Are modern germs destroying mummies?

  • JP Brown, associate conservator at the Field Museum, Chicago, prepares the mummy known as the "Gilded Lady" for display at the special exhibition Mummies at the American Museum of Natural History.

    JP Brown, associate conservator at the Field Museum, Chicago, prepares the mummy known as the "Gilded Lady" for display at the special exhibition Mummies at the American Museum of Natural History. Courtesy of Museum of Natural History/Denis Finnin

Posted6/5/2017 12:02 PM

"Is the black goo destroying mummies?" asked a young patron from the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire.

Mummies are preserved dead bodies, either human or animal. Some natural conditions, such as a very dry climate, extreme ice or even a swamp, can preserve the flesh and bones.


Mummified remains found under these circumstances include human bodies dating back 9,000 years from the arid climate of South America; a 40,000-year-old woolly mammoth found in arctic ice, complete with its shaggy fur covering; and preserved human bodies found in the peat bogs of England and Ireland that are more than 2,000 years old.

Mostly, mummies are dead bodies that have been carefully cured and wrapped in cloth or clay leaving the features and skin somewhat intact. These practices were common in ancient Egypt, Peru and Chile.

In Egypt, top nobility were preserved after death to prepare them for a fruitful afterlife. Organs that decay quickly, such as the brains, heart and liver, were removed and placed in jars. Special salts and other preserving methods were used to dry the body, which was carefully wrapped and closed off in elaborate tombs.

Researchers are not exactly sure why the Chinchorro people of Chile preserved their loved ones, but the thought is they believed, like the Egyptians, the body would be useful in the afterlife.

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Mummification in Peru was performed by several cultures. Mummified bodies were visible and a central part of celebrations, with some mummies featured in homes.

When the Spanish conquerors fanned out across Mexico in the late 1400s, they discovered the mummified Incan emperor and his wife being cared for as if they still lived. Servants brought the seated mummies food and swatted away flies. These bodies were mummified as a way to preserve power and protect wealth.

Researchers who examine mummies have learned a lot about the daily routines and cultural focus of people who lived many thousands of years ago.

Modern germs might be destroying this unique anthropological heritage. David H. Thomas, anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, acknowledges that Chilean mummies are affected most.

"It's a huge problem. It's caused by modern bacteria, not ancient organisms, that are thriving on the current temperature and humidity conditions in the laboratory where the mummies are stored. The mummies are from the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth," Thomas said.


Scientists are trying to find the right balance of humidity levels to prevent the mold from damaging the bodies. It's possible climate change is at the root of the problem, Thomas said.

The AMNH's mummy collection includes mummified remains and burial items from around the world. A special exhibit, "Mummies," on view through the end of the year, includes items from Chicago's Field Museum.

Exhibit features include a close-up look under the mummy behind its wrappings using CT scan images. The mummy exhibit will head to Chicago in 2018.

Find out more about mummies online using the AMNH website's "Ology" video series, in which young museum-goers ask Thomas questions about mummies. Kids ask about the origin of the word mummy and delve into other interesting mummy facts at

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