Mummy Mining in Peru
By A. Hyatt Verrill
ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY Volume 29, April 1930
EVER since the days of the Spanish conquest, mining mummies has been a more or less lucrative industry in Peru. Not that the mummies were desirable or valuable, but because the Incans and pre-Incans interred ornaments, weapons, utensils and implements with their dead, and some of these were of gold or silver. How many tens of thousands of mummies were thus destroyed no one can guess. In addition to the countless mummies dug up by the professional huaqueros, as they are called, thousands of bodies have been disinterred by archaeologists, curio-seekers and others, while thousands more have been destroyed in the course of constructing railways and roads, digging irrigation-ditches, cultivating land and carrying on various public and private works.
One would think that, years ago, the supply of mummies would have been exhausted. But so vast was the number of dead buried in Peru that, despite all that have been disinterred, practically no impression has been made, and what is more, scientists are continually finding mummies and remains of hitherto unknown people and cultures. No one would dare estimate the number of mummies that were buried or that yet remain even in a small area of the country. From Ecuador to Chile and from the coast to beyond the Andes there is scarcely a square mile without its cemeteries, its mounds or its ruins filled with dead. Many cemeteries cover hundreds of acres; many burial-mounds are stupendous, and in many ruined cities every available bit of ground is filled with mummies. The Huaca Juliana, just outside of Lima—nearly half a mile in length, nearly quarter of a mile wide and over one hundred feet in height— is made up of countless brick cubicles containing mummies, and this is but one of dozens of equally huge burial-mounds in the vicinity. The new urbanization developments about Lima are surrounded by burial-mounds; one of the new highways cuts through the centre of an immense mound filled with mummies, and the homes of the suburbanites are erected over ancient graveyards. It is not unusual to see a modern residence with scattered skulls, scalps, mummy-wrappings and bones within a few feet of the front door, and in cultivating their flower gardens the residents are as likely to turn up skulls as stones. I doubt if there is another country on earth where the inhabitants dwell happily and contentedly in the midst of countless dead; but no one gives the matter a thought, or possibly the people do not regard bodies and bones of men and women a thousand or more years old in the same way as they would regard cadavers of people who had died and been buried recently.
Obviously the majority of the mummies are those of poor and humble peasants, for as a rule the mummy-bundles contain very little of value or interest. Stone, shell or clay ornaments, an occasional stone implement, gourds filled with corn, peanuts or other food; baskets of needles, thread and weaving implements, pouches filled with cotton-seeds, llama-hair slings and cotton spindles are the usual objects found, together with pieces of pottery and various kinds of cloth. But if one is fortunate enough to disinter the mummy of a chief, priest or medicine-man a wonderful collection of archaeological treasures may result. At times they are found with elaborate headdresses of feathers; there is usually a mask or false-face of painted inlaid wood or even of silver or gold; there may be bows and arrows, ceremonial staffs, spears with bronze tips, atlatls or spear-throwing-sticks and ornaments of silver and gold. From one grave I obtained a magnificent bronze battle-axe with handle complete, a most effective weapon still capable of slicing a man's head from his shoulders or cleaving his skull; the star-headed maces of stone or bronze, as well as bundles of quipos or message-strings are quite common. In case the mummy is that of a woman there will be work-baskets, looms—often with partly woven textiles upon them— carded and dyed yarn and sometimes gowns and shawls of the most delicate and beautiful lace, all so perfectly preserved that they might have been buried only yesterday instead of thousands of years ago.
In most of the coastal districts—especially in the Rimac Valley—I should say not one in five hundred mummies is accompanied by any objects of intrinsic value, and that not one in a hundred has anything unusual in the line of textiles, pottery, feather-work or utensils. Yet in other parts of Peru the proportion of richly-decorated mummies is very large, and in a few localities they preponderate, while in only one known district are all, so far discovered, of this type.
