Expert: keep Yemeni mummies buried [Archives:2006/922/Culture]

February 20 2006

Two newly discovered Yemeni mummies currently are confined to a dark corner inside a National Museum annex awaiting necessary arrangements expected via routine government procedures.

Another mummy, unearthed sometime earlier, is displayed in a nearby glass case. “They came from Al-Jawf province,” museum officer Muhammad Al-Sayani said, pointing to the two mummies, “however, we don't know from which part of Al-Jawf. The provincial culture office spotted them with some tribesmen and managed to buy them.” Tribesmen would not tell from which exact part they brought the mummies.

A team examining the mummies has submitted reports to culture officials requesting specific equipment to preserve and prepare them for exhibition.

Some media outlets have hailed the act of purchasing historical and archeological finds as something encouraging leading to national heritage “conservation.” However, after consulting experts about the state of affairs, one realizes the extent of the devastation. Dr. Yusuf Mohammed Abdullah, former president of the General Museum and Antiquities Organization, believes Yemeni mummies should remain buried.

“We cannot afford to lose our heritage,” he began. “Unearthing mummies requires specialists trained in this area of archeology. Mummies that come by traditional digging are of no use. They are excavated by people who don't know what they are doing. They uproot them, carelessly damaging them and the archeological sites they are in.

“The problem with such mummies is not in the act of excavating them but in preserving them. We don't have the capacity to preserve such mummies or bodies. Until we become able to do so, leave them buried. Looters are damaging our history by prematurely unearthing the dead and pillaging archeological sites.” Abdullah recommended archeological sites be protected by tight security and looters punished, appealing to authorities to do something about such “national heritage abuse.”

Abdullah led an expedition that discovered a group of mummies in Sana'a province's Shibam Al-Gharas in the 1980s. Those mummies are kept at the Sana'a University's museum. Mummies have been found in various areas across Yemen including Al-Mahwit, Sana'a and Al-Jawf.

Abdullah noted that Yemeni mummification depended on using a special local tree called “ra,” as well as certain other substances. With its cotton-like yielding, the tree had the ability to absorb moisture, thus keeping the bodies dry.

“Like other pagan peoples, ancient Yemenis wanted to immortalize themselves, so this is why they turned to mummifying bodies,” Abdullah explained. However, not all people had access to such a costly technique. “Only the rich could afford to do it, keeping the bodies in necropolises, tombs or special towers and structures,” he added.