The Ancient Iranian Salt Mummies

Jun 8, 2018 0 comments

In northwestern Iran, near the villages of Hamzehli, Mehrabad and Chehrabad, in Zanjan province, is a large salt dome protruding into the surrounding rocky terrain. This salt dome, consisting of saliniferous rocks, in particular gypsum, clay and rock salt, were deposited in the Miocene period some 5 to 23 million years ago. Tectonic activity and the lack of overlying ground had brought the salt very close to the surface allowing it to be extracted by underground mining.

There are many salt mines in the southeastern side of the mountain, many of which have been in operation since antiquity. During one such mining operation in 1994, miners came across a dismembered head that was apparently very old. Salt had desiccated the head and preserved it very well, to the extent that his pierced ear was still holding the gold earring. The head had long hair, a beard and a moustache. Further excavation yielded some of the missing parts of the body, such as a leg which was still wearing a leather boot. The search team also found three iron knives, a woolen half trouser, a silver needle, a sling, parts of a leather rope, a grindstone, a walnut, some pottery shards, some patterned textile fragments, and a few broken bones.


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Following the discovery of a second mummified body in 2004, a systematic excavation began, and over the course of the next six years, four more mummies were recovered taking the total number of “saltmen” to six.

The first saltman was carbon dated to about 1,700 years ago, the height of the Sasanian Empire. The second saltman was carbon dated to 1,500 years ago, placing him in the same era as the first saltman. The third, fourth, and the fifth saltmen, however, came from entirely different eras. All of them were dated to some 2,200 years ago, to the time of the First Persian Empire, the Achaemenids. Researchers suspect, all the saltmen were victims of cave-ins.


Salt man 4 is the best-preserved of the salt mummies. Photo credit: DBM/RUB, K. Stange

The well preserved mummies and the artifacts recovered from the mine provided archeologists and scientists a wealth of information about the miners, their diet, where they came from, and about the mining operation itself. For instance, one of the 2,200-year-old mummy had tapeworm eggs in his intestines indicating that he ate raw or undercooked meat. This is the first case of this parasite in ancient Iran and the earliest evidence of ancient intestinal parasites in the area. The original saltman had a fractures around his eye and other damage that occurred before death by a hard blow to the head. His gold earring and the impressive leather boot he was wearing indicates that he was person of some rank. The presence of a high ranking person in the mine remains a mystery. Could he be murdered and dumped there, or was he really a victim of mine collapse?

This salt mummy is on display in the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.


Photo credit: Ensie & Matthias


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