Connecting with the past in the form of preserved bodies and unearthing long-lost legendary cities.
By Peter Haugen
Historian and Author
If you think of history as lists of facts, dates, battles, and key civilizations, you may discover a lot, but you’ll never experience the thrill of the past. If, on the other hand, you’re able to make the leap to identify with people who are long dead and to imagine what living their lives must have been like, you may be among those for whom the past becomes a passion and perhaps even an addiction.
Some people have no trouble making that connection; they read history and their imaginations go to work. Other people need help. Hard evidence often works, the kind of evidence you can examine at historic sites or in museums. Seeing what the people of the past left behind — what they made and built and even their exquisitely preserved bodies — can bridge the gap between then and now. These things are reminders that real people walked the earth long ago, carrying within them dreams and fears not so unlike yours. Here, I look at two legendary “lost” cities and discuss evidence for their actual existence. I also look at various kinds of mummies and discuss the ways they can bring history alive.
Homing in on Homer and the Troy Story
The Iliad and The Odyssey, epic poems passed down from the ancient Greek singer Homer, tell fantastic stories about a war between Greeks and Trojans and the journey home from that war. They’re so fantastic — full of vengeful gods and supernatural peril — that it’s hard for modern people to credit any part of them as true.
Yet history is in these poems, history that became more tantalizing in the late nineteenth century when an eccentric German businessman dug up the city of Troy, revealing that it had been a real place, one of many ancient Troys built in just the place Homer described. Each rose and fell and another rose on top of it while the old one was forgotten.
Greeks attacked Troy more than 3,200 years ago, in the thirteenth century BC. The stories about that war were already ancient by the time of the philosopher Aristotle and Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC. Nobody knows for sure who Homer was or when he lived (although the ninth century BC is likely — more than 2,800 years ago). As centuries and millennia went by, the real Trojan War faded so far into the past that the legends were all that was left.
That was until Germany’s Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy amateur archeologist, decided to find Troy. With little to go on except his faith in Homer, he dug up not just one but a stack of nine Troys built one on top of another. Then he went to Greece and discovered the mighty civilization of Mycenae, which also figures in Homer’s saga.
Sure that The Iliad’s account of the Trojan War was true, Schliemann fixed on an ancient mound at a place called Hissarlik that’s close enough to the Aegean Sea for the invading Greeks to have jogged back and forth between it and their camp on the shore, just as Homer’s story says they did.
Schliemann hired workers and started digging at the mound. Ironically, he hardly slowed down as he passed through what later archeologists identified as the probable Troy of the Trojan War (about 1250 BC), only three levels down. Schliemann’s workers burrowed to an earlier layer of the ancient city, one from before 2000 BC — maybe 700 years earlier than the Troy in Homer’s stories. In 1874, Schliemann found priceless gold artifacts that he erroneously thought had belonged to Priam, the Trojan king in The Iliad.
Not satisfied with his Trojan findings, Schliemann went back to Greece to look for the palace of King Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in The Iliad. Unbelievably, he not only found evidence of another legendary civilization, but he again came up with golden treasure, this time dating from 1550 BC.
Schliemann paved the way for later scientists such as Arthur Evans (1851–1941), an Englishman who uncovered the remains of the great Minoan civilization. (The Minoans were a vigorous, powerful people who thrived on Crete and other Aegean Islands between 3000 and 1450 BC.) Such finds reminded professional archeologists that ancient stories — even those that sound fantastical — often contained important clues and that tales of lost cities weren’t necessarily make-believe.
Archeologists have found many forgotten cities. Does that mean that every lost civilization was for real? Does it mean, for example, that scientists or explorers will someday find the sunken nation of Atlantis? Oops. Did I just mention Atlantis? There isn’t room here to delve into even a small fraction of the theories about where and what was Atlantis — if it ever existed — but this section gives you an idea of what all the fuss is about.
The story of the lost continent of Atlantis describes a land of peace and plenty that was destroyed in an overnight cataclysm. The story traces back to the writings of Greek philosopher Plato (about 428–347 BC), who used Atlantis to make a point about social order and good government. But Plato’s descriptions leave room for interpretation, and people have been interpreting wildly for more than 2,000 years.
If Atlantis wasn’t in the Atlantic Ocean, just past Gibraltar on your way out of the Mediterranean (and geology seems to dictate that it couldn’t have been there), then where was it? Historians, archeologists, mystics, and self-appointed prophets have argued vociferously over the site. Dueling proponents put the lost continent everywhere from Britain to Bermuda to Bolivia, from Colorado to the China Sea. One theory claims it was on another planet. And then there are comic books that depict Atlantis thriving in a giant plexiglass bubble on the ocean floor. Virtually every theory has to make allowances for Plato getting the story of Atlantis indirectly from an Athenian statesman, Solon, who supposedly got it from scholar-priests on a visit to Egypt in about 590 BC. Because Plato wrote his version almost two centuries later, in about 360 BC, details may have changed along the way, or so many Atlantis-seekers have rationalized.
