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!

 

Learn Hieroglyphics When You Become a Volunteer Docent at HMNS!

by Gillian Callan

Egyptian hieroglyphs. Once thought to be magic writings that contained the secrets to life, they were deciphered by Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion in the early 1800’s. What mysteries did they contain? For the majority of the visitors to the Hall of Ancient Egypt, the glyphs are still a mystery – a bunch of squiggles with pictures of animals interspersed. But for the HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group, they are a chance to learn and practice the language of ancient Egypt.

hieroglyphs at the louvre

Egypt fascinated me from early childhood, but I thought I would never get to study or visit Egypt (I did visit nine years ago, and it was fantastic!). So I thought about what I could learn about Egypt without a degree or a plane ticket. I decided that I would learn hieroglyphs. Mark Collier and Bill Manley wrote a book called How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs. From them, I learned the basics. Then about four years ago, I met a fellow HMNS volunteer who was also interested in hieroglyphs. Another year passed and another volunteer joined HMNS and mentioned that he was also interested in hieroglyphs and asked if we could start a study group. And that’s how we got started.

In order to make our study time worthwhile to the museum, we tasked ourselves with translating as many of the inscriptions in the Egypt hall as we could. To date, we have completed seven of the longer inscriptions and started on several more. The inscriptions fall into two categories: formulaic writings and hymns. The formulaic writings are offerings to the gods. While they follow a set format, we usually find something different in each of them. The hymns are much more difficult. Poetry in any language is harder to interpret than prose, and Egyptian hymns are no different. It also helps if you understand something of the culture of ancient Egypt.

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Hieroglyphs on the coffin of Ankh-Hap. His name appears in the lower left-hand corner of this photo.

While our translations have not been published to the volunteer website, we did create a flip book with useful translations from objects in the hall. In the flip book, we included a translation of Ankh-Hap’s name on his coffin. Ankh-Hap is the mummy owned by HMNS. We found the name of Gemshuankh (aka the Jolly Green Giant) on his coffin, but then he got renamed to Ankhemma’at, so we revised his translation. We located Ptolemy’s cartouche on the replica Rosetta Stone. (We even located it in Demotic and Greek!) By the way, all the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone belong to Ptolemy V, Epiphanes – no Cleopatra, no wives’ names, just Ptolemy. The idea behind the flip book is that someone working or giving a tour in the hall can take the flip book out of the touchcart (there is one book in each cart) and take it to an object in the hall and show visitors appropriate glyphs and what they mean. One of my favorites is to show the bird in Bakenrenes’ name, followed by the rest of her name. It is repeated several times on the cartonnage coffin and visitors get a kick out of being able to recognize the glyphs.

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The coffin of Bakenrenes. Hieroglyphs appear in the yellow bands across the coffin.

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A close-up of the bottom band.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are not a phonetic script, nor are they picture writing. They are a complex combination of phonetics, picture writing and “syllables”. They can be written left to right, right to left and in columns that also have either a left/right or right/left orientation. The favored direction was right to left. But on coffins, the glyphs were written from head to foot. Writers of hieroglyphs also, on occasion, used shortcuts. They fitted the message into the space available and left out what they could, making it difficult at times to read the message correctly. Kind of like today’s usage of text shortcuts like LOL (laugh out loud) or BTW (by the way).

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The HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group meets every Sunday in the Volunteer Library around noon. Our current members are Gillian Callen, John Cochran, David Santana and Scott Brown, all HMNS volunteers. I also teach basic hieroglyphs to willing volunteers. Last summer I taught a three-day session on glyphs including grammar and sentence structure. While I am self-taught and by no means an expert, I can introduce you to the basics and give you a feel for the ancient Egyptian language. These classes are only open to HMNS volunteers and staff. So, if you are interested, find out about becoming a volunteer and then you can sign up for a class. Then when you walk through the Hall of Ancient Egypt, those squiggles will jump out at you and make at least a little bit of sense. Happy translating!

Editor’s Note: Gillian is an HMNS volunteer docent.

Last Chance to See Ramesses II and Horemheb! Australian Artifacts Move Home Next Week

by Tom Hardwick and Dirk van Tuerenhout

When the Houston Museum of Natural Science planned our Hall of Ancient Egypt, filling its 11,000 square feet with artifacts was not an easy job. Our own collection of Egyptian material is rather small, and that made looking for long-term loans from other museums a logical — and necessary — choice. We reached out to museums across the world to borrow material to display in Houston.

It was sometimes a bit of a long shot since while asking for a short-term loan (typically three to six months) is standard, asking for a long term loan of several years is a different undertaking altogether.

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Ramesses II

We are extremely grateful that so many museums agreed to lend us some of their wonderful Egyptian objects. As the day of the opening approached, artifacts from museums in North America and Europe started to arrive in Houston. Some came from as far away as Australia. Yes, Australia!

In 2013, two star pieces — a giant granodiorite head of king Ramesses II (between 1280 to 1210 BC) and a bust of a non-royal man from a little earlier — traveled from the Nicholson Museum in Sidney halfway across the world to Houston. Affiliated with the University of Sidney, the Nicholson Museum is Australia’s oldest university museum and home to the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere.

