Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Embalmers and anthropologists

Three of my friends were on TV last night, and the program was fascinating! "Italy's Mystery Mummies" aired on the National Geographic Channel at 10 P.M. last night (it will air again on Saturday at 7 P.M.). The team included physical anthropologists Dario Piombino-Mascali and Art Aufderheide, and Melissa Johnson Williams, practicing embalmer and executive director of the American Society of Embalmers. They had unprecedented access to the mummies in the churches and crypts of Italy, including that of little Rosalia Lombardo (1918-1920), one of the most perfectly preserved mummies in the world (and Dario's favorite!). She was embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia (1869-1933), but the ingredients of his formula have been a mystery--until Dario tracked down the niece of Dr. Salafia's 2nd wife, who still had the embalmer's papers, including a handwritten memoir in which he recorded the chemical components. They do not include the supposed arsenic, but instead formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. Dr. Salafia was one of the first embalmers to use formalin (a formaldehyde mixture), but also secured Rosalia's preservation by lining the specially-designed casket with lead and sealing it with wax, making it airtight. The team confirmed with x-rays that her body is intact, but did not break the seal, so she continues to lie in state at the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. Wow!

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