Discover more from Grey Goose Chronicles
A Mummified Modern Murder - The Case of the Persian Princess
How An Archaeological Wonder Became A Macabre Murder Investigation
I’m currently interested in the whole topic of archaeological fraud and forgery. In particular the motivations and characters of the people who find themselves creating entire legacies of fake objects, often they seem compelled to keep going, creating ever more outlandish scenarios, presumably in their aspiration for fame and glory. Some impulses though are much more basic, simple financial gain, and this one can lead to some dark places, as I discovered when I first read of the case known as the ‘Persian Princess’. Others have written about it, but I thought I’d outline the case myself for my readers, and add some more archaeological context to a story already worthy of a novel or a film.
October, 2000, Pakistan
Our story begins with a VHS videotape. Sometime in October, 2000, police in Pakistan were made aware of a tape circulating around individuals known to be involved in various black market activities. The tape was a sort of advert, showing that someone in the country possessed an ancient mummy, and it was for sale. After a tip-off, the police found a Karachi man called Ali Akbar, who denied possessing the mummy or its sarcophagus. The asking price for the mummified remains was a cool $11 million, a significant sum, even for a valuable archaeological artefact. Akbar led the police into Balochistan province, an area split between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and riven with ethnic conflict. In Quetta, the police located the mummy in the house of a local leader, Wali Mohammed Reeki, who claimed it had been given to him by an Iranian man called Sharif Shah Bakhi. Sources seem to vary on what happened next, but it appears that the Pakistani authorities managed to find Bakhi, question him and corroborate the story that he discovered the mummy after an earthquake in a small Iranian border town. After that Bakhi was never heard from again. Akbar and Reeki were both charged under the country’s Antiquity Act and the mummy was taken to the National Museum in Karachi.
A Big Announcement
A mummy in Pakistan is big news, and one of the nation’s most prestigious sons knew it. Ahmed Hasan Dani (1920-2009) was a giant in his field, responsible for essentially creating archaeology as a discipline in Pakistan. He apparently spoke dozens of languages, wrote as many books, and was showered with awards and honours from all over the world, including the coveted French Légion d'honneur in 1998, the German Order of the Merit in 1996 and an Aristotle Silver Medal from UNESCO in 1997. He would have known what was at stake when he first approached the sarcophagus, with its cuneiform stone carvings, gilded wooden coffin and Zoroastrian iconography.
On October 26th, in front of TV cameras and journalists, Dani announced the museum’s preliminary findings: the mummy and its coffin and sarcophagus dated back to 600 BC, Persia, and appeared to be a princess, potentially from an important family. She had been preserved in the Egyptian style and laid atop a mat coated in honey and wax. She could have been an Egyptian princess, married into the royal family, or potentially a daughter of Cyrus the Great himself. Either way, here was an extraordinary find, the first remains of a Persian royal, and mummified in a way not known to the region.
A Diplomatic Meltdown
Almost immediately Dani’s conference provoked outrage, first and foremost amongst the Iranians, who felt that they should now take over the care and investigation of the mummy, since she had been identified as Persian royalty. The Iranian Cultural Heritage body lodged a complaint with UNESCO, prompting a war of words between Pakistan and Iran, the former highlighting that the mummy was recovered on Pakistani territory. To complicate matters, the Awan tribe of Balochistan filed a petition with the High Court, insisting that the mummy must belong to them instead. Finally, a month later, the Taliban of all people chimed in, saying they had interrogated a group of cross-border smugglers, who revealed that the mummy had surfaced originally in Afghanistan. This was quite a bold move for a regime which was renowned for destroying its pre-Islamic inheritance, but they threw their hat into the ring - a showdown between Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Balochistan was underway.
Dani tried to sidestep the problem by negating everyone’s claims, saying that the princess was most likely Egyptian, and therefore did not belong to Iran. The Iranians played their own cards, announcing that an Italian archaeologist by the name of Lorenzo Costantini had validated the Iranian claim to the mummy, by authenticating the inscriptions on her coffin. Costantini, bewildered and angry, hit back on Iranian television, retorting that he had been shown a photograph sent by the Iranians, which possibly said the word ‘Xerxes’ or ‘Cyrus’, sources seem to vary. The name ‘Rhodugune’ is listed in many articles about the princess, but Constantini himself is quoted as saying:
"I never gave an interview to any Iranian journalist...I shortly talked on the telephone with an Iranian woman of the IRNA office at Rome. During the talk, I told her that the name of Xerxes was mentioned in the [coffins'] inscriptions...she asked, 'Who's he?' This small comment reveals the degree of knowledge of the person I was speaking to”
One has to imagine the rumours swirling around the press offices at the time led to much confusion about names of ancient Persian kings, but certainly later accounts differ from Dani’s original announcement.
