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Fossil Friday: There are Many Different Kinds of Fossils! Part 5 More on Mummies

Special HALLOWEEN Edition

WARNING-This is a HALLOWEEN Edition and Contains Information and IMAGES that May be DISTURBING to Some Readers—PROCEED WITH CAUTION

Quiz: (The answers to the quiz questions can be found at the end of this blog.)

1) To form, a soap mummy requires a warm, wet environment with an __________________ ph. level.

a) Acidic

b) Adaptive

c) Anthracitic

d) Alkaline

2) Another word for evidence of saponification on a corpse is __________________.

a) Grave Wax

b) All of these answers are correct

c) Corpse Wax

d) Adipocere

Soap Mummies

OMG! They’re a Thing!

Mummies are a specific kind of fossil. A mummy is a kind of preserved fossil that can retain the appearance an organism had in life long. Mummies can be made on purpose due to unique burial practices and mummies can also occur naturally because of special environmental conditions.

4 distinct Egyptian mummy faces in layered over one another descending order fading to the left. The top most mummy face (apparently male) has very detailed and distinctive facial characteristics and also a trace of ginger hair still left on his head.
An example of human made Egyptian mummies. Note how well these mummies are preserved, skin and hair are still evident as are facial characteristics. It is easy to get an idea what these people looked like in life because of how well they were preserved as mummies in death (a).

Natural mummies occur most frequently in environments that are exceptionally cold and/or dry. The most well-known regions in which natural mummies occur include Egypt, east side of the Andes Mountains in South America, and the Tarim Basin in China.

Mummies that occur in the cold/dry climates of the world are usually desiccated (dried out). These mummies have lost all of their body moisture leaving only the tougher, more fibrous parts of the body, especially, the hair, teeth, bones, sinews (tendons and ligaments), cartilage, clothes, and grave goods (mementos left in the grave with the body). Occasionally, a well-preserved mummy will even have remnants of skin and fur.

A a naturally preserved mummy of an adult in a fetal position surrounded by period artifacts such as clay jugs and bowls.
Naturally mummified person (discovered in Egypt). This mummy was discovered with an assortment of grave goods showing that burial was becoming very important in this ancient culture (b).

The entire previous definition applies to the most common form of mummy, but there is another kind of mummy, one that is more gruesome (if that were possible). The most disturbing kind of mummy to look at, in my opinion, is a SOAP MUMMY. This is a human corpse that has turned into soap!

A prone corpse from neck and shoulders to the crown of the head. The corpse is unevenly bloated and pitted with a grotesque, toothless mouth of the corpse is yawning open and askew. The remnants of hair still on the skull are blond, the eyes are sunken pits, and the skin has taken on the color of the brown soil it was buried in.
This is a close up of the face of the Soap Lady, a corpse that has completely mummified through process of saponification (turning into soap). Her gaping jaw is merely a consequence of her jaw not being bound to her upper jaw before she was buried. It is forever held in this disturbing position, though, because repositioning her jaw now would break the soap corpse into pieces as it would any other form of bar soap (c).

Mummies that occur in cold/dry climates go through all the normal stages of death, but, due to an extremely cold and/or dry climate, the putrefaction process (decomposition or disintegration of proteins into simpler compounds through the action of microorganisms) (1) is slowed to the point that bacteria can not thrive enough to break down the proteins effectively.

This is a depiction of the Stages of Decomposition. These are the naturally occurring stages of decay that occur after death when the action of microorganisms progress uninhibited. If they are halted for some reason, the body can become mummified. Mummification can be nearly perfect as with the Lady of Dai from China whose perfectly preserved body still has flexible skin, to the recently discovered mummy remains from Spirit Cave near Fallon, Nevada, which consist of skeletal remains, sinews, hair, and grave goods. This depiction of stages of decay (above) shows mummification can span the stages of "bloat" through "dry remains" (d).

As the microorganisms struggle to break down the corpse, fluids continue to drain from the body. If the fluids leave the body faster than the bacteria can break down the proteins, then parts of the body become “preserved”. If this happens, a mummy will be created. The degree to which this happens is the main factor in determining the quality of a mummy specimen. Savvy ancient humans became aware of this process and began making mummies on purpose.

A 3 part graphic depicting fat interacting with lye to become soap.
This is a graphic used to explain how to make home made soap. The process of making soap mummies is identical except that to make soap mummies, lye (sodium or potassium hydroxide)is not specifically added to the soil, rather it is a peculiar state of the soil chemistry and ground water found in that location (e).

