Who was Julia Pastrana? Julia Pastrana was a Mexican woman born c.1830-34 in the Sierra Madre region. Julia suffered from a disease known as hypertrichosis, among other conditions. Standing at no more than 4ft 5 inches, Julia’s face and body were covered in hair, and her overgrown gums cause her mouth to protrude in a grotesque manner. There is much uncertainty surrounding her early years, with rumours stating she was sold by her parents or abandoned in the wilderness before being stumbled upon and rescued. Eventually she was adopted by Governor Sánchez in Sinaloa and worked as his maid before leaving his employment in 1854. The ambiguity of her early years is likely due to suppression of the truth by the freak show circuit who wanted to make audacious claims about her origins (including that she was a ‘unholy union of man and beast’).
Life as the ‘Bear Woman’ or the ‘Baboon Lady’ Julia was likely recruited to become a member of a ‘Freak Show’ by an eager entrepreneur, and she began to tour under the showman Theodore Lent who she would marry in 1855. She went on tour in numerous cities across America before debuting in London in 1857, all the while under the direction of her husband who used her body for profit in both life and, eventually, in death. Control was likely the reason Lent married her, as seen when P.T. Barnum met her in 1857. She would not remove her veil for him until her husband entered the room. Pastrana went on to tour across Europe under the supervision of her husband, making sure she performed on stage, submitted to examination, and posed at social functions.
Death and embalming Julia died in childbirth in 1860 along side her baby son who had also inherited her condition. She was in Moscow at the time, and Lent sold her body (as well as their baby’s) to a Professor Sokolov of the Anatomical Institute at the university so he could embalm them. The embalming technique used by Soklov was a success, with many praising his experimentation to benefit anatomical collections. His method was thought to blend aspects of both mummification and taxidermy, with the whole process taking around 6 months. The colour and texture of the corpses gave them a wax work like appearance, and images of her dead naked body and her son’s during the embalming process were published for academic research. Lent reclaimed the bodies in 1862 and began to tour with them as ‘curiosities’. Her display in death continued to allow her husband to profit from her body, in death it was easier for the public to view her body and discuss her openly in medical fields- she had become more object than person as she could be displayed for however long Lent required.
What happened to the bodies? Lent went on to marry another ‘bearded lady’ called Marie Bartel, presenting her as Zenora Pastrana, the little sister of Julia. Like Julia, Marie performed on tour for her husband before he was committed to an asylum in Russia after he began to lose his mind. He died shortly afterwards, and Marie sold the bodies. They were displayed at numerous exhibits across Europe for years to come. The bodies were touring up until as recently as the 1970’s until Sweden banned the exhibition in 1973 putting a stop to the display of the corpses. A break-in to the storage facility in 1976 where the bodies were kept resulted in extensive damage to the body of Pastrana’s son- the corpse was disposed of and Julia was moved to the University of Oslo.
In 2005, petitioning began for the repatriation of Pastrana back to her native Mexico. After over a decade of campaigning by artist Laura Anderson Barbata, Pastrana was brought back to her native home in 2013. She was laid to rest in a white coffin after a Catholic mass. Finally, Julia was given a dignified end to her story.
The story of Julia Pastrana is tragic and unsettling. Bodily autonomy in life and death was taken from Julia without her say in the matter. After a lifetime of scrutiny surrounding her appearance, despite Julia showing intelligence and a loving nature, this only continued at the hands of her husband after her death. To Lent, his wife was profitable, and whats even more disturbing is the fact that Lent did not seem upset in anyway to display his dead wife and son years after their passing. This questions his motive behind the marriage in the first instance, with the union likely more of a business plan than a loving partnership to the scrupulous businessman. It took years of body on display and a decade long campaign for Julia to finally be laid to rest- even then it is sad to think this would not have happened organically were it not for the relentlessness of Anderson Barbata.
Whilst many European countries do not feel the need to embalm their dead, Ireland is not one of them. Growing up in rural Catholic Ireland, I was exposed to the deceased bodies of loved ones from a very young age as it is tradition for us to ‘wake’ our dead at home. I was eight years old when I saw my first dead body, it was that of my grandfather who had died from a long battle with lung cancer. I remember seeing him a day before he died, he was struggling to breathe, gaunt and his skin had yellowed. It scared me to see him like this, so I was apprehensive seeing him in the coffin that was placed in the living room of my grandparents’ house. But he had transformed from the ill man I had seen the night before to someone who looked the peaceful picture of health. I did not know it at the time, but I came to realise it was the embalmer who had been responsible for this transformation. I lost other grandparents, cousins, aunties, uncles, and parents later down the line and was never afraid of viewing them in their coffin because of the peace I felt at seeing my grandfather.
I recently came across an article on time.com by Sallie Tisdale who discussed viewing her mother after she had died of breast cancer. She describes the transformative type process I just described seeing my grandfather, but for her the experience was overwhelmingly negative. She felt acceptance of her loss was hindered by the viewing, as her mother was made to ‘look alive’. Tisdale asks the important question, ‘why do we so often make a dead person appear alive?’ Caitlin Doughty of the Order of the Good Death does an excellent job of educating the public on embalming practices in America. Doughty does a series of YouTube videos (Ask a Mortician Channel) discussing what happens to a body during embalming. On the Order of the Good Death Websites there is plenty of information about how embalming became common practice (spoiler- The American Civil War played a large part) as well as the dangers and myths associated with dead bodies and the practice itself. Doughty does not condemn the practice but makes sure that the public know it is not always necessary, it can often be an extra cost to families.
