An ancient Peruvian mummy that has been part of the collection of the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science for 60 years received its first X-ray yesterday at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. Very little is known about the mummy which was removed from Peru by unknown (illegal?) means at an unknown time. It has been at the museum since it opened in 1957, a gift from New York’s American Museum of Natural History via its former employee and the Corpus Christi Museum’s first director, Aalbert Heine. The mummy was one of many ancient artifacts and remains Heine brought to the new museum, accession number 137 in a collection that now counts in the millions.
There are no records extant of the mummy at the Museum of Natural History. The Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science’s tag labels it the mummy of an Inca child approximately 2,000 years old. As the Inca Empire is nowhere near that old (the civilization’s origin story places its founding in the 13th century), the label is drastically off-base. It is wrapped in a coiled rope that looks like a basket but isn’t. The only other potential source of information about the mummy are a few textile fragments that have somehow managed to remain on her body, but they have yielded no more answers so far.
Attitudes towards the display of human remains have changed over the years as the anthropological approach shifted from treating people like curios to respect for the dead (and living, for that matter) within their cultural context. The mummy was removed from display in the 1980s and has been kept in storage ever since. Last year, collections manager Jillian Becquet and assistant curator of education Madeleine Fontenot began to investigate the history of the mummy with the aim of repatriating it to its homeland. After extensive research in the museum archives, newspaper records and scrapbooks, the two had little new information to show for it.
Enter the Driscoll Children’s Hospital. An X-ray might reveal important information that would confirm its Peruvian provenance, an essential step in the repatriation process.
“She was not my average patient!” said Suzi Beckwith, Diagnostic X-ray Coordinator at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. […]
“Because of the size of the mummy, I thought it was a baby,” Beckwith said. “But looking at the X-rays, you see her legs are actually tucked in. So she’s not a baby. She’s a little girl.
X-rays can confirm gender, age, and even cause of death.
“We’re looking for things that can help us give information to anthropologists in Peru, and then hopefully confirm cultural group that she belongs to, said Jillian Becquet, Collections Manager at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History.
The burial position confirmed by the X-rays could be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Different cultural groups buried their dead in different positions, so experts could determine her origins from that alone. Examination of her bones could pinpoint injuries, healed, peri-mortem or post-mortem.
The museum is working with Peruvian Embassy officials to identify the mummy and arrange for her return. Fontenot and Becquet hope Peruvian experts can learn more about her by studying the rope that binds her and the fragments of cloth. They’re not at that stage yet, however. Before they decide whether to invest in that kind of research, Peruvian officials will study the X-rays and documentation to see if the mummy is a likely candidate for repatriation to Peru. The more data they have, the more securely they will be able to claim her as their own.
“Whatever group was around her chose to do this very caring thing, to wrap her purposefully and bury her,” Becquet said. “Somebody along the way disrespected that, and so we want that to be restored.”
When this little mummy is returned to the land of her ancestors, the Corpus Christi Museum of Natural History and Science will have no people left languishing in its storage cabinets. She is the last one.