Despite all the archaeological work that has been done in Peru during many decades we really know little of the ancient cultures. No one positively can say whether they all had a common origin or whether they were distinct and each race developed its independent culture. No one can assert with certainty which is the most ancient. Even the origin and history of the Incas—the most recent of all Peruvian cultures—are shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. All we do know is that in many places one culture is superimposed on another, and by the stratification of the remains we can determine the chronological order in which they were developed. Constantly we are greeted by the most amazing surprises, the most astonishing discoveries that often—I might say usually—result in adding to the mysteries and puzzles we are trying to solve.
This was the case in the Nasca district of southern Peru. Probably no other ancient Peruvian culture was— or was supposed to be—so well known as that of the Nascans. Practically every museum and private collection in the world contains specimens of Nascan ceramics, textiles and feather-work. Of all known aboriginal American pottery the Nascan holds first place for its beauty and perfection. Of equal beauty and perfection are the Nascan textiles and feather-work, and as a rule these are perfectly preserved with colors as fresh as when first made. This is due mainly to the fact that the Nascans buried their dead in genuine tombs instead of in graves. Each body—when of a prominent personage—was wrapped in cloths and swathed in textile until a bundle several times the size of the body was formed. This was then arrayed in the finest of robes, ponchos, belts and textiles, adorned with silver or gold ornaments, and was provided with a mask and false head covered with human hair. It was then crowned with a gorgeous feather headdress, and the whole was enclosed in a cocoon-like wrapping of coarse cloth.
Opening a Nascan tomb is very different from digging up a mummy in a desert or a mound. Fragments of shards, bones and rubbish mark the burial-places, and the tombs are indicated by the tops of vertical posts. Below the loose superficial sand and pebbles is a small platform of sticks under which is more gravel. When this has been removed for a depth of several feet a strong structure of timbers covered with stones is revealed. This is the roof of the tomb, a large square room walled with stone and adobe, and often as large as a good-sized hut. Placed upon the floor are pots, ollas and vessels of the beautiful Nascan ware, and in the corners, resting backs to walls, are the huge shapeless bundles each containing a mummy.
Owing to the beauty of the Nascan objects and to the abundance of precious metals in the tombs, more systematic mummy-mining has been done in the Nascan area than in any other portion of Peru, for Nascan specimens always find a ready sale and professional huaqueros have always been able to turn an honest penny by disposing of the textiles and ceramics, even when no gold or silver rewarded them.
Yet despite this, despite the fact that practically every archaeologist who has ever visited Peru has had a fling at mummy-mining at Nasca, and despite the fact that all agree the culture was unique, that it was confined to a limited area and that no other culture (other than the late Incan) occurred near Nasca, recent discoveries have completely upset all these ideas and have proved that not only was there a pre-Nascan culture, but a pre-pre-Nascan culture totally distinct from the true Nascan.
These discoveries, made by Dr. Julio Tello of the Lima Archaeological Museum, bear out what I have said regarding the ever-present chances of making epochal discoveries, even in the best known districts of Peru.
Not only were the tombs of the pre-Nascans distinct from those of the Nascans, being cylindrical instead of rectangular, but the textiles, the pottery and the mummies were very different. As many of the Nascan burials were above the others there is no question that the Nascans were the more recent. To what extent the latter were influenced by their predecessors it is impossible to say. In some respects there is a similarity in design, in colors and in motifs, both in the textiles and ceramics, yet they are always distinct and easily recognized. No Nascan pottery can compare with that of the pre-Nascan. In one spot countless thousands of potsherds were found—fragments of vessels wantonly destroyed by the Spaniards. These were collected and when, with infinite labor, they were pieced together, they formed jars and bowls several feet in height, often two inches or more in thickness and completely covered, often inside as well as outside, with most intricate and beautiful designs in the colors for which Nascan ware is famed. Even more remarkable and unique were the pottery figures of llamas, two feet or more in height, beautifully modelled and colored and forming hollow vessels the openings to which were in the form of elaborately decorated cup-like vessels upon the animals' backs.
