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Salt men of Iran

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In the winter of 1993, miners came across a body with long red hair and a beard, and associated artefacts, in the Chehrabad salt mines located to the west of the city of Zanjan, Iran. They found the remains of a body, a lower leg still inside a leather boot, three iron knives, a pair of woollen trousers, a silver needle, sling, parts of a leather rope, a grindstone, and even a walnut.  The body had been buried in a tunnel approximately 45 metres in length.

As the years went by a further five corpses, including a teenager and a woman, were discovered in the salt mine.

Salt mans head, Bastan Museum, Tehran. Image: Hugues Desponts

Salt man's head, Bastan Museum, Tehran. Image: Hugues Desponts

Recently isotopic analysis was carried out on five of the salt-preserved bodies which are now dated to between  4th century BCE through to the 4th century CE. In an attempt to identify the geographical origins of these people, researchers from the Department of Environmental Sciences, Università Ca’ Foscari in Italy, matched osteological samples from various sites in Iran and those from the salt mine bodies. It was possible for them to hypothesise that two of the “mummies” may have come from the Tehran/Qazvin Plain region (local to the salt mine), and a further two appear on isotopic grounds to have come from the northeast of Iran or the Turkmenistan steppes. The fifth appears to have come from further afield.

Salt mans left leg and boot, Bastan Museum, Tehran. Image: Hugues Desponts

Salt man's left leg and boot, Bastan Museum, Tehran. Image: Hugues Desponts

Controversy followed four of the “salt men” who are kept at the Rakhtshuikhaneh Museum in Zanjan.  Due to insufficient funds, no suitable cases were built to ensure the long-term preservation of these bodies. The plexiglass cases that were created at first were not properly sealed and environment controlled. In addition it was reported that changes in the temperature created cracks in the case and allowed bacteria to enter. Though the damage was not visible to the naked eye, the bacteria was damaging the internal organs.

It has since been reported by Iranian press and the Zanjan Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Department (ZCHTHD) director that, “Without hesitation, I can now say that the salt men kept here are in better condition than the one at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.”

Three cases, each at a cost of about $25,000, have been specially designed for the salt men.  The cases have been equipped with devices which enable experts to monitor conditions inside and keep them under full control.

Three of the salt men date back to the Parthian (247 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanid (224-651 CE) eras, while all other human remains discovered at the site go back to the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 BCE). A sixth ‘salt man’ has been left in place due to the lack of equipment necessary for its preservation.

These are important finds and include 300 pieces of fabric, some of them with designs, that have been found on or near the mummies. The salt appears to have also retained the dyes used in the fabrics.

There is still much work to be done on both the preserved remains and the site itself and in 2008 the Ministry of Industries and Mines cancelled the mining permit for the Chehrabad Salt Mine.  So for now, the site is safe for further study.

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