Special Report: Saga of the Persian Princess
Volume 54 Number 1, January/February 2001
by Kristin M. Romey and Mark Rose
In a dangerous corner of the world, uneasy neighbors clamor for the gilded remains of a mummified noblewoman. Trouble is, she's a fraud.
Supposed 2,600-year-old mummified Persian princess (©AFP/Corbis) [LARGER IMAGE]
The bizarre tale of a mummy adorned with a cuneiform-inscribed gold plaque identifying it as a 2,600-year-old Persian princess, perhaps, according to one translation, a daughter of the king Xerxes, began trickling out of Pakistan this past October. Found during a murder investigation, the mummy, an amalgam of Egyptian and Persian elements, had evidently been for sale on the black market for a cool $11 million. While archaeologists in Karachi tried to make sense of the mummy, a dispute between Iran and Pakistan broke out over its ownership. Afghanistan's Taliban regime hinted that they, too, might claim it. Then, one November day, thousands of miles from where the mummy lay in Pakistan's National Museum under the watchful eye of armed guards, ARCHAEOLOGY was shown documents identifying the Persian princess as a fraud.
According to newspaper reports, Pakistani authorities learned of the mummy in mid-October, when they received a tip that Karachi resident Ali Akbar had a video tape showing a mummy he was selling. After interrogation, Akbar led police to the remains, which were being kept in the house of tribal leader Wali Mohammad Reeki in Quetta, capital of Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan. Reeki told police he had received the mummy from Sharif Shah Bakhi, an Iranian who allegedly found it after an earthquake in a nearby town. Reeki and Bakhi had agreed to sell the mummy and split the profits; Akbar's role is less clear. Reeki said an unidentified representative of an anonymous foreign buyer had offered 60 million rupees ($1.1 million) for the mummy, well below the 600 million rupee ($11 million) asking price. Reeki and Akbar were charged with violating Pakistan's Antiquity Act, which carries a ten-year maximum sentence; Bakhi remains at large.
The mummy was brought to the National Museum in Karachi as news of it spread quickly through the local and international press. In an October 26 press conference, clips of which appeared on NBC's evening news, archaeologist Ahmed Hasan Dani of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad announced that the mummy, wrapped in Egyptian style and resting in a wooden coffin carved with cuneiform writing and images of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda, was that of a princess dated to ca. 600 B.C.
Museum officials shared results of a preliminary examination of the mummy and its inscriptions with a hungry press: her remains lay atop a mat coated with a mixture of wax and honey and were covered by a stone slab with additional cuneiform inscriptions; her name was Khor-ul-Gayan or Tundal Gayan; and she may have been the daughter of Karoosh-ul-Kabir, first ruler of Persia's Khamam-ul-Nishiyan Dynasty. Alternatively, Dani said, the mummy could be of an Egyptian princess, married to a Persian prince during the reign of Cyrus I (640-590 B.C.), whose body had been preserved following the custom of her own country. Various theories circulated about how it came to Quetta. National Museum curator Asma Ibrahim suggested it may have been looted from a tomb in the Hamadan region of western Iran or the southwestern Pakistani area of Kharan.
Shortly after the press conference, the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, claiming the mummy was of a member of the Persian royal family, said it would take legal action through UNESCO for its return. Salim-ul-Haq, director of Pakistan's Archaeological Department's Headquarters, retorted that the mummy was found in Kharan in Balochistan Province, "which is one hundred percent Pakistani territory. The mummy is property of Pakistan." At that point, Iran said it was cooperating with Interpol for the mummy's return. Pakistan's foreign minister warned against politicizing the issue, while the Taliban, the rulers of most of Afghanistan, demanded that their archaeologists play a role in deciding its ownership.
There were divisions even within Pakistan. A petition filed with the Balochistan High Court asked for the return of the princess to Quetta, claiming the police raid in which it was seized had been illegal and that the action had "spread panic among the people of Balochistan, who felt deprived of their cultural, historic, and valuable heritage." The Awan tribe of Balochistan, saying the inscriptions proved the princess belonged to the Awan royal family of Hika Munshi, asked that the mummy be moved immediately to the local Kallar Kahar Fossils Museum.
