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Multimedia: Botching a Good Story Volume 55 Number 1, January/February 2002
by Kristin M. Romey

In late October 2000, a mummy adorned with a gold crown and cuneiform plaque identifying it as the daughter of Persian king Xerxes (r. 486-465 B.C.) was found in a house in the western Pakistani border city of Quetta. The international press marveled at the idea of a 2,600-year-old mummified Persian princess, and Iran and even the Taliban stepped in to claim it as theirs. This magazine was the first to reveal that the princess was a modern fake ("Saga of the Persian Princess," January/February 2001). But this is not the story you'll get from The Mystery of the Persian Mummy, a British production from TV6 and the BBC expected to air on the Discovery Channel in late spring.

Rather, the producers chose to tell the story of one scientist's quest to discover whether the unparalleled find--the first example of a mummified Persian royal--was an unparalleled fraud. Asma Ibrahim is the energetic curator of the National Museum in Karachi, where the mummy was stored and examined. She teaches herself cuneiform to read the mummy's inscriptions, oversees its CT scan, and assists in its autopsy. What Ibrahim fails to do, however, is answer the critical question: why would a Persian royal, a follower of Zoroastrianism, be mummified according to Egyptian ritual practice. The only evidence even remotely suggesting that Persians mummified their dead is from the fifth century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that Persians "embalmed" their dead in wax. Ibrahim cites a passage where Herodotus visits the Persian royal tombs and describes the sarcophagus of Cyrus the Great; but the account is second-hand and was actually written about 700 years later.

A glaring omission in Persian Mummy is the international spat over ownership of the remains, a development that undoubtedly put considerable pressure on a cash-poor museum that was placing its hopes on what promised to be the region's archaeological find of the century. Outside of Ibrahim's office, tensions between Iran and Pakistan--uneasy neighbors to begin with--were rising sharply, with the Iranians, convinced that the mummy was stolen from their country, threatening to bring Interpol and UNESCO into the quarrel. The Taliban threw in their two cents, even claiming they had caught and punished the smugglers who had whisked her out of Afghanistan. Pressure would only increase a month later, in December, with the announcement in ARCHAEOLOGY, picked up by Pakistani newspapers, that the mummy was a modern fake. In the story presented by Persian Mummy, none of this happens; Ibrahim works in a vacuum.

Where Persian Mummy excels is in conveying the creepiness of the whole situation. The 2,600-year-old princess turns out to be a middle-aged woman with dyed blonde hair who died of a broken neck in 1996. She was either murdered or her grave robbed promptly following her burial. Mummy expert Bob Brier graphically describes how her organs were improperly removed before her body was packed with baking soda and salt. At the end of the film, over shots of burqa-clad women hustling through dusty alleys with eerie music playing in the background, the narrator adds that two more "Persian mummies" have been offered for sale, and raises the specter of a "mummy factory" in "this wild border land."

The bizarre tale of the "Persian Princess" is so much more than a single scientist ordering up CT scans and teaching herself cuneiform, and The Mystery of the Persian Mummy leaves this story--flabbergasting and fascinating on so many fronts--untold.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America