Dr. Michael Miyamoto
The illegal trafficking of mummies can destroy scientists' chances of learning about ancient Egyptians. Here, the mummy Maiherpri resides in a sarcophagus after undergoing a scan to reveal the prevalence of heart disease at the time.
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updated 7/27/2011 3:47:10 PM ET 2011-07-27T19:47:10

The rescue of an ancient Egyptian mummy's sarcophagus this month from alleged smugglers in New York — the first time authorities say an international artifacts' smuggling ring was dismantled within the United States — sounds more like the plot of a movie than reality.

Amazingly, however, mummy smuggling not only still happens today, it was once so common that enough mummies were available to be ground up and sold as powder, archaeologists reveal.

"Mummy powder was something you could buy in pharmacies up to 1920, because people thought it was a type of medication," said Egyptologist Regine Schulz, curator of ancient art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Today's black market for mummy and other antiquities is in the billions of dollars, though exact numbers aren't known. Besides not having a clear bead on the breadth of trafficking in Egyptian artifacts, scientists and officials say it's often difficult to protect the precious artifacts as the Egyptian desert is so vast.

A long history of mummy dealings
The trafficking of mummies traces back to medieval times.

"When Christianity and Islam were rising, mummification was not really the main habit anymore, although we have some mummies of Christian bishops in Egypt that do date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D.," Schulz said. "So from the Middle Ages on, mummies were a bit curious and strange."

Nevertheless, so many mummies were made during ancient Egypt times that enough were available to make mummy powder, or mummia, whose pigment "one assumes was a dark brown," said Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum.

"Mummification was not just something for pharaohs or the upper class — it was the normal thing in ancient Egypt for hundreds of years," Schulz said. "My aunt lived for many years in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, and sandstorms would often reveal tiny remains of mummies — sometimes a little wrapping, sometimes a little bone."

Given the way mummification helped preserve the body, people thought mummies had something to do with eternity, and, in turn that mummy powder could be used as medication, Schulz said.

As strange as grinding up ancient corpses for sale might be in modern times, "mummies were seen as objects back then, not people," Schulz said. "There was nothing illegal about it."

Nowadays, smuggling mummies and any other antiquities out of Egypt is strictly against the law.

"People began to say, 'Wait a moment, this is a person that should be treated in a respectful way, not a thing,'" Schulz said.

Still, while traffic in mummies and Egyptian antiquities has fallen, a black market for them still exists, and the recent upheaval in Egypt may have made it easier for criminals to loot the country.

Modern crime
In the latest news in this front, on July 13 federal prosecutors announced they had busted an international antiquities smuggling ring, charging antiquities dealers in New York, Michigan and Dubai with conspiring with a collector in Virginia to smuggle Egyptian artifacts into the United States and launder money to further their crimes. The prizes in question include a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a nesting set of three Egyptian sarcophagi, a set of Egyptian funerary boats and Egyptian limestone figures, a collection with an estimated market value of $2.5 million.

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"This is a groundbreaking case for Homeland Security Investigations — it is the first time an alleged cultural property network has been dismantled within the United States," said James Hayes, special agent-in-charge with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations. "In addition to smuggling cultural property, this case also focuses on significant money-laundering activity. This is notable because the illicit sale of cultural property is the third-most-profitable black market industry following narcotics and weapons trafficking."

The specific numbers regarding art crime remain vague at best, due to the dearth of accurate statistics regarding it, but estimates have suggested it brings in $2 billion to $6 billion annually.

There is no doubt an illegal market for mummies — "people are still interested in buying them," Schulz said. "But people are more interested in their coffins or maybe a nest of coffins, in what is around the mummy. The mummy itself is not the highest priority."

A great deal remains unknown as to how much gets smuggled or what even gets stolen. The International Council of Museums is preparing a red list for Egypt — a catalog of archaeological objects and works of art in danger of getting stolen or sold. Still, in places in Egypt where families are poor and foreigners are offering a great deal of money, "it's not surprising if there are people who excavate and sell things even if it is illegal," Schulz said.

At the same time, the vast nature of the desert in Egypt makes it impossible to defend every possible site from looters.

There remains much scientists can learn about the past using mummies, even without unwrapping them. "We can now X-ray them to find out how old they were, what illnesses they had, what they ate and what might be inside the wrappings. We can learn a lot about the ancient Egyptians and also the individuals. If you are illegally dealing in mummies and looting tombs, you're destroying what we can learn."

