells as he embarks on a mission to decode the mummies’ identities using advanced DNA technology.

The conditions of the Tarim Basin proved to be perfect for natural mummification, preventing rotting and disintegration of the remains. A closer examination of the artefacts buried along with the bodies helps put the significance of the mummies into perspective.

The fact that the mummies were wearing wool cloth, for example, indicates that sheep-herding was part of their culture. Sheep-herding originated in the Fertile Crescent, a vast swathe of land stretching through the Middle East. But the find in the Tarim Basin indicates that it had moved further eastward than anyone had previously thought. Similarly, bronze tools buried near the mummies prove that this technology already existed in the area, possibly before it had reached China. But where did these people originate?

Weaves in many of the buried garments suggest a European origin; however, definitive answers are elusive. While the physical evidence provides some clues, it raises as many questions as answers. Wells’s investigation turns to DNA analysis, which offers more promise of determining the mummies’ origins.

The Chinese government allows Wells’s team to examine the mummies in the hope of finding usable DNA. The film details the scientists’ efforts to locate DNA samples within leathery inner tissue that has not degraded over the millennia. The scientists are ultimately able to extract enough material to yield some tantalising theories. The evidence suggests that, far from being an isolated outpost, this section of the Tarim Basin was inhabited for some 1,700 years – until around 300 BC. The results also reveal some surprising clues as to the geographical origins of these distant desert people…

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