At first, János Balázs had no idea why the tiny hand he found in a storage box of bones was green and mummified.
It was around 2005 and he was examining remains from an earlier archaeological dig of a cemetery conducted at Nyárlőrinc, a village in southern Hungary. The excavations had yielded more than 500 graves that mostly dated from between the 12th and 16th centuries. But none of those burials was anything like the mummified green hand Dr. Balázs and his colleague, Zoltán Bölkei, had uncovered in that forgotten box.
More than a decade later, Dr. Balázs and his colleagues think they have solved the mystery, and in doing so uncovered a unique form of mummification. They published their results last month in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.
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The bones Dr. Balázs found were so small they could have been confused with a rat’s. Several, including some vertebrae, a hip bone and the leg bones were stained green. Both forearms were green as well, but the right one was still covered in desiccated flesh. The skin near the back was also mummified and embedded with five vertebrae pieces. Most of the ribs, a shoulder bone and two humerus bones were not discolored.
The remains are currently on display at Hungary’s Móra Ferenc Museum.
From inspecting the tiny skeleton, Dr. Balázs determined the deceased was either a stillbirth or premature baby that died shortly after birth. The researchers concluded the child was 11 to 13 inches and weighed only one or two pounds.
Archaeologically speaking, green bones are not uncommon at grave sites. Bronze or copper jewelry can often discolor skeletons as they degrade, and Dr. Balázs thought the child’s body came in contact with some sort of metal. But how did that mystery metal object end up near its tiny hands?
“It’s not so obvious, and it’s so unlikely that you’re questioning yourself,” Dr. Balázs, who is now a biological anthropologist at the University of Szeged, said through his colleague and translator Zsolt Bereczki, who is also a biological anthropologist and author on the paper.
They performed a chemical analysis on the remains and found that the child had copper levels that were hundreds of times more than average. In fact, they said, the levels were the highest ever seen in a mummy.
Dr. Balázs soon discovered that a nearby museum also had storage boxes from the dig where the baby was found. When he examined the boxes, he found the clues he needed: a small ceramic pot and a corroded copper coin.
“We started to see the actual story unfold,” said Dr. Bereczki.
The team concluded that before the child was placed in the pot and buried, someone put the copper coin into its hand. Many cultures in antiquity have buried their dead with coins as a way to pay a mythical ferryman to take their souls into the afterlife.
In this case, the copper’s antimicrobial properties protected the child’s hand from decay. Along with the conditions inside the vessel, it helped mummify the baby’s grasp. The team thinks this child’s burial may be one of the first reported cases in the scientific literature of copper-driven mummification.
The child, the team said, was most likely in a crouched position. That allowed the copper corrosion to stain other parts of the skeleton. The team also found evidence of two more burials of premature babies. One had green bones, and the team found its coin and pot, but the other did not.
Though the copper coin solved one mystery, it presented another.
Earlier reporting on mummification and archaeology
The specific copper coin, or “Kreuzer” or “krajcár,” that was found with the baby was in circulation between 1858 and 1862. That meant the burial did not occur during Medieval times. Traditionally, Christians from this later time period have not been known to bury loved ones holding coins.
Dr. Balázs and Dr. Bereczki speculate that because this child died either before or immediately after it was born, it was most likely not baptized. They think that whoever buried the child in the pot with a coin did so in hopes of finding some way to send the child into the afterlife.
And in a way, it worked.
“They kind of succeeded at saving not necessarily the soul, but some kind of legacy of this little kid,” said Dr. Bereczki, “because here we are still talking about the baby and the circumstances of its burial 150 years later.”