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Explainer: Chilling tales of real-life mummies

  • Universal

    In "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," Han, the Dragon Emperor, wakes from a 2,000-year-old curse and threatens to plunge the world into his unending, merciless service. Explorer Rick O'Connell and his family battle the resurrected mummy from the catacombs of ancient China into the frigid Himalayas. The movie is pure fiction, inspired by the famous terracotta army that guards the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Real-life mummies have fascinated the public for decades — often with their own horrific tales. Click on the "Next" label to learn about eight of their stories.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • King Tut exposed for the world to see

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    The mummy of King Tutankhamun, the 19-year-old pharaoh whose life and death have captivated audiences ever since his gilded tomb was discovered in 1922, went on public display for the first time in November 2007. He was placed in a climate-controlled box in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Tut's blackened, leathery face and feet, shown here, poke out from a linen covering. CT scans of his body in 2005 ruled out murder as the cause of his death in 1323 B.C. More likely, archaeologists said, was a broken left thigh bone that may have caused a fatal infection.

  • Ramses II's hair found for sale on the Internet

    Ben Curtis  /  AP

    How much is the lock of hair in this photo from the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II worth? According to Frenchman Jean-Michel Diebolt, the answer is about $2,600. He put the locks, along with some linen bandages and resins used in the mummification of Ramses II, up for sale on the Internet. Diebolt's late father, a French researcher, had examined the mummy in 1976 and apparently kept the mementos. Egyptian antiquities officials retrieved the lost artifacts in April 2007. Ramses II ruled from 1270 to 1213 B.C. and is celebrated as one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. His legacy includes some of Egypt's grandest monuments, including the Ramesseum temple complex.

  • Mummy of Queen Hatshepsut found?

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    Queen Hatshepsut ruled ancient Egypt for about 20 years as a female pharaoh after she stole the throne from her young stepson, Thutmose III. But after her death, in 1458 B.C., all trace of her name was obliterated from the records in what archaeologists believe was an act of revenge by her stepson. In June 2007, Egyptian authorities announced the mummy in this picture, unearthed a century ago, is the long-lost queen. The claim was based primarily on CT scans that showed, for example, a gap in her mouth matches a tooth in a jar with her insignia on it.

  • Chinchorro were the first to mummify their dead

    Image: mummified Chinchorro baby
    Ivan Alvarado  /  Corbis

    In the arid coastal stretches of modern-day Chile and Peru, an ancient fisherfolk known as the Chinchorro took the mummification of their dead seriously and spared no one from the practice. They were the first culture known to purposely preserve their dead — the earliest examples date to around 5000 B.C. All members of society, from the elite to children and miscarried fetuses, were mummified. The technique changed over the years, but internal organs were commonly removed and replaced with vegetable fiber and hair.

  • Were Incan children fattened up and sacrificed?

    Natacha Pisarenko  /  AP

    The 15-year-old girl known as "La Doncella," shown here in a photo from a museum in Salta, Argentina, along with a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, were apparently "fattened up" before being sacrificed at the top of the Llullaillaco volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile, according a recent analysis of hair samples found with their mummified remains. In the months before their deaths, more than 500 years ago, their diet shifted from potato to corn and perhaps llama meat — an indication of elevated status. The mummies, called the Children of Llullaillaco, were dressed in fine clothes and given corn alcohol before they were left to die on the 22,080-foot volcano.

  • Ice Maiden found inside Peruvian volcano

    Joyce Naltchayan  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Hailed by Time magazine as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries in 1995, Juanita, the Ice Maiden, remains one of the most spectacular mummies ever found. Anthropologist Johan Reinhard and climbing partner Miguel Zarate uncovered the 12- to 14-year-old girl from the crater of Mt. Ampato, a Peruvian volcano. She was apparently sacrificed by Inca priests to appease the gods sometime between 1440 and 1450. There she froze, her body preserved for 500 years.

  • Oetzi the Iceman murder mystery solved?

    South Tyrol Museum Of Archaeology  /  AP

    How did Oetzi the Iceman, seen in this photo from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy, die? According a story patched together from a pair of detailed examinations published in 2007, the 5,000-year-old mummy most likely took a fatal blow to the head after an arrow lacerated an artery below his left collarbone. Hikers in 1991 discovered Oetzi in the Italian Alps, face down with his left arm across his chest. Scientists believe he fell backwards, but was rolled over by his attacker who pulled out the arrow, leaving the arrowhead imbedded in Oetzi's shoulder.

  • Lindow Man, Britain's best bog body

    Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

    In August 1984, workers cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in northwest England hit upon the well-preserved body of a man, about the age of 25, who died sometime between A.D. 20 and 90. Lindow Man, as he became known, is Britain's best known bog body, one of several dead people kept remarkably intact due to the acidity, cold temperature and lack of oxygen in the bogs. Detailed studies of Lindow Man conducted at the British Museum suggest he died a horrific death. He shows evidence of two blows to the head and a third to the back. He was then strangled with a thin cord that snapped his neck, had his throat cut and was placed face down in the bog. Some scientists suspect this was a ritualistic killing.

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