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Mummies at the National Museum of Mongolia

My first encounter with the ‘Adidas Mummy’ was a Facebook post. It linked to an article from the Siberian Times, and I was excited because Mongolian archaeology features so rarely in the news, let alone on my newsfeed.

So-called because of the three distinctive stripes on her boots reminiscent of the Adidas logo, this medieval mummy was discovered in the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia in 2016. Local herders discovered her burial site at Uzuur Gyalan, where excavations promptly began (although, allegedly, not before livestock ate some of its contents).

The buzz of interest the news generated internationally was less about the person – who she was, how she lived and died – and more about her clothing. The question of gender quickly arose – “now we are carefully unwrapping the body and the specialists could say more precisely about the gender”, said an unnamed researcher to the Siberian Times – but beyond that all the media, and online comments, focused on other elements of the burial assemblage.

When the analysis reports came out a year later, the Daily Mail Online, in keeping with their idea of what a woman likes, had the following to say: “The woman was buried alongside a number of her possessions - including a handbag and four changes of clothes. A comb and a mirror from her beauty kit were also found, along with a knife.” The ‘handbag’ was actually a sewing kit, but they just couldn’t resist the stereotyping.

It’s armed with this frankly patchy information that I went to see the “Rock Tomb Custom” exhibition at the National Museum of Mongolia in the summer of 2017.

The exhibition focused on two burial sites from the area. The textiles attracted a great deal of attention, and indeed took pride of place in the exhibition – the boots that had made the story go viral, but also three deel (traditional Mongolian clothing), a hat, the sewing kit, a saddle, some horse skin trousers.

These displays were fascinating, and I was in for a surprise.

Enter mummy #1 – on open display.

I’d never before seen a mummy on open display in a museum. I remember leaning over the wooden coffin and thinking, bubble tea in hand, that perhaps I shouldn’t have been let in with an open drink container. This wasn’t the ‘Adidas mummy’ I’d read so much about – this was the mummy from the Urd Ulaan Uneet tomb nearby, shunned by international media coverage due to its lack of fashionable footwear.

I kept walking around the exhibition, where I came across mummy #2… in a commercial glass lid chest freezer. To make things more interesting, the freezer malfunctioned as I walked past it and started trembling loudly, its contents with it. By this point, it seemed anything was possible, so I was amused to find the mummified remains of a young mare, intentionally sacrificed before the burial, displayed in a perfectly standard museum case.

Despite this rollercoaster of display choices, a lot of interpretation work was done around these two people’s lives and personal effects; in fact the lack of focus on the human remains themselves made clear that they were in no way displayed as ‘curiosities’. Quite a lot is known about the mummified woman: she lived in the 10th century CE and was probably a seamstress. She had access to high-quality textiles, many made locally, but was not in the upper echelons of her society – some of her garments, the famous boots included, were made entirely of recycled materials. She died of an injury to the head, possibly caused by falling off her horse.

Bearing in mind that the museum had to make resourceful display choices on a limited budget, I find it interesting that the mummy of the horse was given priority over the human remains. It reflects some deeply held beliefs about the world around us, and a respect for horses so ingrained in Mongolian culture that I can’t help but wonder whether it even featured as a conscious factor in this choice.

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