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*spoilers ahead*

In Tomb Raider, the sarcophagus of Himiko is opened. Her face is white and masklike. The white mask starts to disintegrate into a gray dust, and over the course of several seconds it reveals Himiko's skull.

What is the in-universe explanation for this? Why was Himiko's mask / face intact at first? Why did it turn to dust right then?

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Not sure about the in-universe explanation, but I think this is quite realistic.

As far as I know, the reason corpses rot and turn to ash is oxygen. And I have read somewhere that some old mummies looked like they died just a few days ago while in fact they were thousands of years old. And after comming in contact with oxygen they rotted quite fast.

A simmilar efect is in Indiana Jones and the crystal skull.

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    Upvote for those facts! As far as mummies rotting quite fast, though, that sounds like an effect that would take days rather than seconds. II think the effect in Tomb Raider is supposed to be the mummy turning to dust, rather than rotting. – BrettFromLA Mar 26 '18 at 10:40
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    If Himiko is the historic Himiko (c. 170-248) the question might better be why didn't she already turn to dust a millennium ago? Only very special conditions in the sarcophagus could prevent decay for about 1770 years, and breaking the seal could lead to comparatively rapid decay. There are allegedly true stories about bodies turning instantly to dust when uncovered, though I don't know how accurate they are. – M. A. Golding Mar 26 '18 at 20:44
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There is precedent for accidental mummification of corpses in sarcophagi and the subsequent 'instant' degradation of their skin once exposed to the air; though historically the total disintegration of the skin has taken hours, not seconds, so there is a little artistic licence in the film:

A 300-year-old burial area, in which two bodies were reduced to skeletons while one was perfectly preserved, has left Chinese archaeologists baffled.
When one of the coffins was opened, the man's face, experts claim, was perfectly preserved.

Within hours, however, the face started to go black, and a foul smell began to emanate from the body.

The skin on the corpse - which has now been taken to the local university for study - also turned black.

The body is thought to be from the Qing Dynasty.

It was unearthed on October 10 on a construction site in a two metre-deep hole in the ground at Xiangcheng in Henan province, central China.


Wikipedia explains the plausible conditions that would lead to this:

In extremely dry or cold conditions, the normal process of decomposition is halted – by either lack of moisture or temperature controls on bacterial and enzymatic action – causing the body to be preserved as a mummy. Frozen mummies commonly restart the decomposition process when thawed (see Ötzi the Iceman), whilst heat-desiccated mummies remain so unless exposed to moisture.

The mummies of Asia are usually considered to be accidental. The decedents were buried in just the right place where the environment could act as an agent for preservation. This is particularly common in the desert areas of the Tarim Basin and Iran. Mummies have been discovered in more humid Asian climates, however these are subject to rapid decay after being removed from the grave.

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