One of the least outrageous theories is that the story of Atlantis is an interpretation of the volcanic disaster that destroyed Santorini, an island in the Mediterranean. Modern archeologists and geologists have studied the way the Santorini cataclysm caused a monstrous tsunami followed by sky-darkening ashfall that devastated Minoan civilization on nearby Crete.
Santorini (also known as Thera) lies about 45 miles north of Crete, which was the center of the Minoan culture. Minoan ruins are plentiful on what’s left of Santorini, but that’s only a small remnant of what the island was until about 1500 BC, when the 5,000-foot volcano in its middle exploded and collapsed into the sea. Ever since, the island has been a crescent surrounding a volcanic-crater lagoon. The volcanic eruptions continued for 30 years, building up to a devastating climax: an enormous tidal wave. It knocked down buildings on islands throughout the region.
The tsunami decimated the population, and the subsequent rain of volcanic ash probably finished off the Minoan civilization. Nobody knows for sure whether the sinking of Santorini had anything to do with launching a lasting legend of a capsized civilization, but news of such a catastrophic event surely spread around the Mediterranean and, in time, became legend.
Reading the Body Language of the Dead
Some people who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago left more than just their images in sculpture and paintings on stone. Preserved bodies are flesh-and-blood evidence of a long-ago reality. The mere fact that a human body from thousands of years past is still more or less intact and still recognizably the same as this year’s model can help open your mind to the connection between then and now. There’s something about a mummy that helps your imagination bridge all the generations since that puckered flesh was taut, upright, and dancing.
In history books that cover big expanses of time, you have to adjust your perspective so that a century becomes a relatively small unit of history. You can breeze through a thousand years here and a thousand years there. Thinking of the Byzantine Empire as one civilization, a single station on the history train, is easy to do. Yet, it grew and receded, changed governments, and restructured policies over a stretch of centuries more than five times longer than the United States has been a nation.
When you back up far enough to take that in, you may lose sight of individual lives. They flicker past so quickly. I find that contemplating mummies is a helpful tool for hooking into the perspective of a single life span, a single individual, so long ago. Strangely, you may be able to easily identify with a mummy, if you don’t find that too macabre.
Mummies have turned up all over the world. Some were preserved naturally by something in the environment where the body came to rest. Others, as in the celebrated tombs of ancient Egypt, were artfully prepared for their voyage into death.
Frozen in the Alps
In the summer of 1991, German tourists hiking in the Ötzal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy spotted a human body lodged in high-altitude ice. A few days later, a rescue team cut free the corpse of a bearded man dressed in leather. Perhaps he had been a back-to-nature hippie whose 1960s wanderings went tragically awry? No. Other curious details made that unlikely — the man’s flint-bladed knife, flint-tipped arrows, and copper-bladed ax.
Researchers at the University of Innsbruck in Austria first estimated the freeze-dried body’s age at 4,000 years. Further examination moved the date of death back by 1,300 years, meaning that “Ötzi,” as scientists nicknamed him, was journeying over the mountains around 3300 BC when he died and was covered by falling snow.
Ötzi, who resides in Italy’s Museo Archologico dell’Alto Adige in Bolzano, is a natural mummy in that his body was preserved by nature. Scientists find out all kinds of things about the ways people lived and died from mummies, especially those preserved whole. Ötzi was between age 40 and 50 when he died, and he suffered from a number of chronic illnesses; his medicine pouch contained herbal prescriptions for what ailed him. Researchers even probed the mummy’s stomach to learn that he’d eaten the meat of chamois (a kind of European mountain goat) and deer, as well as grain (possibly in the form of bread) and some plum-like fruit called sloes on the day he died.
Ötzi’s mummified body and the things found with it prompted scholars to rethink some assumptions about the roots of European civilization. His copper ax showed that the transition from stone technology to metal happened earlier than archeologists had previously believed. The rest of his gear — a bow, a quiver of arrows, a waterproof cape woven of grass, even his well-made shoes — show that Ötzi was well equipped for his trek across the mountains. The stress patterns in his leg bones suggested he took such journeys routinely. At first, scientists theorized that he may have been a shepherd, but further research showed that he had been shot with an arrow and involved in a physical struggle with other men. A blow to the head and blood loss from the arrow wound probably killed him. This man could have been a soldier, perhaps part of a raiding party.