From personal experience, embalming has helped immensely in the grieving process. My Father passed when I was 19 years old very suddenly in an accident and he was embalmed as part of the Catholic wake tradition. However, it was my Mother’s death when I was 25 years old where I felt embalming personally helped my grieving. My Mother died of brain cancer and had been ill for quite some time before her passing. She was only 50 years old when she died and had always looked quite youthful for her age until the disease began to progress. She was a shadow of her former self in the care home she was in, she had swollen limbs from excessive medication, her complexion was pale, and she was constantly agitated and confused. On her passing, seeing her in the funeral home after her embalming felt like a huge relief. She looked like her glamourous self again, more peaceful in death than she had been in life. Unlike Tisdale, I was appreciative of the practice as we had a chance to say goodbye to our Mother in the way we wanted to remember her. This may also have been down to differences in the work and skill of each embalmer, our embalmer did not go overboard with any makeup etc. Two weeks after her death I began assisting an embalmer and understood the practice fully. Whilst the practice itself is quite invasive, I was fascinated by it and asked the mortician about families who opted out of the practice. He told me they always make sure families know the extras costs and tell them it is not always necessary, but some still feel the need to go ahead with the embalming as it is how they grieve. What is important here is that families know their options, and the funeral home are not exploiting people when they are vulnerable.
There have also been suggestions that embalming has psychological implications in American society. Psychologists have suggested that embalming can be considered a ‘final assault on the self’ and that the natural looking deceased can encourage denial of death in loved ones. There is also some suggestion in other studies that there was more regret surrounding not viewing the body than having the body embalmed. Again, personal preference plays a large role. One lady describes how viewing her mother after she was embalmed disturbed her, but it brought her brother peace.
As someone with a background in archaeology, with an interest in how we preserved the dead in the past (as educational specimens and as part of funeral rites), it is no wonder this has interlinked with my professional life. Although modern embalming methods are strongly linked to the American Civil War, different cultures from all over the world have been preserving their dead in various ways as part of their grieving process for thousands of years- in the same way that many have not. It comes down to understanding the various options out there, and what works for some does not work for others. So, does embalming hinder the grieving process? The answer will never be the same for everyone.
Embalming has been carried out for thousands of years by different cultures all over the world. An array of techniques concerning the practice have been described by scholars and doctors from each of these time periods, but selection of artists have depicted this practice as well. Embalming cannot be called a common subject matter in the field of art history- but nevertheless there are still examples that survive today. As part of this blog post I will discuss five works of art that depict the practice of embalming, a topic I do not believe is widely discussed through the examination of such materials. I will attempt to cover different embalming techniques as well as different time periods and locations in their examination.
Papyrus of Hunefer, Egypt- c.1275BC. and New Kingdom Tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt- c.1250BC. Numerous depictions of funerary rites and embalming are depicted in Egyptian papyri, on sarcophagi and other objects. I have chosen the Papyrus of Hunefer from the British Museum which shows the Opening of the Mouth ritual. The embalmer is depicted wearing a mask of Anubis (the god of embalming) and the mummy is being reanimated by the priest so the deceased could speak in the afterlife. We also see an embalmer depicted during the mummification process wearing a jackal head in the New Kingdom tomb of Sennedjem. The deceased in the papyrus is depicted as already ‘mummified’ by the embalmer before the final step of the ceremony takes place and the deceased can be laid to rest. The embalming process would have been subject to expense- with the most elaborate process costing the most money. Organs were removed and placed in canopic jars, the body cleaned and sewn up and dehydrated with natron. The process took around 70 days.
Embalming of the Body of Christ triptych, Rotterdam, Unknown Master- c.1410. This 15th century triptych shows the embalming of Christ- a very rarely depicted scene in religious art. In the image we see Mary embracing her son as she is supported by John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Cleopas and Mary Salome in her mourning. The jars of oils, resins and spices used in the embalming process can be seen around the feet of Christ, with men (presumably the embalmers) handling equipment to assist in the preservation. The Bible mentions the embalming of Christ. His body was washed and perfumed with substances such as myrrh and aloe before his resurrection. However, there is no mention of organ removal and it is likely the body was perfumed for pomp and display. It is strange that the topic of the embalming of Christ is not depicted more often, as it links so closely with resurrection and preservation of the body.
The Embalming Jars of Friedrich Ruysch, Thesarus animalium primus, 1710. The Dutch anatomist Ruysch is remembered for his development of anatomical specimen preservation and use of the arterial method of embalming. He acquired a very large specimen collection and created carefully arranged scenes incorporating human body parts and preserved animals. The scenes were intended to be an art display as well as a scientific preservation. Images of his artistic ‘embalming jars’ were featured in his Thesarus animalium primus in 1710. His collection of ‘curiosities’ notably contained infant and fetal remains posed among botanical landscapes.
Embalmed Body of Abraham Lincoln at Springfield, Illinois, Engraving, 1865. The American Civil War saw with it the popularisation of embalming methods so deceased soldiers could be brought home to loved ones. Lincoln was a huge advocate of the practice and had his 11-year-old son Willie embalmed upon his death in 1862. The same embalmer would go on to embalm Lincoln himself after his assassination. At the time, embalming was carried out using alcohol, mercury or arsenic via the arterial method, and makeshift embalming tents were often put up at battlefield sites. After Lincoln was embalmed his body went of a ‘tour’ for public display in different cities in America. This engraved illustration shows the embalmed body on display in Springfield, Illinois. The book the image came from was entitled ‘Illustrated life, services, martyrdom, and funeral of Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States : with a portrait of President Lincoln, and other illustrative engravings of the scene of the assassination, etc’ by D. Williamson and G. Bancroft, 1865.
