What is it about human mummies that so rivets our attention? Perhaps one archaeologist quoted in the Discovery Channel’s “Desert Mummies of Peru” sums it up best when he calls them “silent yet powerful emissaries of another age.”
The mummies in question are the remarkably well-preserved remains of the Chiribaya culture that thrived in a most unlikely setting in southern Peru from about 900 to about 1350. The Chiribaya inhabited a narrow, fertile valley along the Osmore River, the only water in an otherwise barren, tortured landscape of mesas, wadis and sand.
At first glance, the Chiribaya are not a particularly interesting people, though they do leave excellent mummies carefully buried in rectangular graves. There is no sign of their dwellings, probably constructed of reeds and mud, and no indication they ever built temples or palaces, or even forts. Only the occasional circular depression in the earth is any indication that humans were ever present in the valley.
Fortunately, the international experts interested in the Chiribaya have a better eye and see what is there to see. The Discovery cameras arrive in the valley just in time to record the uncovering and recovery of an intact burial, a mummy still tightly bundled and wrapped in a blanket accompanied by unbroken pottery vessels and even plates of food so carefully preserved that the ears of corn and potatoes are easily recognized for what they are.
These dust-covered bundles are so anonymous that the eye passes over them without pause. It is not until they have been taken to the operation’s home base that the viewer gets to see why they are so exciting.
Rinsed in distilled water, the pottery vessels shed their dirt and reveal vibrant patterns and colors that indicate a lively sense of the aesthetic. Unlike “modern” man, the so-called primitive peoples do not preserve the artistic for special times and places. Rather, they decorate everything, from their bodies to their cooking pots. The cooking pots, intended for the use of the deceased in the afterlife, are a delight to spark the acquisitive streak in any collector.
Unfortunately, some of those collectors are not too fastidious about where they obtain their treasures, and the vast graveyards of the Chiribaya are a magnet for looters. The archaeological team is in a race to recover the Chiribaya culture before grave robbers destroy the evidence in their search for treasure.
It is known, for instance, that some of the mummies were buried with gold ornaments in their mouths. The gold that has been recovered and recorded compares well with early Greek pieces. A ring with two catlike creatures — perhaps pumas — is charming. Another item, perhaps a fan or an ornament for a hat, incorporated the feathers of a tropical bird, indicating that the Chiribaya traded or traveled as far as the Amazon, miles to the north.
There is no way of knowing what other fascinating, informative items have been lost to looters. The cameras record smashed and torn mummies ripped apart in the search, but there is no way of knowing what was taken.
The archaeologists are in no hurry to unwrap the mummies. Most of those recovered are rewrapped in clean canvas and left to sit on shelves, their grave goods in cardboard boxes by their side.
But the latest mummy, followed by Discovery’s camera crew, appears to be somewhat unusual. An X-ray indicates that its body cavity was cleared of all organs and a clay pot was inserted in the chest area, indicating this was a person of some importance. So the decision is made to unwrap it.
The blanket that shrouds it is in remarkably good condition. A brushing removes its coating of sand. A spritz of water restores flexibility to its fibers, allowing careful hands to work it free of the body.
The body is revealed to be dressed in a simple tunic and tied with the knees under the chin. The arms are wrapped around the knees and, again, tied.
More care unfastens the knots and works the tunic loose. Protecting the mummy’s graying hair, the archaeologists slip the tunic free, revealing the body of a very old man. Carbon dating shows he lived about 600 years ago, toward the end of the Chiribaya culture, and his grave goods indicate he was a man of wealth and probably prominence who died somewhere in his 60s, a good age in such an inhospitable environment.
One of the most striking things about this documentary is the affection the archaeologists appear to feel toward their dead trophies. Bodies are handled with care and respect, cradled in living arms for their trip from grave to research center. Pottery and textiles are admired and, again, handled with care and respect. Empty graves are filled and smoothed. New ventures are begun with prayer and ceremony.
This is a documentary worth seeing for numerous reasons. First of all, it is truly educational, casting light on a culture so obscure even most Peruvians have never heard of it. Second, it delights the eye with its lively pottery and handsome, even spectacular textiles. Third, it shows how tough and determined the human race is, because only the tough and the determined could make a life in the midst of so much desolation.
Oh, and the archaeologists uncover a murder. But you can watch the show to learn about that.
WHAT: “Desert Mummies of Peru”
WHERE: Discovery Channel
WHEN: 9 p.m. tomorrow