While the conflict continued, there were subtle signs the Pakistanis were not sure exactly what they were keeping under guard in their National Museum. The local press reported that insurance companies were reluctant to cover the mummy until its legitimacy was proven. Dani insisted it was of Egyptian origin, pointing out that mummification was not practiced in Iran or Iraq, and conceded that the cuneiform inscriptions may have been added by smugglers after the body was taken out of Egypt.
Possibly in response to Dani's assertions, Iran fired back, claiming that an Italian archaeologist had translated the inscription, presumably through examining photographs, and confirmed that the mummy was of a member of the ancient Persian royal family.
Two weeks after the discovery first hit the press, Oscar White Muscarella of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures (see "Scourge of the Forgery Culture," this issue), visited ARCHAEOLOGY's offices, where we asked for his thoughts on the Persian princess. While unaware of the recent find, Muscarella volunteered that its description sounded remarkably similar to photographs of a gold-adorned mummy sent to him last March by a New Jersey resident on behalf of an unidentified dealer in Pakistan--in fact, they were the same.
Muscarella had received four photographs of a mummy in a wooden coffin, replete with golden crown, mask, and inscribed breastplate. An accompanying letter stated that the mummy was owned by a Pakistani acquaintance and was brought by Zoroastrian families many years ago from Iran to Pakistan. The author claimed that the mummy was the daughter of the Persian king Xerxes, referring to an attached one-page translation of the cuneiform inscription on the breastplate. The owners, he wrote, had a video of the mummy--most likely the same video found with Ali Akbar in Karachi--that could be sent to New York if the museum was interested in purchasing the princess.
Muscarella, who suspected immediately that the mummy was a fraud, contacted the translator of the inscription, a cuneiform expert at a major American university, and found out that the dealer's New Jersey representative had not given him the complete analysis of it. The inscription does indeed contain the line "I am the daughter of the great king Xerxes," as well as a sizeable chunk lifted straight from a famous inscription of the king Darius (522-486 B.C.) at Behistun in western Iran. The Behistun inscription, which records the king's accomplishments, dates to 520-519 B.C., substantially later than the 600 B.C. date proposed for the mummy. The second page of analysis listed several problems with the mummy's inscription that led the scholar to believe that its author wrote in a manner inconsistent with Old Persian. The inscription, he concluded, was likely a modern falsification, probably dating "from no earlier than the 1930s."
Convinced that the scholar's twentieth-century date was incorrect, the dealer's representative apparently sent a small piece of the wooden coffin to a carbon-dating lab. The results indicated it was approximately 250 years old "which cannot be called modern," complained the representative in a follow-up letter to the cuneiform expert.
Muscarella politely broke off communications with the man. Seven months later, police raided the house in Quetta and the Persian princess surfaced again--this time under the glare of the international press.
ARCHAEOLOGY has submitted Muscarella's documentation to federal authorities, who have forwarded the matter to Interpol. Hopefully, by the time this article goes to press, the dispute between uneasy neighbors in a dangerous corner of the world will be resolved. While the Persian princess may be a fraud, perhaps a genuine Egyptian mummy with forged Persian additions, she is a reminder of the powerful emotions that can be sparked by unprecedented, or unbelievable, archaeological discoveries.
Kristin M. Romey is assistant managing editor and Mark Rose is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
The plot thickens. Since our January/February issue went to press, there have been additional developments in the case of the princess mummy. Kristin Romey follows the trail.
November 26, 2000:
Taliban's Information and Culture minister Qudratullah Jamal announces that
smugglers have confessed to finding the mummy in the southwestern Afghan
province of Nimroz, on the Iranian border, before taking it to Pakistan.
Citing the "good evidence" provided by the unidentified smugglers, Jamal
insists at a press conference that "this property of Afghanistan should be
returned to its people."