Embalming is seen in a lot of artistic mediums but is not a popular subject matter. Interestingly, funeral processions and anatomical dissections were quite popular related subject matters for artists- both have themes strongly relevant to death and the human body. However, this snapshot of art pieces has shown mediums in painting, illustration, and sculpture over numerous time periods in different parts of the world. Preservation of the human body is still preserved in the art and archaeological material that we can still examine today.
I recently read Kate Lister’s fantastic book ‘The Curious History of Sex’. In one of the chapters entitled ‘Boy’s Toys: The History of the Sex Doll’, I was struck by the story of Maria Van Butchell. She was embalmed by her husband, Martin Van Butchell, in 1775 for the purposes of public display. For this blog post, I explored the embalming further and the life of the eccentric 18th century dentist, who worked closely with some of the most famous anatomists of the time. Van Butchell (born in c.1735) trained under the famous surgeon John Hunter and became interested in dentistry. He charged highly for his dentistry services (he was a very capable dentist), and he became known for his eccentricities as well as his surgical skill (sometimes he was referred to as a ‘kook’). He specialised in anal fistulas and haemorrhoids as well as dentistry and was considered to have had a strange way of dressing himself at the time. However, the oddest thing he is known to have done involved his wife, Maria (sometimes referred to as Mary). On the 15th January 1775, Maria died. Van Butchell asked the surgeons William Hunter and William Cruickshank to embalm her so she could be displayed as part of his dental practice. Embalming of loved ones was not commonplace at the time, making the request even stranger still. It is difficult to untangle what was actually used in the embalming method, but sources suggest she was ‘stuffed’ with ‘powdered nitre’ and injected with carmine, turpentine and wine in order to give her a ‘rosy glow’. She was also reported to have been dressed in her wedding dress and given two glass eyes. Finally, after a thin paste of plaster Paris was applied, Maria was placed in a glass topped coffin for display in the drawing room for patients to look at.
Quack dentistry was a booming business at the time, but the presence of Maria meant Van Butchell had to put an advertisement in the newspaper stating only a limited number of persons could visit the practice every day. It was evident her presence seemed to be good for business. Despite the embalming being carried out by two renowned anatomists, the preservation method had not been perfected at the time and many referred to Maria as a ‘repulsive’ object who eventually began to decay. Van Butchell remarried a woman named Elizabeth, who understandably protested the presence of Maria in the drawing room. Maria’s body was eventually donated to the Hunterian Museum for display in 1815. She remained there until the body was destroyed in a German bombing in 1941. So why did Van Butchell embalm Maria? Understandably, one cannot help but notice the misogyny of the time at play. It was reported that Van Butchell had a clause in his marriage contract that allowed him to use Maria as property when she remained ‘above ground’. Maria was his property in his eyes- something he could do with whatever he wanted. As Kate Lister discusses in her book, there are disturbing necrophiliac undertones associated with her embalming. A disturbing epitaph that accompanied her in the Hunterian Museum even referred to her as ‘A much-loved wife at home to keep, Caress, touch talk to, even sleep…’. One can fully understand why this embalming example shows up in the sex doll chapter of Lister’s book. Van Butchell was also known to be dogmatic in life, demanding Maria only wear black and his second wife Elizabeth only wear white as contrast. Even before her embalming, Maria was still regarded as a ‘doll’ that could be dressed how he liked- in her death, Van Butchell carried on this tradition.
Assassin’s Creed is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, with Origins being the tenth instalment in the series. It is a stealth video game, with this version set in the Ptolemaic period (49-47BC) in Egypt and recounting a fictional history of the rise of the disposed Cleopatra VII. As an archaeologist it was no surprise the Ancient Egyptian setting was intriguing to me, but as someone who works with an embalmer and has an interest in the practice in historical settings, the depiction of ancient embalming practices was particularly engrossing. Players have certain ‘quests’ they must complete to level up in the game, the player takes on the role of a Medjay named Bayek and his wife, Aya. The Medjay were semi-nomadic people who are mentioned as warriors and herders in Ancient Egypt who served with the military, but their name became synonymous with policing in the Egyptian New Kingdom that it was used for any ethic background in forces of authority. Many of the quests and dialogue in the game involve interactions with the embalmers as well retrieval of bodies of loved ones.
Birth Right and The Man Beast: In the quest ‘Birth Right’, an interaction has Bayek speak with the embalmer about three bodies that are laid out in natron salts. Natron was a naturally occurring salt in the Nile Delta. Sacks of the salts are seen as well as rolls of bandages against the walls. As the two men interact, we can see the small embalming quarters that is used for members of the public not able to pay for an elaborate burial in a village. Methods of embalming were subject to cost and it is seen that no organ removal is occurring- indicating families are opting for the cheaper options of the burial rite. A body is bound tightly in bandages on the table and an assortment of jars are placed on the table next to it. The jars on the table likely contain resins and perfumed oils used in the mummification process, the set up looks almost identical to the embalming cache found in the tomb of Tutankhamun- even though his death occurred c.1300 years prior to when this game is set. As seen in the game, the cache contained linen for bandaging and sacks of natron for dehydration. Embalming was still an important aspect in Egypt over millennia and became an important aspect of burial for all classes.
