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Korean Mummies Reveal Medical Clues, Love Poems

Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv, Israel
for National Geographic News
July 25, 2007
 
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.

Accidental Discoveries

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."

Medical Mystery

The unusual Korean burial practice actually led to much better preserved DNA than the artificial mummification practiced in ancient Egypt, Spigelman said. (Related: "Mystery of Tut's Father: New Clues on Unidentified Mummy" [July 10, 2007].)

The absence of chemicals in the Korean mummification practice was less traumatic on the body.

Also, the initial laying of the deceased upon ice—used only on individuals who passed away during winter—suppressed degeneration during the critical initial period in the bodies' decay, Spigelman believes.

"A mummy in Egypt is always very, very dry. It feels like paper," Spigelman said. "Whereas a Korean mummy feels much softer and the tissues are more pliable."

Last month Spigelman was asked to Korea to help examine the bodies by Dong Hoon-Shin of Seoul National University.

Of particular importance are the remains of a 500-year-old child that still harbor samples of the virus that causes hepatitis B.

The international team, including colleagues from Dankook University, University College London, and the Liver Unit at Hadassah University Hospital-Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, intends to study the virus's genome to determine if there have been any significant changes over the past 500 years.

Such findings could help modern-day public health officials combat the severe liver disease.

Another Romeo and Juliet

Another mummy was found buried with a love poem written by his bereaved wife.

Dating to around the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the verse bears striking similarities to the famous tragedy.

It reads, in part:

You always said we would be living together, to die in the same day
However, why did you go to the heaven alone?
Why did you go alone leaving me and our child behind?
...
I cannot live without you anymore.
I hope I could be with you.
Please let me go with you.
My love to you, it is unforgettable in this world,
and my sorrow, it is without end.
...


Existing clan records identify the 32-year-old man as the second son of a senior figure involved in a revolt against the emperor.

A total of 13 letters, as well as slippers woven from the wife's hair, were discovered with his preserved body.

But the fate of his widow remains a mystery. Fearing retribution by the emperor's forces, she probably fled with her children to the safety of her own family, experts speculate.

Rebellion and Reform

The Buddhists who ruled Korea in the 1300s could never have imagined that their widespread corruption would lead to such accidental mummification. (Related photo: "Tallest Pagoda Opens in China" [May 1, 2007].)

Buddhist monks, who were exempt from military service, allowed sons of the upper class to buy their own draft exemptions. And the rulers built huge monasteries that didn't contribute to state coffers.

The discontent culminated in a bloody rebellion, with the neo-Confucianist Joseon Dynasty seizing power in 1392.

In order to rid their subjects of Buddhist influence, the neo-Confucianists imposed changes on Korean ritual behavior—including the important burial practices that had been in use prior to the rebellion.

The elaborate system of burial—which was actually cheaper than the previous Buddhist method of using locked tombs—was used for a few hundred years largely by the upper classes.

Nearly all the Korean mummies being found date from this period.

Such bodies are still held sacred as revered ancestors by the ancient clans who administer the cemeteries. When one turns up due to construction or archaeological excavations, it is examined and then returned to the clans for cremation or reburial in another location.

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