Garments of Iran’s salt mummies to be restored using German expertise

May 26, 2020 - 18:43

TEHRAN – A team of experts from Iran and Germany will start a project for purifying, cleansing, and restoring garments and personal belongings of ancient salt mummies which were first found in Iran’s Chehrabad Salt Mine in 1993.

What was a catastrophe for the ancient miners has become a sensation for science. The first salt mummy, dated to 300 CE, was discovered in 1993, sporting a long white beard, iron knives, and a single gold earring. In 2004 another mummy was discovered only 50 feet away, followed by another in 2005 and a “teenage” boy mummy later that year….

“The discovered objects and clothing of the Salt Men are being restored in collaboration with Iran’s Research Center for Conservation of Cultural Relics in close collaboration with the research institute for the protection and restoration of historical relics from the Ruhr-Universiat Bochum, and the Archaeological Museum Frankfurt,” CHTN quoted Zanjan province’s tourism chief Amir Arjmand as saying on Monday.

In 1993, miners in the Douzlakh Salt Mine, near Hamzehli and Chehrabad villages in Zanjan Province, accidentally came across a mummified head. The head was very well preserved, to the extent that his pierced ear was still holding the gold earring. The hair, beard, and the mustaches were reddish, and his impressive leather boot still contained parts of his leg and foot.“According to [academic] studies, their textiles belong to the Achaemenid and Sassanid periods, [(550-330 BC) and ((224 CE–651), respectively] and in the texture of which different techniques were used in that periods,” the official explained.

Arjmand added that the usage of different types of hair, wool, and felt in the texture of fabrics as well as the existence of various striking designs are amongst other prominent features of their garments.

“The collection of tools and objects discovered from the Chehrabad salt mine in Zanjan province is also very unique, and these findings are one of the strongest documents in the field of historical textiles in the country.”

Briefing on the project, the official explained: “The extent and type of damage, the stages of restoration, including the extent of corrosion and sedimentation, the materials used for cleaning, desalination, strength, control, reconstruction and, ultimately, the final stabilization of the objects are being investigated.”

In 1993, miners in the Douzlakh Salt Mine, near Hamzehli and Chehrabad villages in Zanjan Province, accidentally came across a mummified head. The head was very well preserved, to the extent that his pierced ear was still holding the gold earring. The hair, beard, and the mustaches were reddish, and his impressive leather boot still contained parts of his leg and foot, according to Ancient History Encyclopedia.

However, in 2004, the miners discovered yet another “saltman”, which was followed by further excavation unearthing remains of a human body along with a large number of artifacts made of wood, metal tools, clothing, and pottery. The archaeological investigation involved several international research organizations;  Iranian Centre for Archaeological Research (ICAR); Ruhr-Universität Bochum; Universitat Zürich; University of Oxford, (RLAHA Oxford), Research Laboratory for Archaeology & the History of Art; York University, Institute of Archaeology; Tehran University, The Institute of Parasitology and Mycology; Zanjan University, Institute of Geomorphology; and University of Franche-Comte, Faculty of Sciences & Techniques.

In 2005, a systematic excavation began, three more mummies were excavated, and a sixth remained in situ, due to lack of funds for its storage. The context of the remains suggested that a collapse in the mine had caused the death of the miners in question.

The first mummy, dubbed the “Saltman”, is on display in the National Museum of Iran in Tehran. He still looks very impressive.

This particular “saltman” was originally dated based on the archaeological material found with him. Later, the mummy was carbon dated, which placed him in 500 CE (1750 BP, that is, “before present” or 1750 years ago), the height of the Sasanian Empire. The second “saltman” was carbon-dated to 1554 BP, which placed him in the same era as the first “saltman”, the Sasanian era.

The third, fourth, and fifth “saltmen” were also carbon dated. The third body was dated and placed in 2337 BP, the fourth body in 2301 BP, and the fifth mummy was dated to 2286 BP, placing them all in the Achaemenid period.

The isotopic analysis of the human remains revealed where these miners were from. Some of them were from the Tehran-Qazvin plain, which is relatively local to the mine’s locality, while others were from north-eastern Iran and the coastal areas around the Caspian Sea, and a few from as far away as Central Asia.

Furthermore, the archaeozoological finds, such as animal bones found within the context of the saltmen, showed that the miners might have eaten sheep, goats, and probably pigs and cattle, as well. The archaeobotanical finds recorded showed different cultivated plants were eaten, indicating an agricultural establishment in the vicinity of the mine.

The wealth of fabric and other organic material (leather) worn by the saltmen have allowed a thorough analysis to be undertaken, detailing the resources used to make the fabrics, the processing, the dyes used to color the fibers of the garments, and not least they offer an excellent overview of the changes in cloth types, patterns of weaving, and the changes of the fibers through time.

During the Achaemenid phase, the mining area was accessed from areas further away, indicated by the lack of settlement in the vicinity of the mine, and the presence of foreign miners as indicated by the DNA results from some of the salt mummies. The high number of ceramic vessels and goods supplied also suggest access from further away, while the Sasanian phase shows that the mining was established within the local landscape, and the isotopic data indicates that the supplies were organized on a regional basis.

It is also very interesting to take the lack of any archaeological evidence of any form of a mining settlement within the vicinity of the mine into account, which indicates that the mining was seasonal rather than highly organized. For instance, if we look at the contemporary Greek mining practice, by contrast, this was often a task done by slaves and was highly organized.

The individual “Saltmen” have a few secrets of their own, for instance the first “saltman” that was discovered had the blood type B+, and 3D imaging of his skull revealed fractures around his eye and other damage that occurred before death by a hard blow to the head. His clothing (the impressive leather boot) and his gold earring, show a person of some rank; the reason for his presence in the mine still remains a mystery. Was he murdered and dumped there, or was he mining salt and fell victim to a cave in? 

Saltman No. 5 had tapeworm eggs from the Taenia sp. genus in his system. These were identified during the study of his remains. The find indicates the consumption of raw or undercooked meat, and this is the first case of this parasite in ancient Iran and the earliest evidence of ancient intestinal parasites in the area. The best preserved and probably the most harrowing of the saltmen is Saltman No. 4. A sixteen-year-old miner, caught in the moment of death, crushed by a cave-in.


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