The Mysterious Mummies of Chile

In preparation for the opening of “Mummies of the World” at the end of this month (Member preview: Friday, 9/23, public opening at Noon on Saturday, 9/24) we will be posting a series of blogs exploring the science of mummification. Today, the subject will be Chinchorro mummies.

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Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinchorro_mummy,_south_coast_of_Peru_or_north_coast_of_Chile,_5000-2000_BC_-_San_Diego_Museum_of_Man_-_DSC06921.JPG

Most people associate mummies with ancient Egypt, but the Egyptians were not the first, nor the most successful artists in that craft. Both of those titles belong to South America. Some of the oldest artificially preserved mummies ever found were made by artisans of the Chinchorro culture in what is now Chile. The Chinchorro culture began mummifying their dead more than 7,000 years ago, 2,000 years before the Egyptians adopted the process.

Although the best preserved mummies produced in South America date to long after the Chinchorro disappeared, more in the range of a thousand years ago, the Chinchorro mummies are still quite complex. There are generally considered to be 3 phases of Chinchorro mummification method:

-black
-red
-mud coated

(Sometimes different phrasing is used, or the periods in which elaborate preservation methods are not used are added)

The earliest method of artificial mummification practiced by the Chinchorro, the black method, is quite interesting. The body of the deceased would be skinned, then the bones cleaned. Once those bones were nice and clean-ish, they would be tied back together with cordage, usually made of plant fiber. The jaw would be lashed to the skull, the joints would be tied together and reinforced with sticks to form kind of a skeletal armature. After that, the skin would go back over the body.

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Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ChinchorroMummiesSanMiguelDeAzapa.jpg

Unfortunately, the skin of Chinchorro mummies was preserved in a rather rudimentary way: by drying, sometimes over hot coals or ash. A side effect of this drying process is shrinkage. In fact, this same method was often used to preserve the famous shrunken heads produced by certain Amazonian cultures. In the Amazon, the shrinkage made for a nice, portable trophy/spiritual symbol, but for the Chinchorro it just made things more complicated. In order to fit back over the body, the skin of some Chinchorro mummies was patched up with the skin of animals like seals and pelicans. The resulting bag of bones would then be stuffed with plant material to look more plump and lively.

Next comes the head. The head would often be cut from the body before the skinning process began, possibly in order to clean the brain out. It was desirable that the ancestors have faces in the afterlife, but a face can be a hard thing to preserve, so a new one would often be shaped out of a grey paste made from ash and some kind of binder, like eggs, or animal blood. These faces are kind of the trade mark of the Chinchorro mummies. They are pretty creepy: they have little, round eyes and a gaping mouth. Some say they look very surprised, or perhaps terrified. I think they look rather childish and innocent. They remind me of the crude figures produced by pre-schoolers I used to present to.

And in a way, they do represent a sort of innocence. The Chinchorro people were hunter-gatherers, who had no social stratification. The mummies belonging to this culture that have been discovered show no signs of social differentiation, they all have the same delicate mother of pearl fish hooks, the same basketry buried with them. Some studies have found that men are more commonly found to be buried with hunting tools, like atlatls, while women are more commonly buried with fishing tools, but this is simply a division of labor based on sex, one job does not seem to hold higher esteem than the other.

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Bodies in the sand found at Arica, a major Chinchorro site. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia comons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chinchorro_mummy_bodies_Arica.jpg

So in a way you could say that these burials: not beautiful, but executed with a level of difficulty to suggest great love and devotion, do represent a very different, if not innocent, motive for mummification. The Egyptians and the Inca used their most elaborate processes of mummification to preserve their elite, while commoners just did the best they could. Some suggest that this unique, egalitarian practice of mummification in Chile was the result of frequent climate change. In wetter periods, populations of fishing villages would boom, and their toolkits would be refined by the innovation associated with these boom periods. Thanks to the changing climate, villagers would uncover the naturally mummified corpses of their predecessors in the desert, exposed after storms or by the wind, and would assume that this process of preservation is necessary for one to enter the next life. Over time, artificial mummification would become popular, as people sought to ensure that they were preserved for the next world.

