In some ways, mummies are the closest thing we have to real-life time travelers from the past. These preserved bodies clue us in on the ways people lived in ages long past and even reveal what they believed about death and the afterlife. Mummies are also an enduring source of mystery, as they rarely ever reveal a complete picture of their lives, deaths, or mummifications. Case in point: earlier this year, a bizarre and terrifying tiny mummy made headlines when modern DNA analysis revealed it to be merely the mummified skeleton of a horribly disfigured child as opposed to the alien everyone hoped it was.
Now, the mystery of another child mummy which has perplexed archaeologists has been unraveled, revealing a previously unknown mummification technique. In 2005, an archaeological excavation at a cemetery in a small village revealed over 500 graves dating from the 12th and 16th centuries. Among the discoveries was a tiny mummified child’s hand which had turned a rich, dark green over the centuries. The means by which the hand was mummified and became green remained a mystery until researchers at the University of Szeged in Hungary recently performed a detailed chemical analysis, publishing their results in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.
According to the study, the tiny green hand belonged to either a stillbirth or a premature baby which died short after birth. The skeletal remains had levels of copper hundreds of times higher than average, the highest researchers had ever seen in a mummy. More interestingly, a copper coin was clutched in the baby’s hand. The researchers concluded that the copper’s antimicrobial effects helped protect the hand from decay, leading to its mummification as the rest of the body decomposed with the aid of bacteria. If confirmed, this would be the first known case of copper mummification.
The practice of burying loved ones with coins has been observed around the world throughout history, although it’s generally assumed that this practice stems from the belief that loved ones might need money in the afterlife for various reasons. Could they have been included in other burials for the inherent microbial properties of the metals they were made from, or is this all a macabre coincidence?