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Paracas Necropolis: Salvaging Contextual relationships

Department of Human Remains | Ann H. Peters, Visiting Scholar, Latin American Studies Program, Cornell University

Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú: Human Remains

The department of Human Remains is also the central location for storage of mortuary contexts, including intact or unwrapped funerary bundles. As a result, the information management and conservation issues faced by this department are extremely complex. Fortunately, curator Elsa Tomasto had already developed a substantial database to bring together information on the known provenience records, storage location and history of treatment, analysis and exhibition of materials in this department. Forensic anthropologist Melissa Lund and storage manager Carlos Murga provided additional expertise in training and supervising the student assistants who worked with the Dumbarton Oaks project.

The department of Human Remains had achieved substantial improvements over the past ten years, including structural improvements in the vast storage structures and installation of climate control essential in Lima's humid environment, which is also subject to considerable yearly fluctuations in temperature. Cleanliness and order have been greatly improved, but due to the sheer number and crowded conditions, the location of all mortuary contexts has not yet been identified. Many of the Paracas funerary bundles were unwrapped and studied in the early 20th century, yet many of their components are still stored in this department as bundles wrapped in jute sacking.

Franco Mora and Lin Chalco carry the remains of a previously unwrapped Necropolis burial out of the storeroom for inventory, cleaning and transfer to a more stable storage context.Franco Mora and Lin Chalco carry the remains of a previously unwrapped Necropolis burial out of the storeroom for inventory, cleaning and transfer to a more stable storage context.

Our project supported the priorities of the department of Human Remains, collaborating in moving mortuary contexts housed in a warehouse that needed urgent structural improvements, locating contexts whose whereabouts was unknown, reuniting and identifying the components of each Paracas burial, creating an inventory of the contents of previously opened funerary bundles, and transferring those human remains and associated artifacts to storage in polyethylene boxes. We also collaborated in providing a ladder and flashlights essential for confirming the location and identity of hundreds of Paracas burials crowded on high shelving in the dim lit storage facility.

All skeletal remains were cleaned using soft brushes. Particularly in the case of soft tissue preservation, minimal handling was an important component of the procedures. Previous wrapping materials, such as newspapers, were carefully removed. Soft and chemically stable support cushions were designed and constructed. Where mold or salts were present, cleaning included use of a dilute alcohol solution.

Lizbeth Trero and Melissa Lund examine the provenience and inventory data inscribed on the cheekbone of a Paracas Necropolis male individual with a well-preserved headdress.Lizbeth Trero and Melissa Lund examine the provenience and inventory data inscribed on the cheekbone of a Paracas Necropolis male individual with a well-preserved headdress.

In cases where textiles and other artifacts were present, materials on the body were conserved in situ and cleaned if appropriate by the textile conservators, who also trained the student assistants in Human Remains in basic textile conservation procedures.

Artifacts already separated from the body were cleaned and stored separately, conserving all available contextual information. Both digital and slide photographs were taken to record object identity and treatment. Research to confirm and correct the attributions of both human remains and associated artifacts was undertaken parallel to the conservation process, and new registration records were developed for each context. All treated materials were stored according to their level of preservation and provenience information, to facilitate future monitoring, treatment and research.

Skeletal remains from the sectors of Paracas Cavernas and Arena Blanca. In many cases, skeletal remains had been sorted into cranial and post-cranial groups that did not carry original provenience data. In cases where inventory numbers or contextual information had been preserved on the bones they could be linked again to their excavated mortuary context. Refitting of skeletons confirmed the reconstruction of a number of individuals. The human remains were reunited in an improved storage context, and basic evidence for age and sex was recorded.

Karina Curillo fits a tulle hairnet to a Paracas male individual with a well preserved hair arrangement.Karina Curillo fits a tulle hairnet to a Paracas male individual with a well preserved hair arrangement.

Among the Paracas Necropolis burials studied by Toribio Mejía Xesspe from 1967 to 1970, in several cases the head was stored separately from the body to facilitate future study of intact hair arrangements and headdress elements. In these cases, the separate storage arrangement was continued. After inventory, cleaning and protective conservation measures they were stored on padded trays to facilitate future observations without requiring handling of the human remains.

Carlos Murga designed a box for storing two human heads with well-preserved headdresses, including individual padded trays to minimize direct handling.Carlos Murga designed a box for storing two human heads with well-preserved headdresses, including individual padded trays to minimize direct handling.

The reexamination of previously studied mortuary contexts was a moment of great excitement and interest throughout the museum, as each occasion provided the solution to many unanswered questions regarding artifact location and provided new data on the nature of the Paracas cemetery populations.

Franco Mora prepares for a series of observations of tooth wear and dental health, with instruction from curator Elsa Tomasto.Franco Mora prepares for a series of observations of tooth wear and dental health, with instruction from curator Elsa Tomasto.

Systematic study of each reopened bundle included a thorough examination to provide improved data on the age, sex, and general health of the individual, as well as data on occupational stress and on the possible case of death.

Storage boxes produced in this facility were constructed from sheets of corrugated polyethylene in groups of standard measurement for accommodating and protecting a single mortuary context and to efficiently stack in the crowded warehouses. Each box was folded and sealed with a glue gun, then labeled using standard formats developed by the Human Remains team.

The standard box developed for storage of the skeletal remains of an individual burial was developed by the Human Remains team based on international norms.The standard box developed for storage of the skeletal remains of an individual burial was developed by the Human Remains team based on international norms.

Our archival work was made available immediately to the department, to complement the substantial contextual information in their database by providing better information on the associated artifacts frequently located in bundles stored in Human Remains. As the project proceeded to the re-examination of previously studied funerary bundles, the department also built a library of copies of 'dissection protocols', narratives and inventories following the procedures established by Tello for unwrapping each funerary bundle.

While we were able to collaborate in work on only a small percentage of the Paracas cemetery populations housed in the department of Human Remains, the Dumbarton Oaks project served to address some urgent cases, establish new procedures and support the training of a new generation in the management of Peruvian museum collections of human remains.

As information became available based on work in the archives, it was immediately incorporated into the procedures of work with the objects. Object identities were confirmed or corrected by consultation with central and departmental registries, inventories of storage areas, and published and unpublished studies of the artifacts. As the project developed, the department continued its ongoing project to reconstruct mortuary assemblages within the textile collection and built its own archive of copies of 'dissection protocols', narratives and inventories that follow the procedures established by Tello for unwrapping each funerary bundle.

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