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Salt men

Most accidental mummies are preserved by heat, cold, or peat bogs. But in the Chehrabad mines in Iran, the bodies of ancient miners were buried in salt.

Chehrabad salt man
Wojciech Kocot, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Human remains decay quickly, especially in the presence of air or oxygen-rich water. Usually, we are eaten by our own gut bacteria, and it requires very particular conditions to check their progress and preserve our corpses.

Most of the human mummies that we know about are frozen in ice, or seared by desert sand, or buried in oxygen-starved peat bogs. However, in an ancient mine in northwestern Iran, six mummies have been found that are startlingly preserved by another method: salt.

Yup, just like bacon, salami, and biltong, the mummies of Chehrabad are salt-cured. They were miners (probably), excavating rock salt in the caves near modern Zanjan in Iran, when a collapse buried them in the salt. This sucked all the moisture out of their bodies and clothes and left them in a state of vivid stasis until they were discovered by miners some 1700 years later.

In pre-modern history salt mining was one of the most dangerous occupations imaginable. Miners are always at risk from tunnel collapse and suffocation, but salt mines add the constant peril of severe dehydration on top of all that. There’s a reason that “salt mines” are a synonym for endless drudgery and danger.

The burial in salt also preserved some surprising (and rare) things: the miners’ hair and beards; their shoes and clothing; needles, knives, and a grindstone; and one golden earring. The various salt men aren’t all from the same collapse, but appear to have been buried in separate incidents across multiple centuries in the ancient world.

Categories: Ancient history History Middle East Places

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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