National Geographic: Ancient Graves: Voices of the Dead

Year:
1998
181 Views


Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

Death always gets the final word -

no matter how we mock it.

Sworn to eternal silence,

the Dead seem beyond our reach.

Yet to some scientists,

they speak volumes.

"When I look at a mummy,

I'm looking at an encyclopedia."

Through the lens of modern science,

the grave has become

a window on the past.

Today we can learn intimate details

about how the Ancients lived-

and how they died.

"...that's really, that's, that's

really a common way that they did it -

the strangulation

or blows to the head..."

Bit by bit, their portraits emerge

from flesh, bone, and DNA.

"Bringing the people back to life,

I think that that's the fun part of it."

The unearthing of the past reveals

the tangled roots of our family tree.

But some see only the desecration

of their ancestors.

"They must be put back into

the bosom of sacred Mother Earth."

As the Living defend the Dead,

battle lines are drawn.

In truth, those who passed here

long ago still dwell among us.

From fragile remains,

their life stories unfold.

And as we hear them,

they become a part of us all.

Listen now to the voices

of the Dead.

This is the driest place on earth:

the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Life has found a foothold here:

not in the blazing sands,

but in the slender river valleys

that stretch across the desert

from the Andes to the sea.

The city of Arica stands where

two rivers meet the Pacific Ocean.

Countless generations of fishermen

have thrived here,

and many families have deep roots.

Whenever ground is broken,

there's a good chance

these roots may come to light.

The city's arid soil has yielded

several ancient burials,

to the delight of scientists

from the local university.

But physical anthropologist

Bernardo Arriaza,

now with the University of Nevada,

will never forget a visit

to a site where the water company

was digging trenches.

I remembered in 1983,

it was a quiet day

when the water company called us.

They said they had

found something unusual,

so that really caught our interest.

"And we get called all the time,

and you never know

what you're going to find,

so that's also

the exciting part of going.

You don't know

what it's going to be.

And this time it was quite

incredible, actually."

The shovels had exposed a plot

of nearly a hundred mummies.

Some would be dated to

of ancient Egypt.

Eerie masks were sculpted

over their faces.

Wigs were glued

directly to their skulls.

Bodies were completely made over-

paste and paint on the outside,

grasses and earth within.

Men, women and children

were mummified.

Even this eight inch long fetus.

These elaborate mummies were created

by a people called the Chinchorro.

They lived along the coast

in simple huts,

and left little behind-

no monuments, no written texts.

But from their bones and artifacts,

Arriaza has compiled a profile of

their lifestyle.

"The Chinchorro people were fishermen.

They fished from the rocks

with fish hooks made of shells.

They also collected shellfish

and hunted sea lions with harpoons.

And they wove beautiful nets

to gather their food.

Their clothing and ornaments

were minimal.

All their emphasis went into

mummifying the dead"

Why would a simple people

transform their dead

into such elaborate creations?

Arriaza has a theory.

"Someone is being mummified,

it's a lot of energy investment,

it's a lot of caring.

Even the fetuses are fascinating.

Why? Because they have long hair,

they have the mouth open.

That's conveying life.

"We tend to see our dead

as someone that's farther away.

We don't want to see the dead

with open eyes-

no, you think, wow,

that would scare me.

You want to see the dead

completely dead.

In the case of the Chinchorro,

they're seeing the dead

as part of the living."

Virtual works of art, their mummies

were not intended for the grave.

They played an important role

in the very heart of the community.

The mummy was an honored emissary who

moved between this world and the next-

sending word to the ancestors,

interceding before the gods.

The people rendered thanks

with songs and offerings.

Mummification helped ease the loss

of a loved one,

and strengthened bonds

between the living.

It made the community whole again.

Such rituals may have quelled the

awful fear of what lies beyond death-

no less a mystery 7,000 years ago

than today.

One of the earliest expressions

of the human spirit,

death rites date back at least

Even the Neanderthals buried

one of their own

beneath a blanket of flowers.

Every culture on earth

has evolved rituals

to bid a final farewell to the dead.

Some consign the body to

the embrace of the earth.

Others ensure the release

of the soul through fire.

In today's crowded world,

the practice of cremation is on the

rise wherever land is at a premium.

We even send our dead into space.

For about the cost of

a terrestrial burial,

a company in Texas will load

a container of ashes on a small rocket.

After orbiting for several years,

the ashes eventually fall into

Earth's atmosphere and vaporize,

like a tiny shooting star.

It's a fitting twenty-

first century sendoff...

but would have been unthinkable

in one of the greatest civilizations

the Earth has ever known.

The ancient Egyptians believed

the body had to last forever.

Without it,

the deceased could not rise again

in the next world

to enjoy eternal life.

To prevent decay, the bodies of

the dead were drained of moisture,

and reduced to the consistency

of leather.

Everyone wanted to be mummified.

There may have been cut-rate

embalming for the poor,

first-class treatment for the rich.

Even animals were mummified,

to accompany the dead

on their final journey.

Over some thirty centuries,

countless mummies were made.

But countless were also destroyed.

Almost from the moment they were sealed,

the Pyramids and nearly

every other well-

appointed tomb were ransacked

by thieves.

Kings or commoners, bodies were

hacked apart and left in tatters.

Things got worse when Europe

developed a taste for mummies.

By the 12th century,

they were imported by the ton

to be ground up and mixed

in potions purported to cure

everything from headaches to impotence.

In 1798, Napoleon's campaign

spawned a new wave of "mummy-mania."

Over the next century,

hundreds were dissected

both in laboratories

and at fashionable unwrapping parties.

The supply seemed endless.

Mummies made

cheap fertilizer and fuel.

In the 19th century,

trains from Cairo burned stacks of them

to power their steam boilers.

Our fascination with mummies continued

unabashed well into the 20th century.

"Is it dead or alive?

Human or inhuman?

You'll know. You'll see.

You'll feel the awful,

creeping crawling terror

that stands your hair on end

and brings a scream to your lips!

The Mummy!"

Today, Egypt's mummies are treated

as fragile time capsules.

Science now has the tools to explore

their secrets without destroying them.

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Gail Willumsen

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