February 20, 2007

Tattooed 5th century mummy

The 1,500-year-old mummy may shed new light on the mysterious Moche culture, which occupied Peru's northern coastal valleys from about A.D. 100 to 800.

In addition to the heavily tattooed body, the tomb yielded a rich array of funeral objects, from gold sewing needles and weaving tools to masterfully worked metal jewelry.

Such a complete array has never been seen before in a Moche tomb.

Surprisingly, the grave also contained numerous weapons, including two massive war clubs and 23 spear throwers.

The unusual mix of ornamental and military artifacts has experts speculating about the woman's identity and her role in Moche society.

"The war clubs are clear symbols not only of combat but of power," said John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, who is part of the research team.

Peruvian archaeologists, under the direction of lead scientist Régulo Franco, made the discovery last year at an ancient ceremonial site known as El Brujo (map showing site of mummy's discovery).

The tomb lay near the top of a crumbling pyramid called Huaca Cao Viejo, a ruin near the town of Trujillo (see Peru map) that has been well known since colonial times.

Verano said the finding is the first of its kind in Peru, and he likens it to the discovery of King Tut's tomb in Egypt.

"We have an entire repertoire of a very high status tomb, preserved perfectly," Verano said.

"It's as if she was wrapped up yesterday—no information has been lost."

The Peruvian team is funded by the Augusto N. Wiese Foundation and Peru's National Institute of Culture.

Verano's research is funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Mummy an "Astonishing" Find

Verano, who has been working with the El Brujo project since 1995, said the area is "one gigantic cemetery" that has been scoured by grave-robbers for centuries.

But the newly found funerary chamber had been sealed from both looters and the elements since around A.D. 450.

The Peruvian team found the complete burial array intact and perfectly preserved, down to the white cotton wrappings of the mummy bundle.

"It's astonishing," said Moche authority Christopher Donnan, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not part of the excavation.

"This is far and away the best preserved Moche mummy that has ever been found."

Verano arrived on the scene shortly after the discovery.

"The tomb was a rectangular chamber, sealed under many meters of adobe brick," he said.

"There was a very large cotton bundle with a large embroidered face, a cane mat on top, and a pillow underneath, and a skeleton lying beside it that was a sacrifice made to accompany her to the afterlife.

"I took the sacrifice out [of the tomb]. The excavation team built a very large frame and lifted the mummy out by hand and carried it down the hill to the laboratory."

(See video of the tomb and of the mummy being removed. Requires Windows Media Player.)

The size of the mummy alone told investigators it was a member of the Moche elite.

But the full richness of the tomb's contents did not become apparent until the bundle was unwrapped, a process that took months.

"Every layer, every twist of cloth was recorded," Verano said.

"It was hundreds of yards of cotton in thin strips, and there were hundreds of objects inside the bundle."

(See video of the war clubs being removed from the mummy bundle. Requires Windows Media Player.)

Donnan praised the meticulous care taken by the archaeologists.

"The team that unwrapped this was absolutely first rate," he said.

Jewelery and Weapons

Moche culture is known for its sophisticated art and metallurgy.

The El Brujo mummy was accompanied by numerous necklaces, nose ornaments, and earrings finely wrought in gold, gilded copper, and silver.

The wooden weapons were sheathed in gold, with finely carved designs and bird or human heads.

"These are among the largest and most beautiful war clubs and most elaborate spear throwers we've ever seen," Donnan said.

When the investigators pulled back the last layers of wrapping, a final surprise awaited.

The woman, thought to have been in her late 20s when she died, had long braided hair and a series of intricate tattoos covering much of her arms, legs, and feet.

(See a video close-up of the mummy's tattoos. Requires Windows Media Player.)

Verano said the tattoos were probably done using charcoal pigment inserted beneath the skin with a needle or cactus spine. The tattoos included both geometric designs and images of spiders and mythical animals.

"Who would have thought the Moche were tattooing this extensively?" Donnan said.

"I'm looking forward to sitting down with the evidence and comparing the tattoo patterns with what we see in Moche art."

Mummy a Mystery

But the big question remains: Who was she?

Answering that question will help experts better understand the political and religious structure of Moche society, particularly the role of women.

Donnan said recent discoveries of two tombs, apparently of high-level priestesses, have shown that "some women were extremely high status and major figures in the Moche state religion."

But the El Brujo tomb is very different, richer in gold ornaments and symbols of power, suggesting a different type of authority.

"In my opinion this woman from El Brujo is even higher status," Donnan said.

"But we don't know what role she played or why she was buried with war clubs."

Verano added, "She's an unknown character at the moment, with no clear parallel in Moche art."

He finds the large number of spear throwers found in the tomb particularly intriguing.

"They are all very similar, as if they might have come from a single workshop," he said. "Maybe they were carried by her entourage at the time of her death."

Source: National Geographic
Photographs by Ira Block/National Geographic Society

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