Trilobites: The Baby’s Hand Was Mummified. Why Wasn’t the Rest of Its Body?

The skeleton of a child found in Hungary was partially mummified by copper from a coin found in its hand.CreditJános Balázs/Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Szeged

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.

Researchers believe the deceased was either a stillbirth or premature baby that died shortly after birth.CreditJános Balázs/Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Szeged

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 coin found with the skeleton was in circulation in the 19th century.CreditJános Balázs

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.”

Celebrating Long Shots and Outcasts


 “I’m just figuring we don’t have a chance,” Rory Kennedy said.Credit Danny Moloshok/Reuters

Updated, 5:39 p.m. | WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Rory Kennedy was fully expecting not to go home with the Oscar for best documentary feature on Sunday, yet nonetheless she was in high spirits Friday, at a sun-dappled lunch in the courtyard of the famous, and infamous, Chateau Marmont hotel.

“I’m a documentary filmmaker,” she said to the several dozen attendees, “This” – she waved to the white-linen-draped tables topped with carefully wrought small bouquets – “is not something we’re used to.”

Ms. Kennedy’s “Last Days in Vietnam” tells the wrenching tale of the hundreds of Vietnamese promised sanctuary then abandoned by Americans as Saigon fell: the last helicopters left the roof of the American Embassy without them.

Distributed by American Experience Films/PBS, it’s a very long shot for the documentary Oscar – “I’m just figuring we don’t have a chance,” Ms. Kennedy said merrily – and didn’t have bank that backed other campaigns, like that of “Citizenfour,” distributed by Radius, a unit of the Weinstein Company. Indeed, during luncheon chitchat, Ms. Kennedy seemed more concerned with the seven feet of snow paralyzing Boston. She did add, wryly, that during the Oscar ceremony, she would probably be the one wanting to be helicoptered away.

The luncheon, held by Dom Perignon, drew a grab bag of guests: Julian Sands, Cheryl Hines, Nicky Hilton, Peter Fonda, Maria Shriver, Minnie Driver and Andre Balazs, the hotelier behind the Chateau Marmont. The Bagger was seated by “American Experience’s” executive producer Mark Samels, who was among the many Northeasterners happy to be in town and escaping the frigidity home.

The Bagger shared another point of solidarity with him: he hadn’t been invited to Vanity Fair’s ballyhooed Oscar afterparty either. Viva los outcasts!

Correction: Feb. 21, 2015
An earlier version of this post misstated Andre Balazs’s role in the luncheon. He was a guest, not the host. The host was Dom Perignon.