From underground into the spotlight

The salt man as holder of information and storyteller - a discussion.

Frankfurt, Teheran, Zanjān, Berlin, Bolzano, Munich, Vienna
Tuesday, April 13th 2021

An ethics discussion forum on how to deal with human remains

How do you treat mummified people with dignity? Is it permissible to present people who died a long time ago in an exhibition? What challenges do conservators and museum staff face? These were the questions discussed by eight experts in an ethics discussion forum. The handling of human remains is a current topic in museums. In Germany, the German Museums Association published a guideline on the subject. In Iran, there are religious concerns in addition to the guidelines. Basically, the discussants agree: museums deal with people and their questions. They try to answer them and at the same time stimulate reflection. Therefore, the salt men also attract the attention of various disciplines that deal with substance, biology and social contextualisation in a variety of ways.

It is important to be transparent 

The experts have been working with mummified persons for several years - the salt men, but also the Iceman, who is affectionately known as "Ötzi". In the museums in Tehran, Zanjān and Bolzano, they face the challenge of preserving the mummified people and at the same time making them visible to the public. Keeping the balance is difficult. Are mummies allowed to be exhibited in a museum at all, or is that impious? The experts agree that it is important to be transparent. It should be clear to visitors why the mummies are being exhibited and also what is necessary to preserve them.

The salt men are witnesses of a past

The salt men are unique witnesses of a past that we would not be able to tap into without them. Due to their tragic accidental death, the men from the salt have everyday objects with them that would not have been given to them in a burial. Their clothes are also work clothes and thus tell us a lot about their everyday life today. In general, when exhibiting human remains, different perspectives should be included in advance. According to Diana Gabler, it is not enough to talk only to the restorers. The descendants of the people and their culture must also be included in the discussion - if this is possible.

The challenge: preserving the Salt Men for the future 

The challenge for the salt men of Zanjān is now to protect their remains from insect and fungal attack. In a project supported by the Federal Foreign Office and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, the restorers in Zanjān and Tehran are tackling this task. They evaluated the current condition and are developing new concepts to preserve the salt men for the future. For although the men from the salt are human mummies, they are also information carriers for science. In an open lab format, those interested could follow the cleaning of the salt men.

Visitors imagine the once living person

The perspective of the visitors should not be ignored either. Natasha Bagherpour Kashani, the moderator of the discussion forum, raises the question of how visitors react to the salt men. "Many visitors react calmly," says Firouzeh Sepidnameh, senior curator at the National Museum of Tehran, "because the visitors are already engaged with the salt men in the rooms before." It is more difficult with children. They often can't believe that Salt Man 1 was a real person. Elisabeth Vallazza, deputy director of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, reports similar experiences: "The Iceman is presented in a reserved manner. On the one hand, this is for conservation reasons, because the chamber must not get too warm. On the other hand, the museum wants to leave it up to the visitors to approach the Iceman. Both agree that an inner dialogue is triggered in the visitors, because there are rarely situations in which one is so directly confronted with a dead body. One also imagines the person, how he or she may have lived and who he or she was.

One thing became clear to the listeners of the discussion: it is not easy to keep the balance between dignified handling and scientific interest in knowledge. A differentiated approach to this ambivalent topic, as practised in all three houses involved in the discussion, is therefore essential. 



The panelists:

Dr. Shahrzad Amin Shirazi, head conservator at the RCCCR (Research Center for Conservation of Cultural Relics, Tehran), expert in Iran for the conservation and restoration of salt mummies; has been working intensively with her team on the research and conservation of these special cultural assets since the discovery of the first salt man in 1994.

Diana Gabler, freelance conservator in Berlin and is currently doing her PhD in Ethnology at the LMU in Munich. Diana's focus is collaborative conservation and restoration with societies of origin in ethnological collections. She is part of a group of conservation professionals who most recently published a handbook on conservation care and museal use of human remains.

Dr. Abolfazl Aali, Archaeologist and director of the Zanjān Saltmen and Archaeological Museum ZSAM and the Department of Archaeological Heritage of Zanjān Province. Abolfazl is the central partner for the German Mining Museum on the Iranian side. He has been involved as an archaeologist since the beginning of the research excavations at the salt mine. As head of the ZSAM, he is not only responsible for the preservation of the excavation finds from Chehrabad, but is also intensively involved with the adequate exhibition of the salt men.

Dr. Firuze Sepidnahme, Senior Curator of the Archaeological Exhibition at the National Museum of Iran, Tehran. Firuze is responsible for the presentation and mediation of Salt Man 1 at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran. Through her years of experience as a curator, she has a special eye for the needs and reactions of Iranian and international visitors.

Elisabeth Vallazza, Deputy Director of the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology and responsible for marketing. With its permanent exhibition, the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology offers a comprehensive insight into the research on the biology and life of the Iceman. Elisabeth has dealt with Ötzi as an "economic factor"; the museum has so far mastered the balancing act between successfully marketing and establishing the "Ötzi" brand and respectfully dealing with Ötzi as a human remains. Elisabeth can shed light on the questions and controversies the team has dealt with in the process.

Dr. Estella Weiss-Krejcicultural anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of Vienna and member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, is part of the interdisciplinary research team in the EU project deepdead. She is researching the handling of the dead in medieval and post-medieval Europe and is also concerned with the "use" of corpses after their burial. Through her international activities, including in Latin America, Estella has insights into different cultures and their approach to human corpses and remains.

Kirsten S. Mandl is an osteoarchaeologist and PhD student in Biological Anthropology at the University of Vienna. Kirsten's research focuses on the taphonomy of human bones, i.e. the biological processes of transformation/restructuring of the human body after death. Using the method of histotaphonomy, she researches the various factors that can influence the change of the body in the early post-mortem phase. This enables Kirsten to provide important insights into ancient techniques of cadaver treatment.

Esmat Zandi is the Head of Conservation of Historical and Cultural Movable Property of the Country of ICHHTO. Studied archaeology and restoration of historical monuments.

Dipl. Restauratorin Univ. Maruchi Yoshida initiated the so-called Open Lab Project "The Salt Men of Zanjan - Living and Dying for the White Gold of Cheherabad" for the restoration and mediation around the mummies and organised the discussion forum together with Dr. Natascha Bagherpour Kashani. She is a conservator, founder of kurecon for the preservation of cultural assets and shareholder and managing director of iconyk GmbH for the preservation and care of art and cultural assets.

Dr. Natascha Bagherpour Kashani prepared and moderated the Ethics Forum together with Dipl. rest. Maruchi Yoshida. She is an archaeologist and coordinates and leads projects within the programme around the salt mummies of Zanjan. The cultural heritage project "The Salt Men of Zanjan" plans and implements measures for the conservation of the mummies and organic finds in the Zanjan Saltmen and Archaeological Museum. The project "Water, Education- and Tourism-Project at Māhneshan Region" aims to provide drinking water to the local population affected by the cultural heritage of the salt men and to create better economic opportunities in the rural region through an inclusive tourism and education concept.

© Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum, Leibniz-Forschungsmuseum für Georessourcen

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