The Qilakitsoq Mummies


Some fascinating finds have been made in Greenland over the years; relics that tell of times past. Most of these relics were found by archaeologists from Denmark when they searched in and around settlements.

Text and Photo: Toke Brødsgaard

Unusual grouse hunt
One of the most remarkable finds forever, was made in 1972 by two men, Hans and Jokum Grønvold, who were out hunting grouse. They found some very well-preserved mummies in a shallow cave under a rock outcrop. The site is a few hundred metres from the settlement of Qilakitsoq which lies on the Nuussuaq Peninsular near Uummannaq.

At first, the grouse hunters did not realise what they had found in the two graves. They thought they had found the bodies of people who had recently been placed there, so they reported the find immediately to the police.

Unique find
This, however, was far from being the case. The find proved to be unique; it was the bodies of eight mummified people that had been placed there several hundred years earlier. Later studies undertaken by the National Museum in Denmark showed that the mummies date back to the Thule Culture, and the are about 500 years old.


Unique balance with nature
The mummies were not embalmed like the mummies we know from e.g. Egypt. The Qilakitsoq mummies were preserved by nature. The site where they were found has the proper balance of the conditions that made this possible. The balance concerns a series of decisive factors such as humidity, acidity, shade with almost constant frost, good drainage between the rocks and the fact that the mummies were protected from the wind and weather by the outcrop where they were found.

Thought it was a doll
The most well-preserved of the mummies was a little boy, estimated to have been about six months old. Hair, body and especially the boy’s clothing are very well preserved. When they found him, the grouse hunters thought he was a doll because he was so small and fine. The museum people believe the infant is so well preserved because he is so small and therefore dried faster. It is thought the child was either smothered or buried alive when the mother died. In those days, it was not an uncommon occurrence, to spare the child a slow death from starvation.

The six-month old boy did not suffer this fate alone. It is thought that the same thing happened to a four year old boy who was also found at the site. Here, there are clear indications that he suffered from Downs Syndrome. It was the custom here either to put handicapped children out to die or to bury them alive.

Natural death
The other mummies that were found were all of women. It is thought that they all died from different illnesses. They had illnesses such as kidney stones, constipation, tumours and bad health in general. All these women are thought to have met natural deaths as a consequence of their bad health.

DNA analyses have shown that there is a family connection between the various corpses. There are three sisters of around 50 years of age with their three daughters aged from 18 to 30 years of age and their two sons. This makes sense, since the population of the settlement was probably not very large.


The clothing speaks of a hunting culture
The interesting thing about the mummies is that they are so well-preserved. Tattoos that can be seen on the women’s skin also tell of the traditions that existed in Greenland in the 1400s. The condition of the clothing they wore is such that it is possible to see how they were made and, not least, which materials they were made of. Many different materials were used, for example skin from different kinds of seals, bird skins and feathers.

All the discovered mummies were well-dressed, ready for their long journey to the underworld. According to tradition, they should be ready to go hunting in the afterlife. Therefore, of them wore both outer and inner furs and kamikker.

Digital mummy
The most well-preserved of the mummies, the six month old infant, is the mummy that has been studied least because of the desire to conserve both the mummy and the clothing as much as possible. However, a solution to this dilemma was found in 2001 when Nuuk hospital acquired a CT scanner.

Without damaging the mummy, it could be moved and scans could be made that would provide new information. With the aid of the images generated by 
these scans, it was possible to make a 3D model of the mummy which could be studied from the outside to the inside.

See the mummies
Today the mummies can be seen at the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk, where they are on display together with some of their clothing. There is a good description of the circumstances under which they were found. The display was modernised a couple of years ago and today it is a really fine exhibit, bearing witness to the importance of this find.

If you are in the neighbourhood, the museum of Uummannaq also has an exhibit about the find and, in particular, there is a very comprehensive overview of the clothing worn by the mummies.

OMSLAG_24 Read the story on page 12