A Belgian Project of Interdisciplinary Research on Andean Mummies (IRAM)
A Belgian project of Interdisciplinary Research on Andean Mummies (IRAM Project)
Our member Caroline Polet (RINSB) and several colleagues from different institutions are working on a project researching seven pre-Columbian Mummies curated at the Royal Museum of Art and History (RMAH).
Aims & Objectives
The museum plans to give back each mummified deceased their identity through anthropological, physicochemical and archaeological studies. Detailed medical examination, isotopic, toxicological, carbon 14, hair and skin analyses as well as research in the archives and artefacts' examination are planned and started in 2016. New technology, including CT-scan and 3D modelling, are used to get more precise information. Ethical issues will be addressed as well.
The research questions for these pre-Columbian mummies thus concern preservation state and curating issues, mummification process, funerary practices, age at death, sex, social status, cultural identity, place of origin, chronological period and geographical origin, possible circumstances of death, health (trauma, diseases) and diet.
Entomological examination will seek for information regarding the postmortem degradation process of each mummy and define appropriate treatment and storage. Also, funerary deposits, composed of textile, will be examined in order to get insights on craft productions, context of usage, and provenance of the materials.
Team & Funding
The scientific project is conducted by Caroline Tilleux (RMAH, researcher) and Serge Lemaître (RMAH, curator of the American collection). They're working with Dr. Caroline Polet (RINSB, physical anthropologist), Dr. Emmanuel Coche (University Clinics Saint-Luc, Medical Imagery Service), Dr. Etienne Danse (University Clinics Saint-Luc, radiologist) and Jean-Philippe Hastir (University Clinics Saint-Luc, nurse).
This initiative is supported by le Fonds Jean-Jacques Comhaire (Fondation Roi Baudouin).
The Andean mummies have been in the Royal Museum of Art and History - also known as the 'Cinquantenaire' - for 175 years. Only one was already studied in the 1990s, put on permanent exhibition and published: Rascar Capac. It became famous thanks to Hergé, the notorious Belgian cartoonist, who illustrated the mummy in two of his comic books, Les Sept Boules de Cristal and Le Temple du Soleil, from the serie Tintin.
To accurately deepen our knowledge on pre-Columbian remains stored in the museum, efficient technology was needed in order to study the six other mummies still in the reserve.
In May 2016, the mummies were infected by several micro-organisms (i.e. fungi). In order to prevent any degradation, the remains were treated by anoxia. This treatment consists in isolating the mummies in hermetic plastic bubbles from which oxygen is evacuated and replaced by nitrogen. Micro-organisms die within such environment and organic materials are preserved in the same state.
This is why the interdisciplinary project was set up, combining expertise and technological tools from different institutions, the University Clinics Saint-Luc, the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences and the Cinquantenaire.
First observations were made on the mummies in April 2016 at the University Clinics Saint-Luc. The six Andean mummies stored in the reserve were set for several weeks in a study lab for a thorough examination by Serge Lemaître, Caroline Polet, Maria Ordoñez (Leiden University) and Caroline Tilleux. All mummified individuals result from deliberate funerary practices but these mummies are natural. They were deposited in a climatic and geological environment, ensuring body desiccation and stopping natural decomposition at the same time.
The assemblage of mummies comprises two funerary bundles (adults), two skulls (a child and an adult), two complete mummies (a child and an adult) and an adult fragmentary body. They present diverse funerary rituals (body position, burial treatment, associated artefacts) specific to a region or period. When complete, the bodies are in a foetal position with the hands on the shoulders. Such posture is typical for Andean mummies.
For the moment, it's impossible to confirm with certitude the sex of the two individuals within the funerary bundles. However, the associated material for one and the gracile appearance of the second skeleton suggest that these are two women.
The child skull is accompanied by a textile cover containing some small bones and a hair braid. Based on dental state, the age is estimated between 20 and 30 months. The skull is partially covered with hair. Lice was noticed around some hair bulbs. Dental state points out the second skull is from an adult. The collections' inventory identifies it to come from Pachacamac, Peru. The individual's face presents an important perimortem trauma : 'fresh' fracture above the orbits. The scalp is almost entirely present and is mostly covered with braids of variable lengths.
The complete mummies are in foetal position. Dental state indicates an age at death for the child mummy around six years old. The remains used to be covered with textile (preserved tissue fragments). The team ignores whether the mummy was unpacked at the moment of its discovery or if the action occurred after acquisition. The well preserved adult mummy is the only one on permanent exhibition in the museum. It inspired Hergé to include a mummy called 'Rascar Capac' in Tintin's adventures.
The fragmentary adult mummy lacks the inferior limbs. The arms are folded on the rib cage. The left hand superimposes the right hand at the level of the right clavicle. The gracile aspect of the skeleton suggests a female individual.
Further analyses continued in January 2017. The team scanned two mummies with the clinics' CT-scan, a skull and Rascar Capac. The latter was already scanned in 1990, showing signs of arthrosis amongst other interesting elements; the new scan will hopefully exhibit differences in technological imagery.
First sampling of the mummies (hair, skin, textile fragments and plant materials) was done for carbon 14 analyses by Mathieu Boudin and Marco Bonafini (RICH).
Panoramique Terre Productions (Frédéric Cordier and Thomas Wilski) and Un Film à la Patte are recording each step of the project in order to realize an audiovisual documentary called The Forgotten Mummies from the Andes. A teaser video is available on Vimeo.
Sampling for isotopic analyses was made in March 2017 by Dr. Tamsin O'Connell (Cambridge University). The results should give information on diet and culture.
This month - June 2017 -, the team is going to Bolivia and Chile. They are visiting the museums that are curating pre-Columbian mummies in order to observe how these remains are stored and studied. They also are looking for similar mummies and ceramic material in order to make relevant comparisons.
In November 2018, the Royal Museum of Art and History plans to organize an exhibition on textiles and jewellery from the Andes. The research's results will be presented along with an interesting set of textiles and several mummies.
If you are interested, you can follow this project on their website: iram-project.be.
Tip: check out their website to view the pictures.