I have been forcibly struck in my research this week by all the beautiful and mysterious things that we normally never see at most archaeological sites. The rain that sheets down on sites, the meltwater that trickles and snakes in rivulets along the surface, the groundwater that seeps and flows through buried subterranean layers all take a terrible toll on the world’s terrestrial archaeological sites, often stripping them of their greatest treasures.
The chemistry of decay, after all, depends on water. The destructive enzymes of bacteria in terrestrial sites require water for their chemical reactions, and over hundreds and thousands of years of downpour and dampness, fine organic materials tend to rot away, leaving no trace at all of their existence. In this way we have forever lost some of the most exquisite works of art and artisanship of the ancient world, from cloaks of brilliant parrot feathers to carved and painted royal thrones. (Nautical sites and bog sites, I hasten to add, are subject to a different kind of chemistry.)
All this explains, of course, why archaeologists love excavating in the desert, and why we often know so much about cultures such as the ancient Egyptians or the Nazca who buried their dead in these dessicated lands. In ultra arid places, organic materials decay at a much, much slower rate, and archaeologists can see wondrous organic things they are otherwise denied: beautifully dyed and woven textiles, fine wooden combs, and delicate sandals, familiar objects of beauty that bring ancient people to life.
But in some rare parts of the globe, such as the Peruvian cloudforest on the eastern slopes of the Andes, archaeologists occasionally make discoveries that literally rock their worlds. In 1997, Peruvian bioanthropologist and mummy expert Sonia Guillen and her colleague Adriana von Hagen heard news that looters had found dozens of exquisitely preserved mummies in cliffside tombs at a place known as Laguna de los Condores, northeast of Cajamarca. Guillen, now the director of Centro Mallqui in Lima, and von Hagen immediately dropped what they were doing, made an extremely difficult journey to the region, ultimately rescued 219 mummies and over 2000 artifacts, and built a new museum for them in Leymebamba.
The mummies all date to between 1300 and 1600, and they were deliberately mummified by the then inhabitants of that remote cloudforest region–the Chachapoya and their Inca occupiers. The mummifiers removed the bacteria-laden inner organs of the dead, wrapped them in cloth to wick away moisture, and placed them in dry cliffside tombs. In this way, they preserved these bodies for more than half a millennia.
Sonia Guillen recently described to me one of these mummies with an unmistakeable note of awe in her voice. The body was of a young man who had died between the ages of 18 and 22. He was buried alone, but wrapped around his body were the intricate tools of his trade: 16 finely woven collapsible nets, all suitable for trapping the brilliantly-colored fowl of the cloudforest. “I think you would have say that we have a bird-catcher,” Guillen told me.
The Inca kings and their courtiers loved to dress in beautiful mantles woven from exotic birdfeathers of the cloudforest and Amazon basin. But until Guillen and von Hagen found the young man’s mummy, we had never before seen a bird-catcher of this era or the finely woven tools of his trade.
Readers interested in learning more about the amazing finds from Lagunade los Condores should check out a beautiful book with a deceptively dull title: Chachapoya Textiles: The Laguna de los Condores Textiles in the Museo Leymebamba, Chachapoyas Peru, edited by Lena Bjerregaard.