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Photo courtesy of Desert Exploring

It is likely this boom and bust pattern that allowed complex ritual behavior to evolve in a society that was less politically complex than Ancient Egypt, or the Inca Empire. The Egyptian mummification processes, for example,  evolved as their political system, with its organization and improved infrastructure, also evolved. Essentially, as their population grew over time, their political and social systems were refined and developed.  The Chinchorro were developing their elaborate burial practices without having to also increase their political complexity. Population growth occurred as a result of the environment changing favorably. In their generous environment, there was no pressure to make up complex, hierarchical, political systems in order to survive.

This is the theory that some archaeologist propose, however the Chinchorro people still hold on to some of their mysteries, and researchers are looking forward to discovering more details as the mummies are studied.

If this article has wet your apatite for more mummy knowledge, check out www.mummies of the world.com for information on our upcoming exhibit!

 

Educator How-to: Learn to Draw a Celtic Triquetra

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we know that people are as much a part of natural science as rocks and dinosaurs. That’s why we love social studies and maintain exhibits like the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas and the Hall of Ancient Egypt. We find the development of societies fascinating!

The historical Celts, a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age Europe, ranged over a large swath of land reaching as far west as Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, east to central Anatolia, and north to Scotland. The Celts used a three-cornered symbol, known as the triquetra, to adorn everyday items and important ritual objects. Similar tri-cornered symbols are seen in the artwork of many ancient civilizations. It is speculated that the symbol illustrates the uniting of the past, present, and future or birth, life, death. As Christianity spread through Europe, the triquetra was used to help new converts to understand the concept of the Trinity.

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It is really simple to draw this ancient knot-work symbol. All you need is paper, a compass, an eraser, and some markers.

First, using a compass, draw a circle of at least 3 inches in diameter in the middle of your paper. Make sure to leave room around the circle, as the resulting knot will be slightly larger than the initial circle. Make sure that you do not adjust the compass after the circle is drawn.

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Next, use a pencil to make a point on the circle at the twelve o’clock position. Then, place the point of the compass on this point and use it to make marks where it crosses the circle on each side.   

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Now, place the point of the compass on one of the marks made in the previous step. It doesn’t matter which one. Then, draw a semi-circle within the initial circle. It should start at the twelve o’clock point and end in the lower quarter of the circle. The arc does not need to be continued outside of the circle. Make another arc, identical to the first one. The two arcs should cross at the center point of the circle. If they don’t, check to make sure that the compass setting has not been changed.

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Then, placing the compass point on the lower tailing end of one of the arcs, mark off another tic on the bottom of the circle.celtic5

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Now place the point of the compass on the bottom mark and draw an additional arc from side to side within the circle.

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You will now need to enlarge the diameter of the compass a bit. Place the compass point back onto the marks made in the upper half of the circle. From each point, draw another arc within the circle, and extending a little beyond its border. It is important to make sure the arcs are extend a bit outside of the circle so they’ll meet up when the arcs are all drawn.

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Pick a point where one of the knot strips intersects another, and make it pass over the other, erasing the lines from the underside from within the “over” strip. The next pass for the knot strip, following the same strand, will be to go under the next intersection, so erase appropriately. At this point ,you may erase the initial circle and the arc marks.

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Now your trisquetra is complete! Color it in! See designs like this and others this summer in the Medieval Madness Xplorations Summer Camp.

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No Bones About It: Forensic Workshop Provides Evidence for an Awesome New CSI Summer Camp

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we understand the value of education, as it is an integral part of our overall mission. The value placed on education extends to museum employees as well. Whether through offering CPR training to employees or encouraging participation in continuing education in disciplines in which they are already trained, there is always opportunity for growth. I benefited from this forward-thinking mindset in April. Let me tell you a little bit about this amazing opportunity.