In Krokodilopolis, as part of the quest ‘The Man Beast’, rotting body parts have washed inshore from far upstream after numerous people have gone missing. Bayek tracks down the source to a cave filled with half eaten corpses and learns an embalmer is stealing them and feeding them to the crocodiles in front of spectators as part of a show. Considering the importance placed upon the rites associated with death in Egypt, this would have been considered a serious crime and unlikely have been carried out by an embalmer. Interestingly here is the mention of the god Sobek, the fertility god associated with the crocodile- there has even been examples of embalmed crocodiles in Egypt dated to c. 2000 years ago.
Odour Most Foul: It is in the quest ‘Odour Most Foul’ that we see the most game play associated with embalming. Priests pray to Osiris who does not rot and ‘know corruption’. According to Ancient Egyptian beliefs Osiris was the first to be embalmed by the jackal headed god called Anubis, resulting in Osiris’ resurrection- Anubis was the god of embalmers and are often depicted wearing a jackal headdress (also seen in advertisements for the game). In Origins, Memphis is becoming overpowered by a stench and the player must enter an underground tomb to investigate after speaking to the priests. The underground tomb is filled with bandaged, mummified bodies and canopic jars. Some of the mummies are rotting beneath the wrappings, indicating fault lies with the embalmer as the wrappings are sound. The player must go to the wabet (‘pure place’) and investigate the mummification process, which differs a great deal in size from the small embalmers found in the village in the ‘Birth Right’ quest. The use of the word ‘wabet’ in the game is accurate as this was the place where purification/ mummification took place in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. The wabet often had an open court like appearance as seen on this mission. The embalmers are heard praying to the god Anubis and numerous bodies in various stages of preparation are shown in the temple. The gate to the ibu (or ibw) is shown, where the families of the dead bring their bodies. The embalmers wash down the bodies of the dead here, also an accurate use of the term at this stage in the purification process- ibw also mean ‘place of purification’ in this period.
The next scene shows an embalmer removing the organs of the dead, an important process in the highest class of burial, and four canopic jars are seen in front of the body- used to hold the main organs of the body. Incredibly, the four jars are the correct anthropomorphic figures, the liver was protected by human-headed Imsety, the lungs by ape-headed Hapy, the stomach by the jackal-headed Duamutef and the intestines by the falcon-headed Qebehseneuf. After the burial, these vassals were placed in the tomb along with mummified deceased body- as seen as the player first investigates the smell coming from the underground chambers. The next step using natron as a dehydrator is shown, with the embalmer commenting of how it burns his hand. After 70 days the bodies would have been removed and returned to the families for burial- accurately, we see the human shaped, wooden cases the family would have used to transport their loved one to their place of rest. Bayek discovers that the stench from the bodies is due to Natron tainted with sand.
Despite embalming being a complicated process in Ancient Egypt, highly dependent on time period and location, Assassins Creed Origins does quite a good job of portraying mummification and the job of embalmers. The important steps in the process are outlined and it is clear that the developers have consulted professionals when depicting the scenes. This was a particularly chaotic period, with the Ptolemaic period coming to an end and the deposition of Cleopatra VII, and beliefs in mummification practices were developed and altered over time. Origins does a very good job at giving the player a picture of life an as ancient embalmer.
The body preservation method of plastination has rose to prominence in recent years with the touring of the Body Worlds exhibition. Despite all the controversy surrounding the exhibit, i.e. the ethics of cadaver display, the origins of the cadavers and the famous ‘sex plastinate’, one cannot deny the impressive development of the method. Plastination was created and has been pioneered for years by the German anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens. The method was invented by the anatomist in 1977. Von Hagens was working as a scientific assistant and was trying to improve the quality of the renal specimens he was working with in his lab. It was this experimentation that resulted in the process known as plastination. The method involves replacing water and lipids with curable polymers (i.e. silicone, epoxy, polyester), these substances will harden, and the result leaves an odourless, durable specimen. Plastination is becoming more prominent in areas of teaching, their long-term survival is appealing to Anatomy departments but there are issues with the rigidity of the specimens. Sometimes this prevents demonstrations of joint movement to students and prevents in depth dissection of hidden features.
Despite some limitations, plastination is an excellent method for displaying cadavers. The Body Worlds website outlines four steps in the plastination process. These include:
Fixation using formaldehyde (takes 4 hours) and dissection of skin, fatty and connective tissues (takes 500-1000 hours).
Removal of water and body fat using an acetone bath at freezing temperatures.
Forced impregnation of liquid polymers after acetone has evaporated from the cells (takes 2- 5 weeks).
Positioning of the body when it still has some flexibility (can take weeks to perfect).
Hardening of the specimen is done using gas, light or heat.
The whole process takes up to 1,500 hours or up to one year of work to complete. The technique is highly specialised and time consuming. Despite these limitations, there are over 400 labs in 40 countries all over the world using plastination to preserve donated cadavers for academic study. Here are some of the most prominent, controversial examples from the Body Worlds exhibition.