But Dr. Tello was destined to make an even more amazing discovery. In another spot—though still within the Nascan area—indications of burials were found, and excavations brought to light mummies such as no one ever had seen or imagined. Unlike those of the Nascans, these of Parakas were not in tombs, not even in true graves, but had been placed—as many as forty or fifty together—in huge pits or caverns and covered with sand. As the material was removed the mummies appeared more like conical, dun-colored tents than mummy-bundles for they were pyramidal in form and often six feet in height by six feet in diameter at the base, and bore no resemblance to human forms. They were so huge, so bulky and so heavy that several men were required to lift or move them, and even the smallest were larger than any Nascan mummy-bundles. In the open air they could not safely be opened, but glimpses of their contents, exposed through rents in the outer wrappings, revealed textiles of such beauty that even the most staid scientist might have been pardoned had he executed an impromptu dance and yelled with delight.
Aside from these great mummy-bundles there were specimens of pottery as unique as the mummies. Many were ornately decorated with incised designs combined with colors, others were painted in bright yellow, green and blue with some pigment that gave the effect of oil colors; others were in the forms of fruits, vegetables, birds and animals, but all were of a type unlike anything hitherto known.
That these remains were extremely ancient was proved by representations of llamas with five toes instead of two as in the living species, and skeletons of five-toed llamas were found interred in the graves. Whether these people lived so long ago that llamas still retained five toes, or whether these llamas were a special breed is undetermined. But at the lowest possible estimate the Parakas remains are at least two thousand five hundred to three thousand years of age.
It was not until the mummy-bundles were unwrapped in the museum at Lima that anyone realized fully their tremendous archaeological value, the treasures they contained or the epochal discovery that had been made. As Dr. Tello so aptly expressed it: every bundle was a little museum in itself. And with each section of wrappings removed our wonder and amazement increased. No two were alike in contents, and unwrapping them was like undoing a Christmas package or a game of archaeological grab-bag. It was impossible to foretell what might be within the wrappings, for neither the size nor the external appearance of a bundle afforded any guide as to its contents, and very often the largest bundles held less than the small ones.
Moreover, instead of having the textiles, weapons, ornaments and other objects all together, as is the case with other Peruvian mummies, these from Parakas are covered with a series—strata might better express it—of alternate wrappings and magnificent textiles together with the possessions of the deceased. There is no definite number of these wrappings—they vary from six to sixty or more—and as one never knows what the removal of the next wrapping may expose, the unwrapping of a Parakas mummy is downright thrilling—at least to an archaeologist.
As a rule when the outermost covering of rough white cotton cloth is removed, the bundle is found completely shrouded in immense, gorgeously-colored magnificently-fringed robes of fine woolen cloth. These are usually red and black—though sometimes of gray viscacha hair—woven with elaborate checks, stripes or squares, and almost completely covered with symbolic and highly conventionalized designs in yellow, blue and green heavily embroidered upon the surface. Covering the upper portion of the bundle is a short tunic or poncho of brilliant colors, while above this is an elaborate headdress of fox skin or other material and feathers. Often a collar or necklace of shells, stone beads or gold may be below this.
Carefully removing the textiles, the head-covering, the tunic and the robes, a second, a third and sometimes as many as twenty of the great embroidered shawls are revealed. Tucked among their folds are feather-fans, feather-wands, stone-headed maces, wooden ceremonial sceptres, ornaments of gold, carved-stones, turquoise and shell.
This, however, is only the beginning. Under the last immense robe appears a second shroud of white or brown cloth tied securely at the top to form a false neck and head which is covered with a square of cloth, usually blue or brown. Unlacing the twine with which the shroud is held in place, and stripping off the wrapping, another layer of brilliantly-colored textiles is disclosed. Very often these are as perfectly preserved as the first layer, but quite as frequently they are embedded in a mass of fine, dark-brown powder mingled with bits of fur, feathers, etc-all that remain of what, thousands of years ago, were gorgeous robes and trappings.
Yet when this decomposed material is brushed and blown aside, perfectly preserved textiles are found in and beneath it. As nearly as we can determine this peculiar condition is the result of cloths wet with some chemical solution that were wrapped about the bundle as a preservative. But why this was done, why the decomposition affected only one layer of textiles, are unsolved puzzles. Sometimes the decomposed layer is near the surface, at other times deep within the bundle, and at times there are several such strata with perfectly preserved textiles, feather-work, etc., between them. In the case of the mummy illustrated two rolls of unused, beautifully woven cloth of rich carmine heavily embroidered, were found in the midst of the decomposed debris, and yet they were as perfect and bright as when first taken from the loom.
