The mysterious riddle of the Riga mummy

  • 2001-06-28
  • Elina Cerpa
RIGA - Ancient Egypt, the land of the Nile Delta, was the most fertile and powerful land in ancient times. But the ancient Egyptians also had an obsession with death.

The Egyptians prepared for death in every way they could think of. One of the most essential ways was to save money to buy a tomb for their bodies to rest in during the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife lay in the west, where no man dared to travel.

After death, Egyptians were mummified. The mummification process varied depending on how much the embalmers were paid. The first attempts at artificial preservation of the dead occurred as early as 3000 B.C.

The only mummified human to have journeyed to Latvia, thousands of years later in 1952, resides today in Riga's Foreign Art Museum. Its age dates from between 70 B.C. and 30 B.C.

The mummy's remains give information about life in ancient Egypt, and the traditions of this particular human and his contemporaries. "The mummy in the sarcophagus was brought to Riga in 1902 by a seafaring man after it was ordered by a woman named Madame Kibere from a Cairo museum," says Baiba Uburge, the head of the applied arts department at the Foreign Art Museum.

Shortly after its arrival, a defect appeared in the mummy's inner structure, when a dark area on its head slowly began to grow larger. The problem continued to worsen until they understood that the temperature needed adjusting.

Some scientists said that the cause of the strange problem was due to imperfect mummification procedures. But, as Uburge explained, the problem may just as easily have been human error. "The mummy needs to have very precise lighting, temperature and humidity," she said.

Even so, the mummy was in need of help. In 1992 experts from Moscow came and made repairs to the head of the mummy.

Two years ago, the museum established connections with Egyptologists from the Louvre in France. Last year and in April this year the Foreign Art Museum became the site of further research work and renovations on the human mummy, as well as on mummified cats and fish that also made it to Latvia.

To determine the condition of the mummy, scientists used roentgenology, a branch of medicine dealing with diagnosis and therapy through x-rays, and computer topography.

For many years, the mummy was considered to be a woman. Later it was discovered that the mummy was actually a man of around 35 to 40 years of age. He stood 1.55 to 1.65 meters tall, had fine bones and was in good physical condition. His teeth are almost perfect. During the man's life only one tooth was pulled out.

Scientists guess that the man did some kind of intellectual, not physical, work. No fractures or any anomalies caused by disease or accidents were found in the mummy's bones. The cause of death has not been determined yet.

The bones are in disorder, the result of inadequate mummification procedures, experts have suggested. The other possibility is that the rather chaotically organized remains occurred as a result of clumsy transportation.

"Somehow the Riga mummy is unique, because it's the only mummy that has been researched so deeply without damaging either the bandages or the mummy," says Uburge.

The mummy has been investigated using the most modern endoscopic methods, and researchers have made quite a few essential discoveries. Within the ancient body of the mummy, scientists discovered wax globules coated in gold that serve a special purpose.

According to French architect and Egyptologist Bruno Deland, "These special globules are supposed to work some special magic to help protect the spirit on his journey to the afterlife."

The golden balls are one centimeter in diameter. Only 140 mummies that still exist from the same period as the Riga mummy have them.

Researchers also discovered that the lid to the sarcophagus is not the original. Instead, it is the lid to a woman's sarcophagus and was made 1,000 years after the Riga mummy passed away.

Ivars Tolmanis, director of the Digestive Disease Research and Medical Treatment Center in Riga, led the endoscopic research on the Riga mummy and told journalists that all of the research performed inside the mummy was conducted through a previously existing hole in the shoulder area.

With the technology the scientists were using it was possible to take out a piece of the mummy's rib bone. After the survey was completed, however, it was put back.

At the Foreign Art Museum two cat and one fish mummy were also examined. During the research on the fish mummies the scientists discovered five fish bound together, a big one and four small ones.

During one of Deland's recent visits to Egypt, he managed to obtain financing for Latvian scientists to research excavation sites at the Karnak Temple. At a press conference in Riga, Deland said that Latvian scientists have not been able to do any research in Egypt for over 60 years.

The mummy's research has come to an end, but scientists will continue to work with the information they have gathered to determine the best way to keep the mummy and prevent further damage of the bandages. The display is open Tuesday through Sunday at 3 Pils Laukums.