The Sex Couple
The most controversial of the Body Worlds exhibits shows two plastinated cadavers having sex. Von Hagens has stressed the exhibit is to enlighten the public on the means of reproduction, and he even wrote an open letter to the British public about the ‘Sex Couple’. What the public questioned most was how informed the consent was of the couple that donated their bodies? Did the couple and their families know the cadavers would be put in this position? Should it matter as it is an educational display? These were the questions raised when the ‘Circle of Life’ part of the show opened.
The Foetus Displays and Pregnant Women
Miscarried foetuses and a pregnant woman were displayed as part of the exhibit. Numerous foetuses at different stages of gestation were shown to the public, with a trigger warning sign before entering that area of the show. There were many sensationalised headlines, including one from The Telegraph stating that ‘Flayed babies’ were on display. The use of the unborn obviously contributed to our understanding of foetal development- but given the pro-choice/ pro-life abortion debate it is obvious that consent and ethics became an issue surrounding this aspect of the show.
The Horse and Rider
The display of a rearing horse and rider stands 12 ft tall. The display was debuted in New York’s Times Square in 2013. What may have been the most controversial for the public in this case was the use of an animal as a plastinate (again, we see the issue of consent).
Regardless of the controversies surrounding the Body Worlds exhibit (as well as Von Hagens Himself), the method of plastination has the potential to preserve cadavers for educational use at academic institutions all over the world. Their preservation has the potential to last for years, and the Body Worlds show has reached millions of eager learners amongst the general public in the years since its launch. Are these specimens a money-making scheme? Or an excellent source for anatomy education?
When we think of alchemical practice, we often think of a pseudoscience related to magic and mysticism, steeped in inaccurate scientific endeavours. One cannot help but think of the infamous philosopher stone- the famed substance claimed to turn base metals into precious metals such as gold. The stone was often thought to provide the maker with immortality. However, whilst alchemists have been associated with quackery, one cannot help but observe their role in the origins of chemistry. With observation into the themes of alchemical research it is clear embalming practices may have a larger role than once previously observed. It is, after all, modern chemists who have perfected the process so why wouldn’t the first chemists of the past be linked to such a scientific practice? In this blog post I discuss the surprising links alchemical practice had with the art of embalming, and how we can begin to think of alchemists in a different light.
As I mentioned in my last blog post Jesus Christ was thought to have been embalmed. Links were made between his bodily preservation and his subsequent resurrection. The 13th century alchemical writer Arnald of Villanova uses the steps in the resurrection of Christ to allegorically describe the process of the alchemical treatment of mercury. This description attempted to elevate alchemy by linking it to Christianity, and in the 19th century alchemical text the Rosarium philosophorum we see Christs Resurrection depicted to show a step in the alchemical process. The fact mercury is linked to resurrection and the philosophers stone is interesting, as mercury became a fluid used in the embalming method. Mercury was one of the more important substances to alchemists, as it was suggested to be the ‘seed of all metals.’ Mercury in turn became an important substance for anatomists who wished to study the vessels within the human body. Mercurial embalming injections were first mentioned by Italian anatomist Marcello Malpighi (1628-94) in 1661 in his study of the finest branches of the lungs. It has been suggested the use of mercury had visual as well as alchemical elements in its manifestation. Malphgi may have been referencing alchemy when he mentions the structures looking like ‘branches of a tree’- the tree being a huge symbol in alchemy with creations like the Arbor Philosophorum (Diana’s Tree) and Arbor Saturnus (Saturn’s Tree) prevalent in experimentation. The density of mercury was thought of as having the same density as blood, hence the use of the material in embalming injections. Malphgi, and other enlightened minds of the era, used metals to understand the flow of blood. When heated, both mercury and blood separated into ‘a red solid part and a fluid, white, watery part’, cementing alchemists/ anatomist’s theories that the two were strongly linked. The serous matter in the blood at the time suggested to many researchers to be lymphatic fluid, with Anthony Nuck (1650-1692) of Leiden University exploring the lymphatic system further by developing a mercurial mix that would harden through the addition of lead and tin. Nuck often looked to alchemy for reference, referring to mercury as ‘Noster Mercurius’ which refers to the alchemical union of sulphur and argent vive to create philosophical mercury. Anatomical mercury was also used by the famous Alexander Monro Secunsus and by Eduard Sandifort, Professor of Anatomy at Leiden, in the second half of the 18th Century. The fluidity of academic fields in this era can be observed in the links between embalming and alchemy, with scientific historians agreeing distinctions were made in later years.
As well as mercury, arsenic has links in both fields. Ancient Egyptians, sometimes referred to as the first alchemists, used arsenic to harden copper and as an addition to embalming fluid. It was, in fact, an Arab alchemist from the 8th century that first transformed the tasteless, oxide powder we know today before it became more prevalent as an embalming fluid ingredient. Chronic arsenic poisoning became an issue for embalmers and arsenic quickly became known as one of the chemical world’s most deadly poisons. Aqua vitae is mentioned by the 16th Century physician Peter Forestus as an ingredient in washing embalming fluid. It is notable that this terminology is used as the phrasing is alchemical latin- the distilling of wine called ‘burning water’ by John of Rupescissa in the 14th century. Again, we see links between scientific ingredients in two practices that had a ‘recipe literature’. Forestus (also known as Pieter Van Foreest) disliked ‘quackery’ within the medical profession and was trusted enough to conduct the autopsy and embalming of William of Orange after his assassination. This again would suggest the significance of such alchemical phrasing used by a formidable physician known as ‘the Dutch Hippocrates’.
