(From June 26th)

Today I saw dozens of mummies, but unlike Branden Frasier, I managed not to wake them up and threaten the fate of humanity. You’re welcome.

The pre-Incan Chachapoyas civilization used to inhabit northern Peru and are now famous for burying their dead in a tucked position, stuffed in a bag, which has a human face sewn on the front, and placing the bagged body in a wooden sarcophagus. Over 200 of these sarcophagi have been recovered since 2002 and placed in the nearest museum – the Leymebamba museum in the department (region) of Chachapoyas.

Chachapoyas, Peru

The Mummy Museum

I had heard about this “Mummy Museum” since before I came to Peru and was fascinated. I imagined multiple rooms, each with two or three monolithic, Egyptian-looking mummies (since honestly, what other kinds of mummies do you imagine?). The real thing was much more intense.

The museum is cute – small and surrounded by a manicured lawn, with several of the buildings modeled after the round, cone-shaped Chachpoyas-style houses. I expected the entire thing to be dedicated to mummies, but found that most of the rooms had other artifacts from the Chachapoyas, as well the Incan civilizations. At first, I was impatient with the other artifacts, itching to see the main attraction. But once I started reading the descriptions and looking closely at the old pottery and tools, I became interested and ended up stopping at every exhibit. I was fascinated by the similarities between some of the artisan ware and tools that the Chachapoyas had in common with the indigenous group I lived with in Panama, the Ngäbe. The Chachapoyas even wove almost identical handbags as the ones the Ngäbe still use today (one of which I’ve been carrying on this trip).

With this careful progression, I actually entered the mummy room without even realizing it. I was in the middle of examining a mummified cat (which should have tipped me off), when I glanced over my shoulder and saw a glass wall, with rows and rows of human mummies behind it. I froze in this position for a few seconds, head cocked awkwardly over my right shoulder and hands held out as if I were about to play piano or type on a keyboard. I finally turned and slowly approached the glass.

Chachapoyas, Peru

A room full of mummies

As I mentioned, the museum has over 200 mummies, most of which are behind that glass (presumably, many others are elsewhere, being examined or something). Some were left in the sarcophagus, to give you an idea of their context – others are out of the box, but in the bag, the woven faces creepy and blank and pleasant. All the mummies have their knees tucked over their chests and arms folded and propped on top of the knees, such that the hands are up by their heads. Some are crossed over their chests, others look more casually propped on the knees. The creepiest are those who have their hands on either side of their faces. The mouths of these mummies are inevitably open (it seems), giving them an overall expression of terror. It looks as if they died crouched, hands clutching their faces, screaming. They were all carefully placed into position, so this is definitely not the case for any of them, but it looks like it and it felt strange staring at their remains from the other side of the glass.

The creepiest mummy still had a lot of skin left, which made the eyes seem more hollow and the death more recent (also obviously not true – he just happened to be better preserved). This mummy is also large, prompting me to mentally name him King Mummy. Thankfully Brandon Frasier was not around to wake him up.

I’d like to tell you more of the actual facts that I read in the museum but the entire experience is clouded by my memory of standing slack-jawed in front a room full of dozens of crouched, terrified-looking mummies. It’s definitely the most memorable museum experience I’ve ever had, and I grew up going to the Smithsonian.