Monday, January 24, 2011

The Mystery of the Persian Mummy

An ancient mummy turns up in Pakistan in the hands of a corrupt antiquities dealer. As three countries quarrel over ownership of the find, speculation grows over who actually lies inside the gilded sarcophagus: a 2,000-year-old Persian princess or a modern Pakistani woman? Sounds like the premise for a Steven Spielberg movie.

But it’s not. This really happened.

In 2000, Pakistani police arrested a man in Quetta, a town near the Iranian and Afghan borders, for attempting to place an antiquity on the region’s thriving black market. The artifact in question was a carved wooden sarcophagus in which lay a gold-crowned mummy, complete with face mask and breastplate. The sarcophagus was carved with inscriptions in cuneiform, the writing system of the ancient Persians, and decorated with images of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian deity. The Iranian antiquities dealer handling the sale claimed that the mummy had been found near Quetta following an earthquake.

When archeologists at the National Museum of Pakistan examined the mummy, they were thrilled. A preliminary examination showed that the embalmed woman was likely Rhodogune, the daughter of Xerxes I, who ruled Persia in the fifth century B.C. If proven authentic, the mummy would be an amazing find, since no Iranian mummies had ever been found before. Not surprising, since Persians of that time were Zoroastrians, who neither mummified nor buried their dead, but left the bodies out in the open to by consumed by vultures. The Egyptian-style mummification led to further speculation about the princess’s identity: had she been the Egyptian wife of a prince during the reign of the earlier Persian king, Cyrus I?

A few months after this announcement, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran began to squabble over rights to Her Highness. Taliban officials in Afghanistan insisted that she’d actually been found across the border in their territory. The Iranians claimed that she’d been a member of the Persian royal family and therefore belonged to them. They threatened to turn the matter over to Interpol. The Pakistanis had possession of the mummy and were determined to keep her.

But the evidence didn’t hold up to further scrutiny. The cuneiform inscription stated that the princess was Rhodogune, a later Greek translation and not the Persian name used in her lifetime. A forgery expert concluded that the image of Ahura Mazda was not authentic. It had been carefully copied but was missing some essential elements. Carbon dating showed that the wooden sarcophagus was only 250 years old, while other tests revealed discrepancies in the Egyptian mummification practices. Some elements were correct—removal of internal organs hands crossed over the chest, bandages properly applied. But the heart was missing. The Egyptians believed that the heart was the repository of wisdom, a quality the deceased would likely need in the afterlife, and therefore they would have left it inside the body.

The plot thickened when scientists examined the princess herself. Far from being 2,000-year-old royalty, she turned out to have dyed blond hair, a broken neck, and the physical traits of a local Pakistani. An autopsy revealed that she had not been dead for more than a few years, likely the victim of a murder. So had the forgers killed her themselves when they needed a body for their fake mummy?

When I first read about this story, I found the whole thing bizarre and intriguing. To pull off such a fraud would require a great deal of planning, equipment, and secrecy – and possibly someone willing to commit murder. You’d need experts in archeology, mummification, and people with the skill to do the job properly. But the whole fraud unraveled due to sloppy attention to historical detail. Did the forgers think that no one would notice?

Perhaps not. Maybe they’d intended to sell Her Highness to an unsuspecting millionaire wanting a unique artifact for his collection and not caring enough to put authenticity to the test. If they’d intended the princess to be the Archeological Find of the Century, you’d think they’d have paid closer attention to archeological accuracy.

Still, it makes for a good story. Maybe someone should call Spielberg.


  1. Oh Yes, someone definitely should! This is such an awesome story. Heidi, you must write a book about it before someone DOES call Spielberg! :)

  2. Lina, I'm always collecting interesting real-life stories and putting them in my idea "book". This one was too good not to include.

  3. Yes, I agree! It would make a great premise for a book or movie. Amazing how life can be stranger than fiction.

  4. Or maybe both? I'll write the book, and my agent can call Spielberg...

  5. This is real one mate, in the West (Is it sold to western dealer?)