AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 24/2010

Tales from the Crypt: The Mystery of Germany's Aristocratic Mummies

By Frank Thadeusz

When they died, Germany noble families of the 18th century did what the Egyptians had done before them: They had themselves mummified. As an increasing number of such well-preserved corpses are found, scientists are trying to find out why.

Photo Gallery: Return from the Crypt Photos
Wilfried Rosendahl / Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen Mannheim

Baron von Holz had a difficult lot. During the Thirty Years' War, von Holz fought in the Swedish army as a mercenary, but he was not granted a hero's death on the battlefield. He was cut down, rather less heroically, at the age of 35 by either the flu or blood poisoning. And it was only in death, that his situation really improved.

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His family dressed his mortal remains in precious calf-leather boots with nailed soles. The warrior was then laid out in a kind of luxury crypt under the castle of Sommersdorf near Ansbach, in modern-day Bavaria. In those vaults von Holz's corpse was privileged with an honor previously reserved primarily for Egyptian pharaohs: His body did not decompose.

More than 370 years after his untimely death, the nobleman still lies in his casket, well preserved. Von Holz was a giant of a man, standing 1.80 meters (around 5'10"), at a time when most humans were far shorter. To this day, his feet are still shod in those smart leather boots that his clan had made for him almost four centuries ago.

Secrets of Mummification

The corpse recently left its burial place in the castle cellar for the very first time so that archeologists from the Reiss Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim could take a close look at the mummy. It quickly became clear that the boot-clad baron had no external injuries and he seems to have been in excellent health when he contracted his fatal infection. What remains unclear is why the aristocratic soldier's body was mummified in the first place.

Only a handful of scientists take an active interest in the leathery corpses that are recovered from boggy moorlands or cellar vaults in Germany. Every few months, a baron, or a priest, turns up at archeologist Wilfried Rosendahl's door to report that he has found a corpse under his castle or in his parish church.

Confronted with the ever-increasing number of new discoveries, Rosendahl concedes that: "We are more familiar with the history of the Egyptian mummies than with the bodies slumbering in our tombs."

Only a few weeks ago, the researcher discovered the superbly preserved bodies of 12 members of an aristocratic family in the district of Illereichen in southern Germany.

Why did German Nobility Dabble in Mummification?

Rosendahl's colleague Andreas Ströbl is currently examining the remains of an 18th-century nobleman's clan that was laid to rest in a cellar grave under the 18th century Church of St. John the Baptist in Hannover. "We've known that these aristocrats' crypts existed, but for a long time we didn't know why," Ströbl admits.

About 1,000 mummified bodies in German noblemen's graves have been discovered and cataloged so far. The vaults contain children as well as adults, their clothes are sometimes still in remarkably good condition. Often the tombs also contain burial objects: Combs, spices, coins, and in one case, a shaving brush.

The surprizing number of tombs containing mummified remains leads researchers to the conclusion that it was not random. "For a long time, I believed that mummification was more of an accidental corollary of the way people were buried in those days," Ströbl says. New evidence suggests something different: In this early modern period did many of the rich and aristocratic deliberately have themselves buried in this way so that their remains would be preserved?

A Mausoleum with Ancient Air Conditioning

There is scant source material -- but Ströbl did find a "smoking gun": In a letter, written in 1710, to the board of the parish church of Berlin, a woman called Catharina Steinkoppen made a request for her deceased granddaughter. Namely, that "the aforementioned corpse should not decay in the vaults below the church." The girl's father -- a courtier by the name of von Schütz -- offered the stately sum of 10 Reichsthalers, the equivalent of a year's wages for a coachman, for the service.

A total of 140 mummified bodies lie in a crypt below a church near Alexanderplatz in central Berlin. It has been known for some time that this was the exclusive domain of deceased members of rich or highly respected families. But the fact that church leaders in Berlin deliberately set up the biggest mausoleum in Germany is a more recent discovery.

After the discovery of the grandmother's petition, researchers examined the nobleman's crypt in the historic center of Berlin. What they found was an extremely effective ventilation system running through the tomb. All the burial chambers were connected to each other by a series of small shafts. As such this underground graveyard was always well ventilated.

Indeed Rosendahl and Ströbl found cleverly conceived ventilation systems in even the smallest of these basement graves. But that wasn't the only trick that promoted mummification. The undertakers lined the coffins of the departed with sawdust which then soaked up any fluids that leaked out of the body.

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