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800-Year-Old Puzzle: Investigating the Life of Siberia’s Mysterious Child Mummy through Ancient Organ Dissection

The latest tests on the mummified remains of this Medieval child from northern Siberia highlight the wealth of knowledge he can give us on the way he lived. Aged six or seven, he was encased in birch bark and copper, and found in an ancient necropolis close to the present day site of Salekhard, on the Arctic Circle.

Exclusive pictures from Siberian Times show Korean scientists from Seoul National University, headed by leading international expert Professor Dong Hoon Shin, working on the human remains at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Research.

Russian expert Dr Sergey Slepchenko, from Tyumen, said: ‘The main thing is that this mummy was preserved naturally and the internal organs were not removed, unlike with artificial mummies.’

‘The main thing is that this mummy was preserved naturally and the internal organs were not removed, unlike with artificial mummies.’ Pictures: Sergey Slepchenko, Vesti.Yamal

Tissue samples will reveal a mass of information about how this 800 year old boy once lived. Tests include histological analysis on the mummy’s tissue and its changes.

Study is also being made on histochemical and biochemical features and the research on stable isotopes.

‘All this will help us to learn as much as possible about the preservation status of Zeleny-Yar-mummies in general, and the lifestyle of this child – how he lived, what he ate,’ he said. ‘If we are lucky, we have a slight chance of a hint on how he died. The odds are not great, but we hope.’

Samples were also taken from previously undisclosed partially mummified bodies found at the same Zeleny Yar in the past year. ‘For example, this year were found the remains of a young man with a mummified pelvis.

‘The upper part of his body is badly preserved, but the pelvis is mummified, so we could take the samples from his bowel and bladder. That is – our main goal is to restore the picture of life of these people, to learn as much as possible about them.’

A myriad of other research is being conducted on this mummy, highlighting its importance to new revelations about life in the pre-historic Arctic. Hopes remain in scientific efforts to discover the DNA of the mummy, although the process is taking longer than expected.

Already, local native groups from northern Siberian are having their DNA analysed in the hope of an ‘Are you my mummy?’ matching, as  previously disclosed by The Siberian Times .

For example, local Nenets journalist Khabecha Yaungad is seen here giving a blood sample for genetic analysis. As he describes his family’s past, there is an intriguing example of where the stories derived from oral history may meet scientific scrutiny.

‘My forefather arrived here 700 years ago, and he was drowning in the river, but then he was washed up on a log, and my great-grandmother healed him,’ he said, reaching back into the stories he had heard from his family’s past.

‘And then he married her daughter. They began to think, which family name to give him? And the decided: ‘There are thousands of shells on the riverbank. Let us call him Shell.’ In the Nenets language, his family name means ‘shell’.

South Korean scientists are also working on elaborate research to recreate the face of this medieval child. ‘The degree of preservation is very good, so we think that the reconstruction will be successful,’ said Dr Slepchenko.

Other work is underway to create a 3D model of the mummy. Mikhail Vavulin, of the Artefakt Laboratory at Tomsk State University, said: ‘Currently scientists from Salekhard are developing a plan for the mummy’s conservation and restoration, so it was very important to make a scan before they start this work.’

Temple rings and a bronze axe, found at the burial site, were also scanned.

Alexander Gusev, research fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Arctic, who headed the expedition on unearthing the mummy, said: ‘The new opportunities in the creation of models of archaeological sites with the help of three-dimensional scanning were tested at Zeleny Yar for the first in 2013-2014.’

These digital models enable observation of the burial from any angle. ‘Any researcher can see in all the details and from all angles what the scientists saw when making the excavations at the archaeological site,’ he said.

Further new findings are that the boy was covered in reindeer ‘fur’ when he was buried for posterity. ‘The upper layer was the skin of a rein deer, the lower layer was the ‘underfur’ of the same animal,’ said Gusev.

‘It is hard to say what the lower layer was originally: maybe the skin of a fawn or the specially processed skin of adult reindeer. ‘We are working on this,’ he said. ‘In addition, there were the pelts of fox and arctic fox.’

The boy’s remains are seen as being accidentally preserved aided by the form of burial in a cocoon of birch bark and copper. Our  previous stories  show how his face, including his teeth, became suddenly visible for the first time in around eight centuries.