We can look even further back in time to see the original connections made between alchemy and embalming. As per my brief mention, the Egyptians have been referred to as ‘the first alchemists’. In my other blogposts, I have also talked about this civilisation as one of the first embalmers in the ancient world (as well as being the most famous). Anubis was the God of embalmers, and many priests carried out methods of bodily preservation ritual with magical as well as scientific methods wearing the Anubis headdress. The jackal head image also appears on ‘magician’ boxes from the period. Mortuary symbolism is linked to alchemy and the embalming process alike. The intention of embalming of pharaohs was transformation of the body to an incorruptible vessel, capable of surviving forever in the underworld. The transformation ideology is one of the strongest in alchemical imagery, as well as resurrection as I have already discussed. The method of embalming using salts for dehydration also became commonplace in the alchemical labs of the era, such as the alchemical operation of calcinatio for reducing humidity prima materia.
Alchemical embalming connections are imbedded in ancient as well as more modern anatomical culture. From the Egyptians to the enlightened, one cannot help but notice the links between both practices in a time when there were less distinctions between fields of study. This aspect of alchemical history, as well as embalming history, is a subject matter that needs further investigation and attention, suggesting more than ever the need for multi-disciplinary research.
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Embalming fluid is found throughout archaeological contexts and in historical accounts, even Jesus Christ himself was ‘embalmed’ according to the Bible. His body was washed and perfumed with organic compounds, possibly myrrh and aloe, and placed in his tomb before his resurrection. Despite this process of intended preservation, it is more likely the body was perfumed for pomp as there is no mention of body cavity preservation or organ removal. Although we do not have any archaeological evidence in the case of Christ, the mentioning of his embalming is significant as it is not mentioned for all biblical figures. The preservation of his body coincides with his resurrection, a possible link to the rise of embalming in numerous historical societies that embraced religious culture. What adds more to the significance of the embalming ingredients of Christ is the fact myrrh, a resin, was brought by Balthazar to the stable in the Nativity story. To understand the complexity of intended body preservation ingredients in archaeology, I have selected four bodies to discuss the development of embalming fluid recipes.
‘Balm’ Origins – The Turin S.293 Mummy, Egypt, c. 3700BC.
Gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis indicated evidence of a ‘balm’ recipe which impregnated the textile wrappings found around the body of the Turin Mummy. The recipe was found to consist of a base of plant oil (the bulk of the balm), with conifer resin, an aromatic balsam and plant sugar. There was also evidence that suggested the mixture of resin had been slightly heated in the process. Despite the early date of the mummy, embalming fluid mixtures were already being established, with similar antibacterial agents (i.e. Resin) seen with Egyptian embalmers at the peak of the dynasty thousands of years later. Interestingly, this find suggested embalming was used over a thousand years earlier than we first thought. Like later mummies, the Turin mummy was dried out in salts with the organs removed before the balm was smothered over the remains. The removal of the organs and the antibacterial nature of the natural resin/ extracts halted microbial growth and thus allow for excellent preservation. The oils and resins applied to the body ‘sealed’ it from moisture in the air, however some fungi have been inhaled upon disturbance of mummified remains (i.e. pathogens and king Tutankhamun’s curse have been linked).
Apothecaries’ Powders – King Henry VIII, England, 1547.
After the death of the famous Tudor monarch, the body was embalmed using the Tudor era recipe. The apothecary, Thomas Alsop, supplied the materials needed for his embalming process. This included cloves, various balms, oils, tox, myrrh, nigella and musk which likely cost the equivalent of more than £6,000 today. It is clear the Egyptian recipe still had influence thousands of years later, with the use of oils, scented balsams and powders used for dehydration of the corpse and protection against moist air. As with the use of bandages in mummification, Tudor corpses were wrapped in waxed cloth to further protect the soft tissue. Organs were removed often, and the body cavity was often flushed with the embalming fluid, much like the use of a trocar today. The use of a fatty oils along with resins and pleasant-smelling herbs/ spices made up most embalming fluid in different eras up to this point. The ancient recipe proved to be a worthy formula for future embalmers, with only some modifications made to account for the geographical location of natural derived ingredients and some modern updates. Sir Henry Halford recorded the exhumation of Charles I in 1813 and remarked upon the remarkable fresh appearance of his body (he died in 1648) and that was wrapped in cloth with a resin material within a lead coffin. Although the coffin of Henry the VIII stood in the same vault, the identity of his corpse was not in dispute like that of Charles’s, so it remained unopened by Halford. Halford does however remark upon the condition of the coffin which had been damaged and exposed his intact beard, but his torso showed skeletal remains, likely skeletonised from the disturbance of the lead coffin. Descriptions of the 16th Century embalming method are mentioned by writers such as Forestus (1522-1597) and Paré (1510-1590). Both mention similar ingredients to Alsop’s materials for an aromatic powder to be inserted into body incisions (much like modern injecting) and a washing solution comprising of aqua vita and vinegar. It was around the 16th Century that anatomists such as Da Vinci (and even earlier in the case of Alessandro Giliani) started experimenting with injecting the fluid into the body. Often the fluid consisted of a wax like substance that would dry and reveal inner systems to those who studied anatomy.
Arsenic and Arteries – President Abraham Lincoln, Washington D.C., 1865.