The battle over ownership and authentication was to continue for some time. Before Christmas 2000, the mummy underwent a CT scan at Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, revealing her to be a young woman with a broken spine.
The Dealer and the Archaeologist
Before any of this happened, back in March 2000, a letter with four Polaroid pictures landed on the desk of Oscar White Muscarella at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He opened it, finding images of what seemed to be a mummy with a gold breastplate, along with a translation of the cuneiform - “I am the daughter of the great King Xerxes. Mazereka protect me. I am Rhodugune, I am”. The letter had been sent by one Amanollah Riggi of New Jersey, acting as a middleman for a seller in Pakistan. They were offering Muscarella and the museum the opportunity to buy this priceless artefact.
Muscarella seems an odd choice for this venture. This was a man who was not only an expert in ancient Persia, Anatolia and the Near East, but had a reputation for being the ‘conscience of the discipline’. He had devoted much of his life to stopping and undermining archaeological looting, forgeries and illegal purchases. He quite literally wrote the book on the subject, ‘‘The Lie Became Great. The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures’’, which accused many museums, and even his own institution of purchasing forged antiquities. Naturally he was intrigued by the photos and translation, but also suspicious. He demanded better photographs, and reached out to the academic who had supposedly translated the cuneiform on the breastplate.
Things unravelled quickly for Riggi. Muscarella discovered that the academic had written up much more than he had been shown in the letter. In fact, the linguist had determined that most of the writing had been lifted directly from the famous Behistun Inscription, which outlined King Darius I’s achievements. He also highlighted numerous inconsistencies in the production, concluding that the work was most likely a forgery. The scholar had laid this out to Riggi, who in desperation sent back radiocarbon dates for the wood in the coffin. It was no more than 250 years old, a discrepancy that seemed to evade him - “it cannot be called modern” pleaded Riggi. Muscarella severed communication and went back to his work, roused only when he was invited by Archaeology magazine to give a statement on the mummy find in October, 2000. He realised the photos and the mummy now in the news were one and the same, and submitted all his evidence to Interpol. Any chance of the princess being authentic was disintegrating away.
The Iranians Arrive
The details don’t seem to be available, but sometime in January Pakistan relented and allowed an Iranian archaeological delegation to come to Karachi and analyse the mummy. A joint team made up of Dani, Pakistan's National Museum curator Asma Ibrahim, and the Iranians - led by the veteran Mir Abedin Kaboli - launched a new investigation of the remains. What they found was shocking. Not only was the body covered in modern petrochemicals, the coffin carvings guided by lead pencil markings and the radiocarbon dates miles off 600 BC, but the woman herself was a modern person. She had had her heart and other organs removed, contrary to classical practice, before being stuffed with salt and bicarbonate powder. Her tendons were visible, there was fungus developing on her face, her teeth had been removed to prevent easy identification. Where traditional Egyptian mummification would have seen her organs carefully removed, cleaned and returned to her body, this woman had been crudely gutted and improperly preserved. Further radiocarbon dating placed her death tentatively around the mid 1990’s.
What had originally been a story of archaeological wonder had quickly devolved into a sordid tale. German researchers were sent samples of the body, coffin and more, confirming the joint Iranian-Pakistani conclusions. A young woman had died around 1995 of a broken neck, possibly killed deliberately, and was then subject to a mockery of a mummification procedure, and turned into a forged ensemble to be sold for $11 million to a buyer who believed her to be a Persian princess. Ibrahim released her report on April 17th 2001. The Pakistani authorities then treated the case as murder, but they had let their most valuable suspect, Sharif Shah Bakhi, disappear into thin air.
For all the attention paid to the mummy when it was found, nobody cared after it was announced the remains were a hoax. By all accounts the police gave up looking for the people responsible, the department in Balochistan dragging its feet for so long it took until 2008 for the mummified woman to be buried. The experts who had been so confident in their pronouncements, Dani in particular, were silent. A BBC documentary was made on the case, concluding that this had to have been the work of many skilled people - a stonemason, a joiner, a goldsmith, someone with a working knowledge of anatomy and embalming, and someone familiar enough with cuneiform and Persian history to conduct the choir. Despite the mistakes, this was a relatively sophisticated operation, and one with bravado, either killing or acquiring a body and quickly producing a mummy to be sold on the black market. Someone out there knows what happened, and maybe they’ve done it before and since. Someone knows who she was, and how she ended up in a sarcophagus with a golden breast plate. But we’ll likely never know, just as we’ll never know how many such fakes fill our museums and archives, maybe there are other bodies to be found.
Grey Goose Chronicles is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.