A well known pharaonic face at the end of the columned corridor beckons the visitor

A well known pharaonic face at the end of the columned corridor beckons the visitor.

Ramesses II’s bust, representing one of Egypt best known pharaohs, took up a strategic location in our exhibit. Positioned at the end of a long line of sight, this royal image drew visitors deeper into the exhibit. It symbolized the double role played by Egyptian kings: that of worldly leader as well as representative of Egyptian gods on Earth. Ramesses was not just the king who worshipped the gods; he was also a god himself. For the many people who were denied access to the interiors of temples, colossal statues like the one our head came from (he must have been a good 20 feet when complete) were the only images of the king or the gods they could interact with. No surprise that some colossi were also worshipped as gods in their own right.

The bust of a private man, whom many believe to be Horemheb, the general who took the throne after Tutankhamun’s death, was tucked away in our display of burial in the New Kingdom, where visitors could have a more intimate encounter with him.

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Bust believed to be Horemheb.

All good things come to an end, however, and the Nicholson’s objects will be leaving us next week to go home. Following established museum procedures, a courier from the Nicholson will come to supervise their removal from their cases, will check their condition, and will see them safely crated up for their long journey home.

We’ll be sorry to see them go, but there’s one bonus — for me, at least. During the de-installation, I will get to look at them out of their cases, and in different lights. For Horemheb, this will just be pure pleasure: it’s one of the finest pieces of carving from the period.

For Ramesses, however, I have a mission. Arielle Kozloff, former Curator of Ancient Art at Cleveland, told me that she thought Ramesses’s face might have been re-worked, either before or after his reign. Ramesses was a prolific builder, and often economized by recycling statues of earlier kings. Sometimes Ramesses just put his cartouches (the king’s name, written in an oval ring) over the previous king’s; sometimes he went to the trouble of re-carving the previous owner’s face to harmonise with his own. In cases like these, sweeping a torch over the surface, and (gently) running your hands over the surface, can make you aware of different textures, possibly indicating different tools and different phases of working, that normally escape your notice. I’m not convinced that this is one of Ramesses’s retreads, but this is the perfect opportunity to test Arielle’s theory.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, curators abhor empty cases: I’ll introduce you later to the objects that have replaced Ramesses and Horemheb. Before they go, though, you have the rest of this week to admire them at HMNS.

Discover new secrets of ancient Egypt with guest lecturers

This week, more than 400 folks interested in all things ancient Egyptian are making their way to Houston for the 66th Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt. Running from April 24 to 26, this is the first year the conference is being held in Houston, and perhaps it has something to do with the beautiful new Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS is excited to host a public three-part lecture featuring leading Egyptologists Dr. Salima Ikram, Dr. Josef Wegner, and Dr. Kara Cooney, who are in town for the ARCE conference. At the museum, each expert will give an update on his or her latest research project.-o6cwMJsxKVXL0Xx6UZa2Dl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9

You don’t have to be an academic to attend the lecture, or to register for the meeting. ARCE welcomes all fans of ancient Egypt, novice to authority. The lecture will be held Wednesday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 to the public and $12 for HMNS members.

Online registration for the ARCE meeting is now closed, but on-site registration at the DoubleTree Hilton Downtown Hotel will remain open from April 24 through the end of the conference.

Read on for more details about HMNS’s guest Egyptologists.

 

Divine Creatures, Animal Mummies Providing Clues to Culture, Economy and Science f3638a_3053bb27e037f77cbc56ea0f4b110a8c.jpeg_srz_305_260_85_22_0.50_1.20_0
by Salima Ikram, Ph.D., American University in Cairo

Animal mummies were amongst the least studied of Egypt’s treasures. Now scholars are using them to learn about ancient Egyptian religion, economy, veterinary science and environmental change. The world’s leading expert on animal mummies and founder of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Dr. Salima Ikram, will present the different kinds of animal mummies and explain what we can learn from them.

 

 

 

Secrets of the Mountain-of-Anubis, A Royal Necropolis Joe_Egypt
by Josef Wegner, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The ongoing Penn Museum excavations has recently identified a royal necropolis at Abydos. A series of royal tombs located beneath a sacred desert peak, the Mountain-of-Anubis, belong to over a dozen pharaohs include Senwosret III and the recently identified king Senebkay. Dr. Josef Wegner will review the latest findings from the necropolis that spans Egypt’s late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1850-1550 BCE).

 

 

 

21st Dynasty Coffins Project, Recycled Coffins Offer the Socioeconomic InsightKara_Cooney_examines_Egyptian_coffin_
by Kathlyn (Kara) Cooney, Ph.D., UCLA

Dr. Kara Cooney will give an overview of the 21st Dynasty Coffins Project which studies the amount of “borrowing,” or reuse, a given coffin displays during this period of turmoil and material scarcity and seeks to contribute to the understanding of socioeconomics in ancient Egypt. Equipped with high definition cameras and working in cooperation with museums and institutions in Europe and the United States, Cooney takes her research team to investigate, document and study coffin reuse in the Third Intermediate Period. The data acquired will be compiled into a comprehensive database available to Egyptologists everywhere.