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Murder Riddle of a 21st Century Persian Mummy


Monday, 21 May 2001

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A gold-masked mummy, whose sensational discovery last year sparked an ownership row between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, has turned out not only to be a modern fake but also the apparent victim in a macabre murder mystery.

Archaeologists at the National Museum in Karachi who first believed they were handling a remarkable ancient relic have now turned sleuth in a 21st century whodunnit of smuggling, fraud and possibly murder.

Dr Asma Ibrahim, the museum's curator, said she and a team of pathologists, which they hope will include a British forensic scientist, would carry out an autopsy later this month to try to establish just what happened to the woman whose elaborately mummified body was originally hailed as the 2,600-year-old remains of a Persian princess. "In my opinion it was a murder," Dr Ibrahim said. "But until we open her up for the autopsy we will never be sure."

The mummy ­ adorned with a gold mask, crown and breast-plate and laid out in an inscribed coffin ­ was seized by police last October from the home of a powerful tribal family in Quetta, south-western Pakistan. It was allegedly being offered for sale to private collectors with a multimillion pound price tag. It was taken to Karachi and proudly displayed at the National Museum.

International excitement at the find quickly turned into an unseemly regional spat over ownership, with the both Iran's Cultural Heritage Organisation and the Taliban's Cultural Minister in Afghanistan each claiming the mummy must have been stolen from them ­ and demanding its return.

But after carbon-dating tests in Pakistan and Berlin, experts concluded the "princess" was in fact a modern corpse, only two or three years old, of an adult woman who was possibly tortured before she died.

Dr Ibrahim said it was clear the woman's teeth had been removed before her death and her hip joint, pelvis and backbone had been badly damaged. "I am upset really, as a human being, because they clearly treated her very badly," she said. "I suspect that they might have done others too."

The black market smuggling and sale of real and fake antiquities is big business in Pakistan. The destruction earlier this year by the Taliban of ancient Buddhas increased the number of alleged Afghan antiques being offered for sale illegally on this side of the border.

But what is particularly baffling to scientists investigating the mummy case is the meticulous effort that was made to preserve the body. The painstaking attention to detail indicates that a very experienced archaeologist or historian must have been involved.

The coffin, made from ground glass, is carved with a large image of Fravahar, an icon of ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrian. Both the mummy's crown and the breastplate were inscribed with ancient cuneiform script. Although this later turned out to contain grammatical mistakes, it had archaeologists fooled for several months. "It was amazing, so perfect, I had to work day and night to figure it out," Dr Ibrahim said. "Whoever did this must have a PhD".

Even if Pakistan's top archaeologists manage to unravel the mystery of mummy, it looks unlikely that anyone will be charged in connection with the case.

Although Dr Ibrahim says the police are investigating both the fraud and alleged murder, the Karachi police, notorious for their stultifying bureaucracy, say they have not yet opened investigations because they have yet to receive a correctly worded formal submission from the museum.

The mummy, meanwhile, remains in a sealed nitrogen chamber, deep inside the National Museum, her macabre secrets still intact.


Source: The Independent




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