Salted Away in Asia
In the dry climate of Chinese Turkestan (between Russia and Mongolia), bodies buried in the salty soil near the towns of Cherchen and Loulan as long as 4,000 years ago turned into mummies rather than rotting away.
Some of the Turkestan mummies have well-preserved blond hair and many appear to be of Caucasian ancestry, a fact that challenges latter-day assumptions about the range of ancient ethnic groups. Based on their well-made, colorful clothing, they may have been related to the Celts, whose culture would later flourish all over Europe and whose descendants include the Irish, Scots, and Welsh. The fabrics show weaving techniques similar to those still practiced in rural Ireland in the twenty-first century AD. DNA analysis of the bodies has suggested genetic links ranging from Western European to East Asia, which may mean that their home, the Taklimakan Desert basin, was an ancient crossroads between diverse cultures.
Bogged Down in Northern Europe
The watery peat bogs of northern Europe also made many mummies. Tannins in the peat (partially decayed plant matter) and the cold water preserved bodies in such startlingly good condition that Danish villagers have sometimes mistaken a 2,500-year-old body for that of someone they knew only decades before.
The bodies, though discolored by the tannins, look much as they did when the people died. Some people fell into the bogs, but many were killed and dumped there, perhaps as ritual sacrifices or as victims of another kind of execution. Mummies of young women wear blindfolds, and some appear to have been drowned alive. Some mummies have ropes around their necks, and others’ throats were slit.
Most of these peat bog mummies have skin, hair, fingernails, and even facial expressions intact. And their jewelry and clothing sometimes look unsettlingly like something that could hang in your twenty-first-century closet.
Dried and Well-Preserved in the Andes
The 500-year-old bodies of Inca children in the Argentine Andes that archeologist Johan Reinhard and a team from the National Geographic Society discovered in the 1990s atop Mount Llullaillaco are among the best-preserved mummies ever found. Apparently killed in a religious ritual sacrifice, the boy and two girls — aged between 8 and 15 — were so perfectly frozen that the scientist said they looked as if they had just drawn their last breaths.
The Argentine discoveries are more than fascinating and informative; they’re also terribly sad. The idea of killing an 8-year-old is so repellent to people today that you may recoil in horror. What could possibly possess a culture to worship gods that must have the blood of innocents? Yet that’s another reason why the three preserved bodies are so compelling: They draw you into the past as you struggle to comprehend how these people who were so startlingly similar to people today in some ways could have understood the world so differently.
Preserved Pharaohs in Egypt
Perhaps nobody devoted quite so much thought and energy to death and the afterlife as the ancient Egyptians. After burying their dead with great care and ceremony since perhaps 4000 BC, the Egyptians began artfully mummifying their pharaohs sometime before the twenty-fourth century BC.
By the year 2300 BC, the practice had spread beyond royalty. Any Egyptian who could afford it was dried and fortified for the trip into the afterlife. The mummy was buried with possessions and even servants for the next world.
Egyptian mummies differ from many others in that researchers actually can figure out who some of these people were in life. Egypt’s King Tutankhamen’s identity is intact thanks to ancient Egyptian writings, called hieroglyphics. British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered fabulously preserved artifacts in his tomb in 1922. The discovery made Tutankhamen the most famous pharaoh in the twentieth century AD, even though he was probably a long way from that in the fourteenth century BC. King Tut took the throne in 1361 BC at about age 9 and reigned for only 11 years.
Carter first gazed by candlelight into the wonders of that tomb, unseen for more than 3,300 years. That moment has been held up ever since as the ideal archeological breakthrough — completely unlike most great discoveries, which are scratched out of the ancient dust and painstakingly pieced together.
Carter said that he stood there for a long, long time, allowing his eyes to penetrate the gloom lit only by the candle he held. His patron and partner, George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon, stood behind him in the dark, unable to stand the suspense. “Do you see anything?” asked Carnarvon breathlessly. “Yes,” replied Carter in a hushed tone. “Wonderful things.”
Carter’s sensational discovery made all the papers, and so did Carnarvon’s untimely death. The earl died of an infected mosquito bite a few months after he helped Carter find the tomb. Naturally, somebody blamed his death on an ancient curse against anyone who disturbed the boy-king’s eternal rest. (Grave robbers had been the scourge of Egypt’s royalty.)
The notion of Tutankhamen’s curse may have disappeared if it weren’t for a 1932 horror movie called The Mummy, which is wrong on every point of archeology and Egyptian religion but features a compellingly subtle performance by Boris Karloff in the title role. The Mummy was successful enough that many remakes and variations followed, including a 1959 version with Christopher Lee as the undead Egyptian. A 1999 reimagining of The Mummy inspired sequels in 2001 and 2008.