I participated in the Forensic Anthropology and Skeletal Recovery workshop presented by the Forensic Science Center. This 40-hour experience was spent learning to identify bones as human or animal, creating biological profiles using skeletal remains, and recovering buried remains along with associated evidence. In addition to furthering my education, I was able to meet some interesting people, like my new friend pictured here.

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Forensic anthropology is the application of anthropology to criminal investigations. The forensic anthropologist is often called in to help in the recovery of skeletal remains and to create biological profiles using bones to help identify an unknown individual. Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.

First thing’s first — if what looks like a bone is found, whether it could be something else must be determined. There are a surprising number of things that look like bone. Even anthropologists can be fooled from a distance. Below is a picture taken on my trip to Saudi Arabia; the item is about the size of a half dollar.  At first glance, I thought it was bone, but on closer inspection, I decided it was not. It is most likely a piece of coral, fashioned into a circular shape many years ago, by human hands. So, not bone . . . still cool. I can live with that.

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The fact that it was found next to the piece below, which is absolutely bone, made it much more likely to assume the above piece was bone as well.

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Once you determine the specimen is a real bone, you need to find out if it is human or from some other type of animal. This is harder than you might think. All mammals have the same skeletal template. This means all mammals have all of the same bones, in approximately the same places. However, the morphology of the bone, which is its shape, and how the bones relate to each another, differs between humans and other animals. Bone is classified as human or not by considering its size, shape, and structure. 

We examined two tables filled with all kinds of bones, both human and other. What an amazing experience! You can read about identifying human bone, but you really don’t get a feel for the process until you’ve had the opportunity to touch them and hold them in your hands. Check out one of the tables, filled with long bones.

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Ok, great, let’s assume the bone we’ve been talking about is real and it’s human. Now what? Well, we need to establish what elements of the skeleton are present and how many individuals are associated with the burial. This is done by laying the bones out in the order you would find them in a living person. This is called the anatomical position. When done, you will know what parts are missing and it also allows the opportunity to scan each bone for trauma.

Turns out that laying out a skeleton isn’t too hard, until you get to the ribs (and hands and feet, but we weren’t required to do that). My partner and I get points for being clever. We discovered a number on the side of each rib. This made things go much faster! What can I say? I’m competitive. Given time, we would have gotten it right without the help of numbers; I say work smarter, not harder.

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The next question — are the remains modern or ancient? Police will not be interested in an ancient Native American burial, but they will be interested in any human remains less than 50 years old. Whether bones are ancient or modern can often be determined by associated artifacts. Cell phone? Most likely modern. Pottery shards? A good bet it’s ancient.

The next order of business is to identify the person to whom the skeleton belongs. This is done by creating a biological profile, which includes the estimated age, sex, ancestry, and stature of the individual. Knowing this information helps investigators narrow the amount of potential candidates from the missing persons database. When possible matches are found, dental X-rays or unique identifiers such as healed fractures or bone abnormalities are used to make a positive identification.

Next, we reviewed how to determine probably ancestry and sex using the skull, and then worked with a variety of specimens of varying ancestry, both males and females. This particular skull was a real challenge.

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Some were a little easier.

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And some skulls were as interesting as they were simple to identify. Check out this awesome specimen. It was modified into a teaching aide. Sections of bone were removed and then replaced with hinges so they could open to reveal substructures and close to observe surface structures. Notice where a portion of the jaw was removed to illustrate the root structure of the teeth. Absolutely fascinating!

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Later we took a field trip to the crime scene house where they train law enforcement personnel. So cool! We worked on surface recovery of skeletal remains in the yard surrounding the house. This included gridding out the entire crime scene into one-meter squares using stakes and string. Then we got busy documenting the scene using photography and sketches.

After the initial preparations, we cleared the entire area of grass and debris. This was quite an undertaking, but I did discover three .22 shell casings because of our careful work. Our skeleton was rocking some awesome boots, as you can see below.