Italian archaeobotanist Lorenzo Costantini angrily denies telling Iran's
official news agency IRNA that he believed the mummy belonged to an ancient
Persian royal family. "I never gave an interview to any Iranian
journalist...I shortly talked on the telephone with an Iranian woman of the
IRNA office at Rome," Costantini told Internews. "During the talk, I told
her that the name of Xerxes was mentioned in the [coffins']
inscriptions...she asked, 'Who's he?' This small comment reveals the degree
of knowledge of the person I was speaking to," he said.
Preliminary results from a CT scan performed on the mummy at Karachi's Aga
Khan Hospital indicate that the mummy is of a 20- to 21-year-old woman. Her
death may have resulted from a broken spine. Radiocarbon dating of the mummy
and her coffin is expected to be complete by the third week in
November 28, 2000:
Pakistani customs officials seized a cache of 12th- through 16th-century
jewelry, valued at over $10 million, on a bus outside of Quetta. Smugglers
were allegedly bringing the jewelry, from Quetta to Karachi for shipment
November 30, 2000:
Advocate Khalid Ahmed of the Balochistan High Court slams Karachi police for
removing the mummy from the Baloch capital of Quetta, and blames the
National Museum and an "Islamabad-based archaeologist" for their
"thoughtless statements" that the mummy did not originate from within
Pakistan's borders. Ahmed, a local social worker, insists that "any
professional archaeologist" could prove that the mummy was excavated from
the remains of an ancient settlement called Galuga in the Kharan district,
approximately 400 miles southwest from Quetta.
December 14, 2000:
Pakistani English-language newspaper The Dawn features a small article titled "Museum keeps mum on mummy's fate": "After so many statements
issued about the mummy...there is now a lull. Aga Khan Hospital sources
confirmed that museum authorities have been given the CT scan report but the
same has not been made public by the museum officials. This has created many
doubts about the status and authenticity of the mummy."
January 4, 2001:
IRNA reports that an Iranian "expert delegation" has been dispatched to Pakistan to determine the origin of the mummy and states that if the delegation proves it is of "Iranian origin," its restitution will be
negotiated via diplomatic channels. The report adds that "the mummy was
already pronounced by a majority of archaeological experts as being of
Iranian origin," quoting the nonexistent "interview" with hapless Italian
paleobotanist Constantini once more.
January 14, 2001:
Citing the presence of of petrochemicals and detergents on the body, as well as pencil marks on the wooden coffin, a delegation from Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization (CHO) visiting Karachi declares the mummy a fake, according to IRNA. The delegation also notes that the inscription on the mummy's breastplate was authored by a person "not well familiar with ancient Iranian script and languages."
A CHO analysis of the mummy's CT scan leads them to determine that the body belonged to a 21-year-old woman who was mummified no more than two years ago. Her organs were apparently removed and the cavities filled with powder. The report observes that "Despite efforts by Pakistani authorities to keep the room temperature constant to prevent the corpse from decomposing, it is nevertheless decaying fast."
"Certainly, the finding is not a mummy," says Iranian archaeologist Mirabedin Kaboli, although he declared the corpse to be of "Iranian origin."
And the Iranian government wants it back. "Since the beginning, Iran reserved the legal right to own the 'fake' or 'genuine' mummy and take it back through legal means in case sufficient evidence were obtained," says CHO legal expert Younes Samadi.
IRNA claims that Pakistani archaeologist Ahmad Hasan Dani confirms the CHO's position. "I am satisfied with the findings of the Iranian team and support its views about the originality of the mummy," he allegedly states. The news agency also took the time to berate the hapless Constantini for his false conclusions.
A Times of India article, however, reports that Pakistani authorities will wait for the results of unspecified tests being performed by German experts before they accept the CHO's conclusion, according to Saleem-ul-Haq, director of Pakistan's archaeology department. "I have also read in the newspapers that the mummy is a fake, but we have our own methods and we have to be sure about it," he said. Results were expected by the end of January, according to the article.
April 17, 2001:
Pakistan's National Museum curator Asma Ibrahim has issued an 11-page report declaring the mummy a fraud, and possibly a murder victim. Stay tuned for an update in the pages of ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine which will coincide with the premiere of a BBC documentary on this fantastic story.