Mummy Cold Case: Tracing the Identity of the Mystery ‘Persian Princess’

This story details a cold case like no other. It occurred after the discovery of a mummy that was alleged to be an ancient Persian Princess. It ultimately led archaeological investigators on a wild journey of intrigue, deceit, and controversy. It all started in the year 2000 in Pakistan when police learned of a Karachi man attempting to sell an ancient mummy in its sarcophagus on the black market for the equivalent of $11 million. 

After tracking down, arresting and questioning the alleged criminal, the man confessed to the police that he had been given the mummy from an Iranian man who claimed he had discovered it in the aftermath of an earthquake, and that he and his accomplice had agreed on a 50-50 split on the $11 million. The Pakistani police authorities eventually coaxed the man into revealing the whereabouts of the mummy and he took them to a location near the Iran – Afghanistan border where the body was recovered and taken to the National Museum in Karachi for inspection.  

After cursory inspection, the museum staff determined that the mummy had been wrapped in a classically Egyptian style and wore a face mask, a golden crown, and a breastplate inscribed with the words  “I am the daughter of the great King Xerxes. Mazereka protect me. I am Rhodugune, I am.”  The wooden sarcophagus was decorated with what appeared to be cuneiform inscriptions from ancient Persia, including carved images of “Ahura Mazda,” the creator god of Zoroastrianism.

All evidence pointed to the fact that these were the 2,600-year-old remains of a mummified Persian princess!

It is not every day that archaeologists unearth ancient mummies in Iran, and especially not those of a Persian Princess. In fact, this was the first time a member of ancient Persian royalty had ever surfaced. 

The discovery sparked diplomatic disputes between Iran and Pakistan with both countries claiming ownership of the ‘ancient princess.’ However, while politicians fought over ownership of the body, forensic archaeologists got to work analyzing the chemical structure of the mummy, while literary experts translated the cuneiform script. 

Only a couple of weeks later, alarm bells started to tinkle and suspicions were raised that not everything about the ‘ancient princess’ was as it seemed to be. 

Chasing Murderous Mutilators

According to Rüdiger Schmitt’s 2003 book  A Further Spurious Inscription in Old Persian Writing: The Mummy of ‘Rhodogoune’,  the writing discovered on the mummy s breastplate was determined by experts to have been engraved by someone  not well familiar with Iranian script”. While this was casting doubt on the authenticity of the mummy, results came in from CT scans, chemical testing, and Carbon14 dating, all pointing to the fact that the mummy was no Persian princess, but rather a modern-day fraud!

But this was no ordinary archaeological hoax, and the motive seems to have been beyond the work of narcissists elaborating a scam to make $11 million.  Evidence suggested that cold blooded killers were involved, for the mummy turned out to be the body of a woman who might have been murdered and mutilated in 1996.

The scientists used data from the CT scans to help police build a profile of the adult woman. She was 4 feet 7 inches tall, and around 16-years-old when she died in 1996.  Her internal organs had all been removed before her abdominal cavity was filled with what police described as a ‘powdery substance’, which was later found to be a drying agent.Further examinations revealed that blunt force trauma had smashed the woman’s cervical vertebrae in her neck, a discovery that immediately suggested a violent murder had occurred, but a forensic pathologist was unable to ascertain whether the woman s neck had been broken accidentally or deliberately.      

Experts examine the coffin and mummified body (Source: Sciencemag)

Experts examine the coffin and mummified body (Source:  Sciencemag)

A Murder with Scholarly Intervention? 

Based on what you know thus far, you are forgiven for assuming that an innocent woman had been earmarked by a criminal gang and ‘murdered to order’ but the investigators believed that this was not the case. Instead they maintained that a fresh corpse had been illegally exhumed by grave robbers, somewhere between Pakistan and Iran, to facilitate the elaborate hoax.

In a scene so unimaginably dark and disturbing, the criminals then removed the woman’s internal organs and caked her body in chemicals to dry the corpse over several months. Archaeologist Dr Asma Ibrahim said in a speech at the Aga Khan University’s Special Lecture Series, that the level of accuracy achieved in aging the woman to look like an ancient mummy must have involved scholars with specific anatomical knowledge.

But it was the woman’s broken neck that sparked Pakistani police to open a murder investigation during which they re-interrogated the chain of men involved in the scam to sell the hoax mummy on the black market. While they had hoped their suspects would lead to the positive identification of the woman, and her murderer(s), this whole affair is now officially a “cold case.” The poor young woman whose body had been stripped of its organs and dried, was taken care of by the Pakistan-based charity, the Edhi Foundation, which provides emergency social welfare services. The corpse was reinterred with appropriate burial rites in 2008.

While the trade of looted and hoax heritage items is reprehensible, these crimes penetrate even deeper. How many murder victims, dressed up as mummies, might adorn the library walls of illegal artifact collectors across the world? And, how many of these very coldest of cold cases are associated with the thousands of unsolved vanishings reported across the world every year? We may never know.

Top image: Persian princess. Credit:  odnolko / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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