Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Peru: the Dead

[Human corpse picture warning. Possibly a bit late.]

One of the really fascinating things about visiting Peru, as far as I'm concerned, is that it has the world's longest tradition of deliberate mummification. They're all over the place.

Peruvian cultures had a tendency to mummification because of the climate. They have miles of hot dry desert and miles of cold dry mountain-tops, both of which will naturally desiccate a body. Unlike among the ancient Egyptians, the corpse was generally not disembowelled but remained intact. They were almost always set in a foetal postion too, as that represents a return to the womb of life.

This is the cemetery of Chauchilla (AD 1000-1400). Most of the grave pits were robbed out this century for their gold and textiles. The remaining bodies have been reassembled by archaeologists, put back in the tombs and left visible but under shelter. Each mummy-bundle consists of a crouched, wrapped, body with an exposed head.

During Inca times, mummies of kings and ancestors were kept in the palaces and temples in special niches. They were dressed, "fed," taken out for a look round at festivals, "consulted" on important matters, and generally treated as revered relatives who still had a lot to contibute to the family. Like OAPs, just quieter.

This is a local guide with an Incan mummy-niche, probably used in the preparation stage - it is noticably colder inside than the surrounding area.

Sadly the Spanish invaders burned most of these Incan mummies as they found the practice offensive. (Which, given the Catholic habit of keeping dead saints on display in churches, is just a tad hypocritical.)

Which means that most of the extant mummies in Peru are pre-Incan, from the Nazca Culture (AD 100-800) for example.

This skull is an example of cranial deformation caused by binding the head from a very young age. (Pictures like this are occasionally hocked around the internet as "alien skulls" but that's rubbish). It was done to mark ethnic identity and social caste. Rather surprisingly, there's no evidence it caused brain damage. Nowadays, tribes that used to bind skulls just use distinctive hats.

Cool wig.

We also saw the very famous Juanita the Ice-Maiden in a museum in Arequipa. She's not actually a true mummy, just deep-frozen. Great museum, but no photography allowed there.


Jo said...

Cool photos. That elongated skull is ... confrontational.

I like the hat idea better.

You should come to Dublin, Janine, and see the bog bodies in the National Museum, if you haven't already.

Janine Ashbless said...

I've been to Dublin on a daytrip, Jo ... I don't actually remember the bog bodies, just incredible amounts of Celtic gold. Astonishing, beautiful stuff. And then you get to the Viking era (which we were supposed to be so proud of, because I was working at a Viking museum at the time) and it's all like "Ooh - a silver pin! A horn comb!" I totally get the idea of a glorious golden age of semi-divine heroes, after seeing that contrast.

Craig Sorensen said...

Fascinating stuff. It's interesting that they left the bodies intact for the mummification.

But I must say that I find your observation that the Catholics might be the tiniest bit hypocritical to be a surprise...

Anyway, the bound cranium skull is especially interesting. I'm envisioning the face in living form; he would have to have been quite a sight.

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes, it'd be a bit of a shocker. There doesn't seem to be any limit to what humans will do to themselves (or their children) for the sake of fashion.