When people think of mummification, images of cavernous, torch-lit rooms inside monumental Ancient Egyptian temples come to mind. A group of robed priests, experienced eyes looking tentatively at their work as steady hands cut precise incisions. It’s medicine meets mystery.
But that isn’t always how mummification happens. For all the human experience gained from millennia of preparing our dead, sometimes a lucky mix of Mother Nature and chance do a better job. The Vac mummies, presented in our special exhibition Mummies of the World are a fantastic example of that unexpected combination
In 1994, repair work in a Dominican Church in the City of Vac, Hungary revealed a forgotten crypt. Inside, coffins containing the remains of 265 individuals were stacked floor to ceiling. They dated to around the turn of the 19th Century. Many of the bodies inside these coffins were incredibly well preserved, with skin, hair, and even clothing still clinging to the bodies.
“Crypt mummies”, as they are called, are not unheard of, but they are very rare. It is believed that cool, dry air inside the crypt helped to preserve the bodies, and oil from the pine boards of the coffins further helped to preserve them by preventing the growth of fungi and bacteria that normally help to break down the body. A very special combination of those two factors had to be in place for preservation to occur. Ildiko Schikossy, the curator in charge of the Vac mummies in our exhibit, who has worked with the collection for 20 years, told me of mummies whose heads were placed near the center of the crypt, where the conditions were prime for preservation, but whose feet were near the walls, where there was more moisture and less air flow; as a result, the top half of the bodies were well preserved while the legs and feet were horribly deteriorated.
Mummies of the World presents the Orlovits family, some of the best preserved bodies from the Vac Crypt. Thanks to records kept by the church, we know quite a lot about them. Michael Orlovits was the head of the family. He died at the age of 41, leaving behind his wife, Veronica. They had had three children together, but all had died before the age of 3. Veronica remarried, but died a year and a half later. She suffered from chronic tuberculosis, and for the state of her upper leg bones, it seems likely that she would not have been able to walk in the last months of her life. However, it is not believed that Tuberculosis was the cause of her death. Tests are currently being done to determine if Veronica had gastric cancer.
Vronica Orlovits. The clothes on all three of the mummies are careful reproductions of the original garments found on the bodies. The originals are currently being used by scholars to study the history of textile manufacture in Europe.
The majority of the individuals found buried in the crypt beneath Vac had Tuberculosis, and this is where the medicine meets the mystery for the Vac mummies. Tuberculosis (TB) affects millions today, and studies on the Vac mummies are helping researchers understand the disease better. Diseases mutate; they change over time. It’s like when there are new stains of the flu, and you have to go and get another shot.
By looking at centuries old bodies of individuals afflicted with Tuberculosis, researchers can get a look at how the disease has changed over time, and this can help us better understand how the disease works, and how it can be combated in the future.