At this stage of unwrapping—provided there are not over eight or ten layers—the indistinct outlines of the body are visible through the coverings. Here also are usually the maté-bowls, the gourds of corn, beans, etc.; yucca-roots, potatoes and other food; stone weapons, pottery, gold ornaments, etc. Finally, when the last covering is removed, the mummy itself appears, seated on its haunches and resting on its left side amid garments, utensils, cloths, etc., and always in an immense shallow basket, while in some cases the basket-lid is found upon the stomach of the mummy. In the majority of cases the body is decked with gold ornaments, such as ear-plugs, necklaces, gorgets, collars, nose-rings, head-ornaments, etc. Of all Peruvian mummies those of Parakas are the best preserved, for un-like the others they were carefully and skillfully embalmed or mummified before burial. All the viscera and softer portions of the anatomy were removed, the larger muscles were dissected out through incisions in the skin, the tendons were severed at the joints, and the entire corpse was apparently immersed in some chemical—probably a saline solution—and afterwards dried and smoked before burial. Very possibly the bodies were preserved for months or even years before burial, for it would require a very long time to weave and embroider the immense burial-robes, and as none of these show any signs of use we must assume they were made solely for burial purposes. If made after a death took place it is obvious that the body must have been preserved elsewhere until the robes were completed; but of course they may have been woven years in advance and laid aside in readiness for the owner's end. Or again they may have been religious or ceremonial-robes kept in temples and intended only for burial-robes. The objection to this theory is that each mummy is surrounded with robes, ponchos, tunics, cloths and turbans all of the same colors and designs, perfectly matched and distinct from those on any other mummy. So it is clear that they must have been designed especially for each individual—a complete burial-outfit, in fact.
No words can do justice to the beauty, the colors or the quality of these textiles, with designs that, repeated over and over again and completely covering a robe eight or ten feet square, never vary by so much as a stitch or a thread in size, color or pattern. So close and even is the embroidery that only by a most painstaking examination with a lens is it possible to determine that it is embroidery and not weaving. Moreover, these people were, apparently, the only ancient Peruvians who possessed a pictured or recorded calendar. On some robes the border is composed of symbolic figures so arranged that, almost beyond question, the design served as a calendar showing days, months and the four seasons of the year.
At every turn, when studying the Parakas material, one comes face to face with insoluble mysteries. Who were these people? We know from their skeletons that they were far larger than other Peruvian races, for many of the men stood over six feet in height, while some of the women were almost as tall. Although an agricultural race, they were no mean warriors, for their stone weapons were beautifully made and trophy-heads—heads artificially preserved, and with lips and eyelids sewn together—are not uncommon.
Why, in a hot desert country, did they require heavy woolen robes that would have been ample protection is regions of perpetual snow? The first answer would be that the climate changed, that in the days when these people lived what is now a hot area was cold. But in that case why did they require fans? And how could they have cultivated the tropical and subtropical fruits and vegetables that are represented on the pottery and are preserved with the mummies? Finally, if the climate was then cold, what about the bright-plumaged birds of tropical species whose bodies and feathers were used in making the ornaments? There are many other inexplicable things about these Parakas mummies. All so far found have been those of chiefs, priests, nobles or kings and their women. Not a single one has been unwrapped that was the body of a poor person or a peasant, and not a child's body has been found. All have been adults swathed in magnificent robes, with rich ornaments and ceremonial objects. Were all the Parakans wealthy, richly-clad nobles? Was the population so enormous that hundreds of chiefs, priests and nobles were necessary? And why are there no tools, no implements that were used in weaving the countless textiles? Where is the immense quantity of plain and ceremonial pottery these people must have possessed? And where are the ruins of their homes, their palaces and their temples?
There is but one answer. That what we have so far found is merely one small group of burials devoted to the most eminent members of the community, and that somewhere, near at hand, we will yet find remains that may solve all these mystifying puzzles.