The greyish-yellow lumps found around the necks of several ancient mummies buried in the sands of the Taklamakan Desert were identified as cheese earlier this week. However, cheese is just the latest in the long line of strange things that have been found at burial sites. These things show what people believe were needed after death.
The dry salty soil of the desert in the Northwest of China was an optimal place for the mummification of bodies and other artefacts that were interred there in the Bronze Age. Archaeologists have found a mix of Asian and Occidental bodies in the region. Under normal conditions, a perishable product like cheese would have been lost to the ages, but the soil and the cowhide used to cover the boat-like tombs of the mummies has in effect vacuum sealed the product. The cheese was found around the necks of several figures, including the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” a 3,800 year-old female mummy with Caucasian features and light hair.
However, taking cheese to the afterlife is just one in a number of strange, but interesting things found at burial sites. At a site in Oseberg, Norway an extremely well-preserved Viking ship was discovered in 1904. The ship was covered in intricate carvings and contained 15 lines of oar holes. Buried in the boat were two women, but conditions were unsuitable to preserve the bodies. The skeletons were found in a wooden tent-like structure in the central point of the vessel. Also found at the burial site was a number of wooden items including four sleighs, three elaborately carved wooden beds, a number of horses, dogs and oxen and several household tools. There was also food on board undoubtedly for the late journey to the afterlife.
Staying in the area of ancient Vikings, many burial sites have been found to have gendered items in the graves. Vikings buried their men of lower status with knives and their women with keys (as keepers of the household). Many sites have also been found with hammer stones that are thought to be a reference to Thor’s hammer. These are supposedly buried to protect the dead.
In China the tomb of Lady Dai is one of the most well-preserved of all time. When found, Lady Dai still had pliable limbs and skin soft to the touch. Her organs were so intact that scientists were able to see what she ate just before death and the manner in which she died. Alongside the body there was a complete wardrobe in silk including nightgowns, slippers, underwear, coats, socks, gloves and robes. There were also bolts of uncut silk for her future undead tailors. In addition to her clothing a large collection of priceless lacquer-ware and all her favourite delicacies were found. This included fish, honey, spices, strawberries, pears, eggs, venison, lotus roots, pork, dates and sparrows. Ancient Chinese had even left bamboo slips containing recipes in order to prepare her favourite dishes.
But while elaborate burials are largely a thing of the past, there are some modern equivalents to things the dead might need in the afterlife. In 1899 Reuben John Smith was buried sitting upright in a new leather armchair. He reportedly has a checkerboard in his lap and the tomb key in his pocket. Also it is becoming relatively common for people to be buried with their cellphones or devices. Moreover, these people are still receiving calls. Wife of Manhattan attorney John Jacob, Marion Seltzer still pays her husband’s phone bills and gives him a call now and then.
The discovery of cheese found buried with mummies found in China may be just the latest in a long line of strange things found at burial sites, but the find gives an insight into the culture of people living in the region during the Bronze Age. The findings will be presented in the ‘Journal of Archaeological Science later this month.
By Sara Watson