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The last two days we spent on the recovery of skeletal remains from a clandestine burial. This is hard work! The first step was to find the grave using a probe to penetrate the ground looking for disturbed soil. Disturbed soil is more loosely packed than undisturbed soil, making the probe slide easily into the ground. Once located, we gridded out our work space, removed grass and debris, and collected surface evidence. Pink flags indicate the likely outer limits of the burial site.

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It was then time to move a ton of dirt, a little at a time. All dirt was sifted, after removal, to collect evidence that may have been missed during excavation. Precise measurements were taken for anything found associated with the burial. It could be tedious at times, but it really got exciting when things started to turn up! We found our skeleton about four feet down. That’s a lot of digging when using a hand trowel, a paint brush, and bamboo skewers!

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I’m excited to put my new training to work as I prepare brand new forensic science Labs-on-Demand classes and a brand new CSI camp experience for Xplorations Summer Camp 2017. It will be amazing for students to be able to interact with real bones and engage in the kinds of processes used by practicing forensic anthropologists!

Where Fact and Fiction Meet: LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Cabinet of Curiosities

I have two lives. At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I’m a science blogger, but in my art life, I’m an aspiring novelist. Occasionally, I have the privilege of embarking on a literary pilgrimage to a city I’ve never been to, in the most recent case, Los Angeles, where I attended the AWP writer’s conference and met up with other writing friends from all over the U.S. I never expected my divergent lives of fact and fiction would meet, but in LA, they certainly did. Imagine a place chock-full of mind-blowing artifacts, not unlike HMNS, except as you move through the exhibits, you’re unsure of what’s real and what’s fake. That place is The Museum of Jurassic Technology.

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Four of my friends, all writers, lined up for a Wes Anderson-style photo outside The Museum of Jurassic Technology in downtown Los Angeles. I’m behind the camera. The museum prohibits cell phones and photographs inside. From left, H. Tucker Rosebrock, Stephanie Rizzo, Breana Steele and Ben Hahn.

From the title alone, you know something’s a little off about this place, tucked into a re-purposed building along Venice Boulevard in the Palms District (aka Culver City). The museum’s double-edged mission is straightforward — it is, by its own definition, “an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic.” Okay, but the Jurassic was an age of toothy theropods and bus-sized reptiles, of Allosaurus pitted against Stegosaurus, so what possible technology are we talking about — time travel?

But even the idea of jumping back to a different era doesn’t do the collection justice. This place is a collection of artifacts straight out of folklore, there before your very eyes: a display of a hairy horn collected from a human woman, an exhibit about bats that emit X-rays and fly through walls, and a history of trailer homes in which the dioramas match nothing in recent memory. This isn’t a journey back in time; it’s a trip to a parallel universe.

As you walk through the spaces and corridors, dimly lit like HMNS, and read about the artifacts on their text-heavy plaques, you begin to believe and doubt all at once. The language is scientific, dry and authoritative, but some of the texts and displays are far too outlandish to be of this reality. Yet seeing is believing, and many objects are in fact authentic. Take for example, the taxidermied bust of an American grey fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), built into a display that includes a recording of its “voice.” It’s obvious when you hear the accompanying track that it’s simply a recording of a man barking and snarling in falsetto, and the exhibit hints at this unreality. When viewed at the right angle, a tiny three-dimensional hologram of a person, the kind you’ll find in the Wiess Energy Hall displays, appears “inside” the fox’s head. The fox is real, as is its taxonomy, but everything about its voice is faked!

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This monograph on the MJT by Lawrence Weschler provides a look inside the mind of David Wilson, the MacArthur fellow who invented the museum.

As you continue moving through the museum, you notice snippets of reality, but the inventions begin to wear on you, as well. You’ll read something you can recall from a historical text you read at the library or that article you pulled up on the internet the other day, and recognize it as information, but as the explanation continues, you reach a point where the reality you knew doesn’t exist anymore, and you are beset with an assured feeling that, “Wait… This can’t be right.”

