viernes, 16 de diciembre de 2011

Momias de aristócratas

The Mystery of Germany's Aristocratic Mummies

By Frank Thadeusz

When they died, Germany noble families of the 18th
century did what the Egyptians had done before them: They had themselves
mummified. As an increasing number of such well-preserved corpses are found,
scientists are trying to find out why.

Baron von Holz had a difficult lot. During the Thirty Years' War, von Holz
fought in the Swedish army as a mercenary, but he was not granted a hero's death
on the battlefield. He was cut down, rather less heroically, at the age of 35 by
either the flu or blood poisoning. And it was only in death, that his situation
really improved.

His family dressed his
mortal remains in precious calf-leather boots with nailed soles. The warrior was
then laid out in a kind of luxury crypt under the castle of Sommersdorf near
Ansbach, in modern-day Bavaria. In those vaults von Holz's corpse was privileged
with an honor previously reserved primarily for Egyptian pharaohs: His body did
not decompose.

More than 370 years after his untimely death, the nobleman still lies in his
casket, well preserved. Von Holz was a giant of a man, standing 1.80 meters
(around 5'10"), at a time when most humans were far shorter. To this day, his
feet are still shod in those smart leather boots that his clan had made for him
almost four centuries ago.
Secrets of Mummification
The corpse recently left its burial place in the castle cellar for the very
first time so that archeologists from the Reiss Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim
could take a close look at the mummy. It quickly became clear that the boot-clad
baron had no external injuries and he seems to have been in excellent health
when he contracted his fatal infection. What remains unclear is why the
aristocratic soldier's body was mummified in the first place.
Only a handful of scientists take an active interest in the leathery corpses
that are recovered from boggy moorlands or cellar vaults in Germany. Every few
months, a baron, or a priest, turns up at archeologist Wilfried Rosendahl's door
to report that he has found a corpse under his castle or in his parish church.

Confronted with the ever-increasing number of new discoveries, Rosendahl
concedes that: "We are more familiar with the history of the Egyptian mummies
than with the bodies slumbering in our tombs."
Only a few weeks ago, the researcher discovered the superbly preserved bodies
of 12 members of an aristocratic family in the district of Illereichen in
southern Germany.
Why did German Nobility Dabble in Mummification?
Rosendahl's colleague Andreas Ströbl is currently examining the remains of an
18th-century nobleman's clan that was laid to rest in a cellar grave under the
18th century Church of St. John the Baptist in Hannover. "We've known that these
aristocrats' crypts existed, but for a long time we didn't know why," Ströbl
About 1,000 mummified bodies in German noblemen's graves have been discovered
and cataloged so far. The vaults contain children as well as adults, their
clothes are sometimes still in remarkably good condition. Often the tombs also
contain burial objects: Combs, spices, coins, and in one case, a shaving brush.

The surprizing number of tombs containing mummified remains leads researchers
to the conclusion that it was not random. "For a long time, I believed that
mummification was more of an accidental corollary of the way people were buried
in those days," Ströbl says. New evidence suggests something different: In this
early modern period did many of the rich and aristocratic deliberately have
themselves buried in this way so that their remains would be preserved?
A Mausoleum with Ancient Air Conditioning
There is scant source material -- but Ströbl did find a "smoking gun": In a
letter, written in 1710, to the board of the parish church of Berlin, a woman
called Catharina Steinkoppen made a request for her deceased granddaughter.
Namely, that "the aforementioned corpse should not decay in the vaults below the
church." The girl's father -- a courtier by the name of von Schütz -- offered
the stately sum of 10 Reichsthalers, the equivalent of a year's wages for a
coachman, for the service.

A total of 140 mummified
bodies lie in a crypt below a church near Alexanderplatz in central Berlin. It
has been known for some time that this was the exclusive domain of deceased
members of rich or highly respected families. But the fact that church leaders
in Berlin deliberately set up the biggest mausoleum in Germany is a more recent

After the discovery of the grandmother's petition, researchers examined the
nobleman's crypt in the historic center of Berlin. What they found was an
extremely effective ventilation system running through the tomb. All the burial
chambers were connected to each other by a series of small shafts. As such this
underground graveyard was always well ventilated.
Indeed Rosendahl and Ströbl found cleverly conceived ventilation systems in
even the smallest of these basement graves. But that wasn't the only trick that
promoted mummification. The undertakers lined the coffins of the departed with
sawdust which then soaked up any fluids that leaked out of the body
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