Soap mummies, however, go through an entirely different process. They are created through a chemical change called saponification (the word literally means "turning into soap". Therefore, soap mummies are created when microorganisms are halted in the presence of saponification (fats are turning into soap) in the presence of alkaline water (2). Kathryn Meyers Emery, Ph.d. who wrote “The Soap Man and Lady Revisited”, verified this in detail in the Word Press article “Bones Don’t Lie” (3).

An image of an entire corpse, prone with the head at the right. It is bound in fabric and covered with a waxy residue as well as reddish and browns staines around the chest and abdomen area.
This soap mummy has has the waxy, brittle outer coverings typical of corpse wax on the burial bindings (f).

This mind-boggling postmortem predicament only occurs to a corpse under specific circumstances. Unlike more traditional mummies, the environment necessary to make a soap mummy must be wet and warm. The high water content of the the soil must have an unusually high alkaline ph. level AND ALSO an unusually low oxygen level.

Due to the uneven nature of soil chemical and moisture content, evidence of saponification can be found on many corpses, but usually only in small amounts. When a tiny amount of this process occurs, it has been referred to as “grave wax”, “corpse wax”, or “adipocere” (4). The saponification process rarely occurs to an entire corpse, therefore true "soap mummies" are quite rare.

A close up image of a corpse from the chin to the top of the skull. The temples up are skeletonized, however from the temples downward, a thick, waxy substance appearing to be the remains of bloated cheeks, chin and the area under the nose  turned into an uneven and gruesome kind of soap with white, red, and black splotches throughout. The nose is a gaping hole and the eyes appear to be filled with soap (presumably brain matter?).
This close up photo of the famous Soap Man mummy (Smithsonian Institute) shows the importance of submersian in alkaline water. The entire top portion of the Soap Man is skeletonized, presumably because it was not submerged in the alkaline aqueous solution that the rest of his body was. From the man's temples downward, the microorganism action necessary to complete decomposition was halted due to this alkaline aqueous solution (and lack of oxygen), but from his temples upward, he decomposed normally (g)

The Smithsonian Institute is in possession of a famous soap mummy called The Soap Man. This soap mummy was discovered in 1875 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is believed the person died and was buried around the year 1800. The skin on his lower face and the rest of his body have become saponified, but the hair and skin on his upper face have completely decayed, leaving nothing but skull (5). This is evidence that the top of his head was elevated above the water line, so the portion of his body above the alkaline water (the top of his head) decomposed normally, while the rest of his body (submerged in alkaline, low oxygenated water) was saponified.

An image of the Soap Lady, prone, with her head to the left. The image extends from about thigh level to the top of her head. She has taken on the color of the soil she was buried in, mostly black with red and brown splotches. Also present are beige, waxy patches throughout. Her appearance is very rigid and stiff, with a gaping jaw, pitted eyes, and sparse blondish hair, still attached to her skull.
The Soap Lady has become saponified all the way through. Unlike the Soap Man, whose internal organs remained unchanged by the chemical process of saponification, the Soap Lady has become solid soap (i).

The Mutter Museum is the home of the famous Soap Lady Mummy. The Soap Lady was buried around 1830 near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The woman whose body became the Soap Lady, is thought to have be less than 40 years old at the time of her death. Because the mummy was discovered in 1875, this places her interment into the soil around 1830. This means the natural process of saponification took less than 45 years. Further, unlike the Soap Man, whose organs did not saponify, the Soap Lady has completely turned to soap! (6). This may be due to the presence of a bacteria called clostridium welchii (which can cause gangrene and other infections that lead to death) that helps trigger the presence of corpse wax (7).

A soap mummy is quite stable (as other forms of soap are) and can remain intact unless broken or dissolved.

Quiz Answers:

1) To form, a soap mummy requires a warm, wet environment with an __________________ ph. level.

d) Alkaline

2) Another word for evidence of saponification on a corpse is __________________.

b) All of these answers are correct

a) Grave Wax

c) Corpse Wax

d) Adipocere


desiccated--dried out

grave goods--mementos left in the grave with the body

putrefaction--decomposition or disintegration of proteins into simpler compounds

through the action of microorganisms

saponification--the process of fat, oil, or lipids turning into soap in the presence of

an aquas alkali

sinews--tendons and ligaments



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