Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Nerd History: Death Masks!

I think I'm in love with the Radiolab podcast, if only because it teaches me about such bizarre things I've never heard of. I'm somewhat late to the podcast thing, and I've found myself loving the Radiolab stuff in particular just due to the bizarre things I'm hearing from their archives. I listened to a fascinating one about a specific death mask a few weeks ago, and I find the entire idea of them kind of interesting.

So join me behind the jump for some fun death mask stuff! And regarding the twist on the Radiolab take on death masks, well...

Death masks have been around for centuries, really - in a sense, the sculptures that held mummies in ancient Egypt are a form of death mask. The ones that are more interesting to me, however, are the European-based ones. The masks were created of the faces of the deceased out of different materials (wax or plaster seem to be the norm), used in funeral ceremonies, and then displayed. Perhaps they were used much like we may display an urn with ashes of our deceased, we still see death masks of famous people in museums today.

The cool thing about them, for me at least, is that they operated as sort of a forensic identification for a time when DNA evidence is not an option. Taking a death mask of an unidentified body means that the family has a better chance of identifying a corpse later. Considering the rudimentary preservation techniques of the time...

The twist? Arguably the most famous death mask is of "L'inconnue de la Seine," the "Unknown Woman of the Seine," who drowned toward the end of the 19th century. Pictured above, she became quite popular due to her beauty and the mystery surrounding her for whatever reason. The interesting thing about her today, however, is that you've probably already seen her face first hand, and perhaps even, well, "kissed" it, as this specific death mask became the model for CPR dummies.

Just one of those strange things that perservere throughout history and surprise you, right?

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