While excavating an old private home in 2004 with the plan to turn the building into a hotel, construction workers in Arica, Chile, came across the remains of a mummy. Further excavation revealed a total of 32 mummies, meaning the entire crawl space of the house was atop an ancient cemetery.
The mummies were Chinchorro people who lived on a section of the southern Peruvian and northern Chilean shore from 7020 to 1110 BC. Chinchorro mummies, the oldest in the world, are common in this area, in large part because the arid soil of the Atacama Desert is rich in nitrate salts, which both dry and preserve organic materials.
Rather than move the remains, the owner helped transform the site into a small museum. The mummies, along with their funerary objects, were left in place, and a glass floor was built over them so visitors can walk above and closely view the exposed remains. Archaeologists have discovered several more layers of mummies beneath these.
Upstairs from the “in situ” cemetery, a covered terrace overlooks the expanse of the town and leads to a small room with panels and displays that describe the lives of the Chinchorro, and the elaborate method they often used to mummify their dead. They made them into virtual statues by first removing the skin, soft tissue, and organs from the body and replacing the body’s internal parts with combinations of ashes, animal hair, mud, and vegetable matter. After placing sticks along sides of the bones, they covered the body with a paste of white-ash, reattached the skin, and painted the entire body. Finally, they placed a clay mask over the face, and covered the scalp with a wig.
Know Before You Go
Cards with written explanation are available in Spanish and English and the wall behind the in situ cemetery explains the unique attributes for each mummy.