In the middle of nowhere with dead people

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Well, in case the catacombs in Lima werenīt weird enough for you, we went to an ancient cemetery here outside of Nazca where mummies chill in open graves for tourists to see every day.  And they still have their own hair. 

The cemetery at Chuachilla is located approximately 30 km south of Nazca city.  In case you thought it was a town, itīs not.  Itīs just a random place in the middle of the desert that had a village in it thousands of years ago.  Or at least thatīs what they believe. 

When the government got a hold of the cemetery, it had already been pretty much destroyed by grave robbers, who wanted the gold, ceramics and textiles from the graves.  Think Egypt.  The government then decided to recreate the cemetery and make it tourist friendly.  What the cemetery now consists of is twelve open graves complete with various mummies or parts thereof.  Graves were dug into the ground, perhaps six feet down, and lined with clay brick-stones to maintain their structure.  The clay used by the people who created the cemetery is the same clay used presently by the ceramic makers in the area.  The mummy was bundled into the fetal position to represent the birth of new life in the next world, then wrapped in cotton and tied with a llama-wool rope.  Over this (now most of this stuff is missing due to robbery) was placed rich textiles.  Some of the ponchos are still on the mummies.  The body would then be placed in the grave facing east, to watch the sun rise on its new life.  Also, as with other mummies you may have heard of, the grave was filled with plenty of water and chicha (Peruvian desert corn beer, which you can still buy) and food for the next life.  Then the grave was covered with logs so that it had a roof and was protected from the elements (what little there were).  This open manner of burial also allowed for the moisture to be sucked from the dead body very slowly, so that it eventually dried rather than rotting away as it would have in a more moist climate. 

Unfortunately, the open manner of burial also allowed grave robbers to find the graves relatively easily.  Because the entire landscape had long since been covered by sand, the grave robbers would walk through the desert with a stick and poke about.  When the stick went into the sand easily, they knew they had found an open space, probably a grave, and then they would spend the night digging it out and looting it.  We actually used the same poking method to find robbed turtle nests when walking the beaches in Guatemala, so it does work. 

The mummies were of an unknown social distinction, possibly a caste of note, such as nobility or soldiers, and the cemetery dates back to pre-Inca times.  In the small museum at the cemetery they have a description of the history and the manner in which the cemetery was found and researched.  They also have the only true mummy in a case for viewing.  It had skin, while all the other mummies have maybe patches of skin and their own hair, but no mummified skin on their exposed bones.  Theyīre kind of old, so itīs excusable.  Most of the mummies did have hair, and it was crazy long dreads.  I know some people who would be seriously jealous.  There are also two mummified children - a baby without a head and a small child.  Itīs a little disturbing. 

I must make a note for all of you before you get weirded out by the photos.  Shortly after we arrived, Travis decided that his normal lens was unacceptable and strapped on the telephoto.  So we have a lot of up close and personal shots of the friendly faces.  And yes, it does feel kind of weird to take pictures of skeletons, but we did it anyway. 

The end of our tour included a demonstration of gold extraction and of ceramic making.  They were both really surprisingly interesting.  They were also designed to get us into the shops to buy their wares.  And I kind of wanted to, but itīs hard to travel with jars.


P.S. If you want to know about either of these demonstrations, just email and weīll let you know...or if we get innundated weīll make another entry, but I think itīs just better to experience it. 
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