CEPI Curiosities: The Persian Princess

Hello, again, historio-medico-scientific-forensic enthusiasts. It’s Kevin back again for another look into the medical weirdness we like to call CEPI Curiosities. For today’s installment, we are deviating slightly from the medical side but still discussing the topic of bodies being taken without permission. As you may recall, our last presentation explored the pilfering of presidential son/father John Scott Harrison, whose remains were stolen by resurrectionists for use as a cadaver. While not necessarily for medical subjects the illegal trade in human remains is still a significant issue (for more on the subject, check out the University of Glasgow’s online resource: Trafficking Culture). This time around we are examining a relatively-recent case: one that involves bodysnatching, fraud, and possibly murder. It is the case of the Persian Princess.

Following a 2000 earthquake in Pakistan, a group of individuals claimed to come across an astonishing discovery. Among the rubble was a ancient-looking sarcophagus inscribed with cuneiform characters believed to be ancient Persian. Preliminary examination of the coffin identified it as containing the remains of the daughter of Persian King Xerxes, which dated the coffin at around the fifth century BCE. Having coming across a momentous discovery, two men–Ali Akbar and Wali Mohammed Reeki–concluded the most logical course of action was to try to sell it for millions of dollars on the international antiquities market. Reportedly, their asking price for the artifact was in the neighborhood of $11 million, whereupon they were arrested by Pakistani officials for violating the country’s Antiquity Act.

The artifact’s discovery even prompted an international incident, as both the Iranian and Pakistani governments claimed ownership over the Persian Princess’ remains. Later Afghanistan’s Taliban government also laid claim to the discovery. In the meantime, the sarcophagus was brought to the National Museum at Karachi for study. In the end, the debate was settled scientifically in the sense that scientists determined the Persian Princess to be a fake.

A number of factors raised eyebrows over the artifact’s authenticity. Linguists saw syntactical issues with the cuneiform inscribed on the sarcophagus, arguing the dialect was much more recent than the claimed 600 BCE date. Carbon dating determined the reed mat on which the body rested was no more than fifty years old. In 2001, the so-called Persian Princess was officially announced as a fraud.

If the remains were not of an ancient Persian princess, whose were they? Officials conducted an autopsy on the body in the sarcophagus and identified the body as that of a middle-aged woman who had suffered from a broken spine, although it was not clear whether it was her cause of death. However, it was clear that her organs had been removed and the body was chemically mummified to appear much older than it was. How old was it? Far from 2600 years old, examiners determined the time of death as roughly 1996, a mere four years prior to its “discovery.”  These revelations raised the question of whether the woman had been murdered and the Pakistani government opened an investigation into the matter. However, seven years passed with no leads, and the remains of the erstwhile Persian Princess were buried in 2008.


13 thoughts on “CEPI Curiosities: The Persian Princess

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