The accomplishment of this museum, the brainchild of MacArthur fellow David Hildebrand Wilson, is to offer an experience that examines the way museums work in the mind. The language on display cases, that authoritative tone coupled with heaps of factoids, seduces the viewer to trust what is written. Vetted institutions like HMNS have earned the trust of our guests by working with scientists who provide verifiable data to back up our information, but it wasn’t always so. At its most basic, any museum is a carefully-designed walk through a maze of scientific facts, a sort of science journal using objects. In many respects, touring the HMNS is the same as reading a book on natural science, but here you see the science with your own eyes. You come in a student and leave enlightened, as long as you trust what you see, hear and read.

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The catalogue published by the MJTs Board of Trustees by a fictional press, “The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information.”

From this perspective, the MJT is roughly the same as reading a book of a slightly different history from our own, an unconventional novel of objects that exists in the minds of the artists involved and the guests who experience the museum. You go in expecting to learn something new, and you do, but not about science. Instead, you learn about storytelling, the absorption of information and the power of the human imagination. You learn how much you trust what you read in a museum, and why shouldn’t you? Modern museums work to maintain a paragon of proven science. Yet it’s a haunting feeling to be “led always from familiar objects toward the unfamiliar; guided along, as it were, a chain of flowers into the mysteries of life,” one of the pet quotes of the MJT. Like reading a novel, you begin with a kernel of truth, but that truth is quickly muddied with layer upon layer of invention.

Excited to learn as much as I could about this strange place, I made contact with Wilson himself, who agreed to an interview to unpack the theories that make his museum possible. Inspired by the ethos of the German documentarian Werner Herzog, whose prolific filmmaking career began in the 1960s, Wilson built the MJT with a similar affect in mind, something Herzog calls “the ecstatic truth.”

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Publicity photo of David H. Wilson, founder of the MJT.

“There is a truth that exists that is beyond a three-dimensional truth, a more complex truth that is verifiability,” Wilson said. ” … Ecstatic truth is the truth of the imagination. Making too hard a distinction between that kind of truth and what oftentimes passes for truth is maybe not the most productive effort for the (human) species. The merging of these things is enormously valuable.”

Wilson’s collaborators, the employees of the museum who contribute their own work to the collection (and incidentally don’t consider themselves artists), are disinterested in making the distinction between what is “true” and what is “false.” Instead, they are “drawn to kinds of knowledge that are essentially on the periphery of believability,” he said.

“The verifiability of the material presented in the exhibits, while it’s a perfectly legitimate approach (to understanding the work), is something that we at the museum literally never talk about,” Wilson said.

When the audience begins to loosen its grip on the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction, true imagination can take place, which is different for every individual. There’s an understanding reached that loosely involves history, but emphasizes creating an unsettling feeling of the kind of wonder you had back when you were a child.

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Quote pulled from the MJT collection catalogue.

“The thing we find is that we’re only doing the first part of the work, and the observer, the patron of the museum, is really doing an enormous amount of work. They take things that we put into the world, and in their minds essentially ‘create’ them,” Wilson said. “Like a Rorschach test, almost all the work we do, not by intention or design, seems open to multiple interpretations or ways of approaching it.”

The museum owes its look and feel to the era of the cabinet of curiosities, a cultural phenomenon with origins in the Renaissance that developed into the modern museum. Instead of art or books, collectors would assemble a host of objects that bore scientific or historical merit, and share with guests their discoveries, some of which were faked. One can imagine a layer of doubt blanketing the crowd, depending on how involved the explanation of the object and how far from the truth the curator wandered.

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A replica narwhal tusk was the inspiration of some silliness for me as HMNS Marketing toured the cabinet collection last month.

At HMNS, we’re opening our own Cabinet of Curiosities Friday, April 29 in an homage to this era. Guests will be allowed to touch and manipulate the objects featured in the collection to learn both about natural science and the origins of the contemporary museum, and to feel the surge of inspiration and wonder the experience offers.

Next time you wander the halls of HMNS, and when you visit the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit, remember there was once a time when dubious information was readily accepted — a magical epoch in which the human imagination was the sole tool in understanding our world and place in the universe. Then ask yourself the question, is that time now?