One up on Egyptian mummies

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Vietnamese mummies did not have their organs removed and their bodies were supple and fragrant when unearthed

Thanks to pine oil, King Le Du Tong's body remained in rather good condition during the 46 years it was kept at the Hanoi-based National History Museum before being reburied earlier this year

She looked like a sick woman who was asleep.

The thing was she had been sleeping for several centuries, underground.

The body of Pham Thi Dang, second wife of Dang Dinh Tuong a high-ranking official under the Le Dynasty (1428-1788) was found 42 years ago in Van Cat Hamlet, in the northern province of Nam Ha (now Nam Dinh).

"We had excavated many mummies, but we couldn't help being shocked when seeing her, because she looked as if she were just a sick woman who was sleeping," says Do Dinh Truat.

Decades after studying mummies discovered across the country from the bodies of royalty and senior officials to the common man, archeologists Do Van Ninh and Truat are still amazed by the ancient Vietnamese technique of preserving bodies.

Despite not having their internal organs and brains removed, as in Egyptian mummies, their bodies were usually found in good condition - soft with joints still supple after being buried for hundreds of years, they said.

Some still retained the facial features they had when they were alive, Truat said.

In the case of Dang, the veteran archeologist even asked a local woman who was at the same age as Dang, 60 years old, to stand next to the body "to see who was more beautiful."

Pine oil

According to the archeologists, one of the secrets in the Vietnamese techniques of preserving bodies was pine oil, which they say has been found in most mummies

Archeologist Do Dinh Truat with a clod of solid essential pine oil found in an old coffin

The late Prof. Do Xuan Hop, known to many as the "King of Anatomy" was one of the scientists who studied the body of King Le Du Tong (1679-1731) which was found in 1958 in the central province of Thanh Hoa. Hop noted that the king was placed in a coffin that contained lots of pine oil.

The oil made quilted blankets, clothes and shrouds oily, while "the fragrance soaked into his skin and through skin into his internal organs, so [he was] soaked with aroma," Hop wrote, noting that betel leaves and areca buried with him also remained fresh.

Thanks to the oil, the Le Dynasty king's body remained in rather good condition during the 46 years it was kept at the Hanoi-based National History Museum before being reburied earlier this year despite the harsh weather in the north, scientists said.

The importance of pine oil was stressed in another article by Hop.

He wrote that the body of a royal wife from the Trinh Lords (1545- 1787), found in 1957, was only examined by scientists a month later. During that month the body was taken out of the coffin and buried in the field for three days before being put into another coffin flooded with water (though it is not clear why this was done). However, it still gave out the pine oil's aroma.

The body was later washed five times, yet the aroma didn't fade away, Hop wrote.

Truat also recalled his first impressions of the mummies he saw. "Many people think mummies must stink, but amazingly, they give out the aroma of some wood." The archeologist said he even once tasted the water at the bottom of a mummy's coffin and found that it wasn't fetid, but tasted like turpentine.

More than props

Besides the pine oil, other things like blankets, pillows and clothes which were considered customary belongings for placement in the coffins, worked in fact to get rid of the humidity in coffins, Ninh said.

This was also true of the tam that tinh (Seven-star plank), which was usually placed under the body.

Under Taoism, the plank with seven holes placed in the shape of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear constellation, was believed to protect the deceased's spirit from evil spirits and ghosts. But it also helped drain water to the 20- centimeter thick layer of roasted rice below, Ninh said

The roasted rice also acted to help remove humidity.

Ninh said dying people usually had some ruou que (cinnamon wine) to lengthen their life for some time to meet all of their children, and they would be washed with the wine again after their death. The wine would help clean the body, within and outside, decreasing the harmful effects of bacteria, he surmised.

It was also a custom that Vietnamese people lit candles in the coffin before putting the body in, and this also helped create a vacuum and kill bacteria, according to Ninh.

Enduring wood

Truat said one of the most noticeable things about Vietnamese mummies was that they were mostly interred in coffins made of ngoc am (or pemou wood) which was highly resistant to termites and bacteria.

The coffins were made by highly skilled carpenters, airsealed and then plastered them with a mixture of raw paints, and sawdust with or without a sticky substance from pine trees mixed with rice paste. Some coffins were made with two layers, with the outer coffins as thick as 0.5 meters, made with lime, sand, molasses or honey, and sometimes strengthened with shell crumbles (not made of wood).

Some outer coffins were so strong that it took 15 young men 40 days to break it, like the one that Nguyen Thi Hieu, believed to be a family member of King Gia Long (1802-1820) under the Nguyen Dynasty, was buried in. Her body, found 16 years ago, is being kept at the Ho Chi Minh City History Museum.

"At the Thuy Xuan Beach in the northern province of Thai Binh, an outer coffin was smoothened by waves over the years, yet locals didn't realize that (it was an outer coffin) until they accidentally excavated it and found the complete body of a young lady," Truat said, demonstrating that the body was not damaged even though the coffin was buried on the coast and exposed to factors like salt.

Dr. Phan Bao Khanh, who has studied many mummies in the central region, said the Vietnamese technique of preserving bodies was "a very human way to preserve bodies, as no knives or scissors were used to take out the deceased's brains and internal organs."

But it was a pity that this knowledge has been lost with the passage of time, he said.

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