Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
This work contains the thorough analysis of forty-one of the best-preserved textiles from the mummy find at Laguna de los Condores (1997). The textiles are now all in the Leymebamba Museum, either in storage or on exhibition. The textiles were partly found loose in the chullpas, partly as part of a mummy - either as inner or outer wrapping or for instance tucked under the chin of the deceased to keep the head in place.
All the textiles analyzed were in surprisingly good condition - after about 500 years in the rainforest all "normal" organic material would have been consumed by fungi and bacteria. What are the "unnormal" conditions permitting these mummies and textiles to survive for so long? Were the burial conditions very dry and stable, or were the mummies treated with some poison that kept fungi and animals away?
The chullpas are built high up on a cliff wall and were in former times concealed behind a waterfall. Some time back an earthquake has changed the waterfall and destroyed the roof of the chullpas. It is therefore no longer possible to measure the original humidity inside the chullpas. and the measurements that have been carried out over the last years, have shown a changing humidity between 100 and 0% RH. If it is not the dry conditions that have saved the mummies, it must be the treatment.
The mummies are mummified - i.e. their intestines have been taken out after death, and a plug of raw cotton inserted in the rectum. This is very unusual in pre- Colombian Peru, which along the coast (where so far most mummy finds have been made) has a very dry climate that allows deceased bodies to dry out naturally. The chemical substances that was used in the mummification process could be either of inorganic or of organic origin; i.e. if inorganic most likely led, mercury, copper or arsenic, and if organic from some kind of plant-poison. Unfortunately the tests (SEM (Scanning electron microscope) and XRF (X-ray fluorescence)) that were made to search for inorganic material did not give any results, and so far it has not been possible for economic reasons to make thorough search (gascromatographic tests for instance). However bioassay tests for presence of compound with antimicrobial activity showed that an antimicrobial compound is found in a leather sample from the find. No sign of antimicrobial compound could be found however on the textile samples.
The textile materials are cotton, wool, plant fiber, and human hair. The protein fibers are much more brittle than the vegetable fibers, which could point to alkaline conditions. However pH tests with a micro electrode in a controlled aqua's solution, showed that this was not the case - all the tested fibers (10 pieces) had a pH between 5 and 6 - the protein fibers being a little more acid than the vegetable fibers. Dr. Sonia Guillen is proceeding with the research on the mummified bodies.