With the rise of the body count during the American Civil War came the rise of the embalming method amongst grieving families. Lincoln had his son Willie embalmed when he died in childhood from fever (the same embalmer embalmed Lincoln himself), even having him exhumed twice to see him again. Lincoln was an avid supporter of the practice and was embalmed so he could lie in state over numerous locations over a few weeks (strangely, his embalmed son was exhumed and moved with him on the ‘funeral train’ journey to be buried alongside his father). It is reported in historical documentation that Lincolns embalming process ‘held up’ on the first few stops of his final journey, with his features becoming more ‘shrunken and dark’ when they reached New York. It was the Presidents famous embalming that led the way for the practice to become the norm in modern American society. The method of arterial embalming replaced the ancient method. It was developed by the chemist Jean Gannal in the 1830’s, who initially worked an apothecary’s assistant where he no doubt became well versed in understanding various embalming fluid ingredients. The fluid used in this era was highly toxic. Arsenic and mercury were used (Cuvier is reported to have used pure alcohol), and many embalmers are thought to have died from poisoning. The toxicity of embalming fluid becomes more apparent around this time before the introduction of the ‘safer’ formaldehyde-based mixture which becomes commonplace in the 20th century.
Formalin as fixative – Rosalia Lombardo, Palermo, 1920.
Alexander Butlerov (1828-1866) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1919-1892) were the ones to discover formaldehyde (gas). Even though embalming fell out of favour for a few years following the Civil War, it is around 1896 when formaldehyde is introduced as a method of embalming. Colour preserving formulas were introduced in the 1920’s. Body preservation became concerned with restoring the natural colouring of the skin to allow for a more life like appearance. One unusual example in archaeology is the case of Rosalia Lombardo. Rosalia died in Italy in 1920 from pneumonia at the age of 2. Her father sought the help of a local embalmer/ taxidermist called Alfredo Salafia to carry out her preservation. What is interesting to note is that Salafia was a successor of Trachina (1797-1837), a famous anatomist who used arsenic for arterial embalming. For this reason, it was thought for a long time that Rosalia had been embalmed using arsenic. She is now on display in the Capuchin Catacombs in remarkable condition. The recipe for the fluid used has since been found, it consisted of formalin (to stall decomposition- formaldehyde and water), glycerin (stops desiccation), zinc salts (stopped her features collapsing), alcohol and salicylic acid (stops the growth of mould). CT scans of her body shows all her organs perfectly intact and she has quickly become an iconic archaeological specimen that also emotes empathy for childhood mortality. Today, in simplistic terms, the ingredients used to make up embalming fluid usually consist of formalin (preservative), phenol (antibacterial), methylated spirits (fixative), glycerin (pliability and hydration) and water (decrease acidity), showing some remarkable similarities to ingredients used 100 years ago. Embalming fluid is also used to restore the pigmentation of the skin, with the fluid often tinged pink and used with tissue builders. I have assisted and watched the process and it is remarkable to see the pink colour appearing on the skin and the ‘plumping up’ of the features, particularly in the case of a heavily emaciated person.
Whatever ingredients went into the development of embalming fluid in the archaeological record, they all served a purpose- whether that purpose was ceremonial, antibacterial or as a means of preservation. Ingredients in the fluid and exact quantities are more important now than ever, and with the introduction of new methods such as Thiel embalming and plastination, it is clear the development of what we use to preserve our deceased is still on going.
Batra, A.P.S., Khurana, B.S., Mahajan, A. and Kaur, N., 2010. Embalming and other methods of dead body preservation. International journal of medical toxicology & legal medicine, 12(3), pp.15-19.
Brenner E. Human body preservation – old and new techniques. J Anat. 2014;224(3):316–344. doi:10.1111/joa.12160
Dixit, D., Athavia, P.D. and Pathak, H.M., 2005. Toxic effects of embalming fluid on medical students and professionals. JIAFM, 27(4), pp.209-11.
Gannal, J. (Jean-Nicolas)., Harlan, R. (1840). History of embalming: and of preparations in anatomy, pathology, and natural history; including an account of a new process for embalming. Philadelphia: J. Dobson.
Halford H, Essays and Orations, 1831, London John Murray.
Jones, J., Higham, T.F., Chivall, D., Bianucci, R., Kay, G.L., Pallen, M.J., Oldfield, R., Ugliano, F. and Buckley, S.A., 2018. A prehistoric Egyptian mummy: Evidence for an ‘embalming recipe’and the evolution of early formative funerary treatments. Journal of Archaeological Science, 100, pp.191-200.
The grisly art of embalming has a very long history attached to it. This intended method of body preservation has varied immensely in numerous cultures over different time periods, however the aim of all these methods has been the same– to stall decomposition. Whether stalling decomposition was for the upkeep of public health and sanitation standards, for allowing the body to be presented to the family members or the public, or simply as part of a religious custom, it is what is left behind in archaeological deposits that allows us to begin to understand this practice. Modern embalming practices using formaldehyde solutions are common throughout the Western World, with some authors such as Mitford and Doughty questioning the need for this added expense on families by funeral homes. To understand the origins of this science and why it is still prevalent today, I have chosen four objects from the archaeological record to best demonstrate the complexity of embalming in past societies.
1.Origins: c.1300BC, Egypt- The Embalming Cache from Tutankhamun’s tomb.
