What Scientists Learned From Iran's "Saltmen" Mummies

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The Chehrābād salt mine is located near the village of Hamzelou in Northwestern Iran, but there hasn't been any actual mining there for more than a decade. That's because, starting in 1993, excavators began digging up mummies along with the usual salt crystals. Since then, remains of at least eight individuals have been unearthed. In 2009, the site was protected under Iranian Heritage laws.

The mummies recovered at Chehrābād have subsequently been dubbed the "Chehrābād Saltmen", and have captured worldwide scientific attention, most recently from a team primarily composed of researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who published a detailed analysis of the Saltmen in the journal PLoS ONE.

"They are rare examples of individuals dating to the ancient Persian periods and are, to date, the only known preserved salt mummies worldwide," Dr. Lena Öhrström, a Postdoc Assistant with the Paleopathology and Mummy Studies Group at the University of Zurich, wrote with her colleagues.

As best scientists can tell, Chehrābād has been mined for salt off and on for thousands of year, and all of the mummies likely worked there in life before their unfortunate deaths. Though the eight individuals hailed from various times between the 6th century BC and the 6th century AD, they all showed signs of trauma in the form of fractures and compression. It is highly probable that all of them were miners who died in collapses or accidents.

Öhrström et al. / PLoS ONE

Individual SM1, pictured top left in the image above, may be the most striking mummy. His long hair, beard, and features are extraordinarily well-preserved. That's due to the high salt concentrations in the area of the mine where he died. Salt absorbs water moisture because it is an ionic compound, and thus attracts highly polar water molecules. This process usually happens in the air, but as the Saltmen show, it can also occur in the skin of deceased humans. The resulting dehydration inhibits bacterial growth and halts decomposition.

Öhrström et al. / PLoS ONE

Archaeologists also unearthed SM1's goat-leather boot with his complete foot still inside! It was so well-preserved that when Öhrström and her colleagues utilized radiographic imaging, they could see the man's toes squeezed tightly towards the tip of the boot, suggesting that the shoe was uncomfortably small when SM1 was alive.

Öhrström's team was also able to get a good look at the mummies' teeth, which were surprisingly low on cavities. That suggests that the workers didn't eat many sugars or simple starches. Their diet may have included olives, nuts, meat, and barley.

The Saltmen are currently exhibited in the National Museum of Iran in Tehran and in the Archaeological Museum of Zanjān in Zanjān, Iran.

Source: Ohrstrom LM, Marquez H, Seiler R, Bode B, Aali A, Stollner T, et al. (2021) Radiological and histological findings in ancient salt mummies from the salt mine of Douzlākh, Iran. PLoS ONE 16(4): e0250745. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pone.0250745

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