for National Geographic News
Accidentally mummified, 500-year-old bodies recently unearthed in South Korea may offer scientists clues to combating a deadly modern-day illness—and tell a love story eerily similar to Romeo and Juliet.
One of the exquisitely preserved bodies still contains traces of the hepatitis B virus, which scientists hope will provide clues to treating the modern version of the deadly liver disease.
Another corpse, of an out-of-favor nobleman, was discovered with more than a dozen poems and other signs of his widow's bereavement.
Until recently no one even knew there were mummies in South Korea.
The country's recent construction boom, however, means that cemeteries are now being relocated to make space for new homes, and mummified bodies are turning up in droves.
That's odd, because the region has had a long tradition of ancestor worship, which includes letting bodies decay without outside interference.
But a new burial process developed in the late 1300s may explain the mysterious remains.
"The people believed the body should dissolve in a natural manner, without external factors such as worms," said Mark Spigelman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is known for his pioneering studies of ancient diseases found on mummified bodies around the world.
"This is why they developed a special burial custom."
The method involves laying a body on ice for 3 to 30 days during mourning, placing the corpse inside an inner and an outer pine coffin surrounded by the deceased's clothes, and covering the coffin in a lime soil mixture.
"In some cases, this inadvertently resulted in extremely good natural mummification," Spigelman added. "They didn't expect mummification and, in fact, that's the one thing they wouldn't want."
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