One of the most famous archaeological finds in recent times also contained evidence of the earliest embalming practices. Although Egypt may not have been the very first civilisation to preserve their dead, they are by far one of the most famous. Amongst the finds with Tutankhamun’s mummy were the remains of an embalming cache. Included in the pit were jars with bags of natron, mud seals, bandages, kerchiefs and inscribed linen. Natron naturally occurred in the Nile Delta and was used in the embalming process in Egyptian society. Much like a modern embalming practice, the body was washed, and the organs were removed (this is also the case for modern embalmers who must treat an individual who has had an autopsy). Natron and other naturally occurring salts were used for desiccation of the body over several weeks. It is likely the body cavity was also stuffed with these salts as well. The body was then treated using oils, perfumes and herbs (most likely antibacterial like the ethanol used in modern embalming). Wrapping of the body with bandages then began, a timely process which warped body shape and finished the process before entombment. Within the Pharaoh’s tomb were also three headscarves thought to have been worn by the embalmers, one of which was died blue. As with the lab coats/ scrubs of many modern embalmers, these headpieces were likely used as a sign of respect or for sanitation. Even in the ancient world, the job of embalmer was respected as these used, well-worn kerchiefs (some sewed and darned) were buried with their king. As part of the embalming cache were long reeds that may have been used in probing the body. The sharpened, burnt ends suggest to archaeologists that heat was used as part of a sterilizing effect. However, the kit of a modern embalmer contains a trocar, a long device used to drain bodily fluid and organs after blood replacement. This aspiration process allows the removal of gases built up from the putrefaction process, something these ancient embalmers might have also observed upon making abdominal incisions.
2. Spread of the practice: c.300AD, Roman Greece – 55-year-old embalmed woman.
If we fast forward 1600 years to Roman Greece, we find that the practice of embalming did not die out. Archaeologists discovered the tomb of a high-status female, aged 55 years. This find was particularly significant for embalming archaeology, as up until this discovery there was no real material evidence of embalming during this time period in Greece. Embalming was considered a culturally different practice, but nonetheless, some high-status individuals were embalmed. Perhaps the practice was too costly for the less wealthy of the population. One such example of the practice in Imperial Rome was Poppaea, the wife of Emperor Nero. This embalming was noteworthy, as cremation had been the primary burial write of the Romans, with numerous ancient literary sources stating the practice to be ‘barbaric’. It was likely she was embalmed to facilitate her public display, the same as modern dignitaries put on display in recent years- including Eva Peron and President Ho Chi Minh. The embalmed lady found by archaeologists had soft tissue intact, a rarity for Greek mummification studies, likely facilitated by the preservation practice and the lead coffin that encased the body. The use of a lead coffin is questioned during this time period, but perhaps the use may have served the same manor modern mausoleums do in keeping any bodily fluids from leaking. Multi-disciplinary analysis (Electron microscopy, EDX, mass spec etc.) revealed numerous compounds used in the preservation practice, including Styrax oil, cloves and possibly perfumed substances such as patchouli and lemon oil.
3. Organ removal: c.16th Century AD, Rennes (France) – heart shaped lead urns.
Much like the canopic jars for containing organs from Egyptian mummification practices, these five unusual urns each contained an embalmed heart. As seen with the Greek mummy, these vessels were made from lead (in the shape of a heart nonetheless) and allowed for excellent preservation of the soft tissue. The hearts were discovered at the site of the 14th Century ‘Convent of the Jacobins’, and much like previously discovered archaeological embalmed remains, these hearts likely belonged to noblemen. Heart burial was common across medieval Europe amongst noblemen, with many crusaders having their heart buried in the holy land. The strong symbolism of the heart lead to many being buried with the heart of their significant other, or the organ to have been buried somewhere else significant. In the case of Irish Catholic Emancipator Daniel O Connell, who died in Genoa, he requested ‘his body go to Ireland, his heart to Rome and his soul to Heaven’. Having seen his magnificent grave site in Glasnevin, Dublin, it is clear he was well respected, but it was still unusual that this Catholic Emancipator would have insisted on organ removal and embalming as late as the 19th Century in Ireland. During the Tudor reign in England, embalming was prevalent among royalty as well as separate organ burial (not just the heart but other viscera also as seen with the digestive tract of Henry VIII). Much like their ancient counterparts, Tudor embalmers used an array of spices and herbs to pack and treat the body- including cloves like that seen in the case of the Greek mummy, as well as myrrh and musk. The expense of the practice was not lessened by this time either, with none of the poorer population subject to the practice.
4. Refinement: c.1840’s, Philadelphia (United States)- Civil War embalming table.
In modern embalming practice, the blood of the deceased is pushed out through the arterial system and replaced with formaldehyde, often tinted pink to allow a ‘flushed’ look. For this to occur the embalming table allows for drainage as seen with this very early example dating from the American Civil War. It was with the rise of the body count across the country during the Civil War that allowed for the eventual rise of embalming practices among the masses (that’s a whole other blog post!), with travelling embalmers popping up to offer their services to grieving war stricken families. The embalmers seen in this era began to use the highly toxic substances we think of when we think of embalming fluid today – with early examples including distilled alcohol and arsenic. Portable embalming tents sprung up all over battle grounds, hence why this table is flimsy looking to allow for transportation. We even see an example of a ‘marble embalming table’ which allowed for drainage during the Egyptian mummification process, allowing for a hygienic/ sterile environment for the embalmer to work in.
The examination of these four
objects give a brief insight into the complicated archaeological record related
to embalming practices. There are many more examples of such artefacts from
across the world- but much too many to fit into one blogpost! Hopefully they
will be the subject of many more posts to come.
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