Thursday, October 11, 2012

Update on the Mummified Arm

     Sometimes working with museum artifacts involves being a bit of a detective.  I don’t always get the full history of the artifacts when we acquire them, so then some research is in order.

     You may recall there was a mummified arm found on the Antietam Battlefield, which was donated to my museum back in January.  [The first post about it is 
here.]  Everyone was eager to learn more about it!

If you visited the Antietam Battlefield Museum before it closed in 2004 you could have seen the arm displayed in a pine box with a tag which read, “Human Arm Found on the Antietam Battlefield.”


     Part of the research on the arm involved taking the arm to the National Museum of Natural History to be tested.  [See that post 
here.]  Though we’d hoped that the testing would be completed in time to display the arm this fall, there are still some tests to perform on it.  We have gotten some information about it though, so I thought I’d post an update for everyone who has been inquiring about it!

     The arm has had X-ray and CT scans to determine if there was any hidden damage or broken bones.  A carbon isotope test will also be performed to possibly determine the diet of the individual and thus the area he came from.  There has also been some discussion of attempting a DNA test, but that decision has been put off until some other tests are completed.  In addition, an X-ray diffraction test was performed to determine the presence of metals and chemicals used to preserve the arm.  This was especially critical information for me as the caretaker of the arm since, depending on the method used to preserve it, there was the potential for the arm to contain some hazardous substances.  Not only do I have to protect myself and any other people who may need to handle the arm, but I also need to use this information to protect the other artifacts it could be exhibited with or stored near.

This damage to the palm showing exposed portions of bones and tendons was not hidden from view! This area probably was a wound.

This radiograph shows that there were no fractures or broken bones. The scientists from the NMNH determined that growth and development stages are consistent with a male aged about 16 years. Though we’d already been told it probably was a young individual, he is younger than we initially thought. It’s rather sobering to consider just how young he was, but then we do know that many boys lied about their age in order to enlist.

     Another surprising find was that the X-ray diffraction results showed no evidence of intentional preservation using any sort of chemicals (no salts, mercury, arsenic, or lead). The mummification appears natural, which is not consistent with the story we got claiming it had been preserved in a brine solution and also some sort of embalming solution.  Clearly I need to do some research on the arm’s story as well! 

This view shows some dirt present on the bone’s surface. Considering it was reported to have been discovered in a plowed field, this is not surprising.

        Though I am still working on verifying (or sometimes debunking) various parts of the story, I have found out more about the Boonsboro doctor identified simply as “Dr. Gaines” whom the donor named as having possessed the arm at one point.  Even without the addition of a mummified arm, it’s an interesting story!

     Dr. John Mutius Gaines was born in Culpeper County, Virginia in 1837 and had a medical practice in Alexandria, Virginia before the Civil War.  When the war started he joined the Confederate Medical Corps as an assistant surgeon with the 8th Virginia Infantry.  He was at the Battle of Antietam but was left behind (as a prisoner of war) to care for the wounded soldiers.  During this time, he worked with a local physician, Dr. Otho Josiah Smith.  He apparently also made the acquaintance of Dr. Smith’s daughter Helen while he was there.  However, after six weeks Dr. Gaines was exchanged and returned to the Confederate army.

     When the war ended though, instead of returning to his home in Virginia, Dr. Gaines went back to Boonsboro, Maryland and married Helen Smith.  He evidently remembered their six weeks together well!  They lived in Boonsboro with her father, and Dr. Gaines and Dr. Smith worked together until Dr. Smith’s death.  Dr. Gaines remained in practice in Boonsboro until his retirement.  After his death his son found the arm, just wrapped in a piece of cloth, in the attic of the doctor’s old house.  From there it was passed on to other people, but I will have to save those stories for a future post. 

     So, though there is more research to be done, we have learned more about the arm.  Some of what we’ve learned raises more questions, but I look forward to discovering more of the arm’s real history!

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine


  1. This is an incredibly fascinating story. Thanks for the update, I can't wait to hear more.

  2. Thank you for sharing this fascinating story. It is eye opening to remember these were real people. Story brought that home. I can not wait to hear more.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story. It is eye opening to remember these were real people who fought these wars, not simple story characters. I look forward to reading more.