on March 15, 2010
A few minutes walk from the Plaza de Armas of the Southern Peruvian colonial town of Arequipa is the Museo Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria, also know as Museo Santury. It is essentially an anthropological and archaeological museum, looking at the lifestyles of the ancient Incas of the regions and their piece de résistance is the ‘mummified’ corpse of the Inca Ice Maiden Juanita. Technically she isn’t a mummy, as she was frozen rather than bandaged and embalmed. Museum tickets cost about 20 Peruvian soles (£4.50), they don’t allow you to take bags into the museum, or cameras. Depending on that time you arrive and how many people there are speaking your language also waiting, you may have to wait a short while in the courtyard before you can go in. The museum is flat and suitable for wheelchair users; however it is kept quite dark in order to preserve the artefacts. Your visits starts with a fifteen - twenty minute film in English (other languages available) about the journey of the woman who has subsequently become know as Juanita. I have to admit, we’d had an early start after a late night, and as they dimmed the lights I was expecting to doze off whilst watching some boring, stuffy archaeological film. Far from it - the film didn’t just show hard work and struggle by the scientists who found the remains of Juanita, but reconstructed her journey in an emotive and sympathetic way. For those who are unfamiliar with her, I shall précis her journey. Juanita was a teenage girl from a local Incan community circa 1450. She had been chosen by her community to be sacrificed to appease the Gods and ensure a good harvest, it would no doubt have been an honour for her family, but who knows what was going through her mind as she climbed 6100m Mount Ampato in her sandaled feet. It would have been freezing cold up there, the altitude would have made it hard going and she would have known she was facing her death. Analysis of her stomach contents showed that she had been drugged to sedate her. After the ceremony at the top, she would have been killed by a blow to the head and left on the mountain (actually a dormant volcano) to die, if the blow had not already killed her. As she was arranged in the foetal position (the Incas believed in life after death and this would expedite her on her way to being re-born) it is likely she was killed outright. Various artefacts and offerings of quality were left with her which reflects the high status her family held within the community. A subsequent snowfall almost immediately after she died meant her body was frozen and preserved. She remained like this for some 500 years before being discovered in the mid-1990s, after ash from a nearby volcano landed on her burial site and melted the snow. After the film you go into the main part of the museum where you are led by a guide (tipping is expected) who will take you through three rooms and explains the main features of each. All rooms relate to the excavation of Juanita or other sacrificial beings, and you will see skulls, clothes, jewellery, cups and other items which were found in these nearby sites and some others. The final room contains Juanita at the back. She is not the only corpse that was found in the region, but is the best preserved and one of the most important, as her tomb taught the anthropologists so much about the Inca way of life. She is only on display for about eight months of the year and is sitting up, with her knees to her chest, in a glass case in a dark, curtained off section of the room at -20C (the case, not the room – although it is chilly around that part due to the air-conditioning). The rest of the year (January-April) she is kept in a special -40C case away from nosy tourists in order to preserve her better. It’s worth noting that other mummies do replace her when she is away, and she also goes ‘on tour’ sometimes during May-December, so if she is the lady you want to see, you may want to check this. It may not bother you that the real Juanita is not there, but so much of the museum is dedicated to her and her journey as such, that it would be a shame to not see the Ice Princess ‘in the flesh’. The museum has a certain macabre appeal to it, even without the Inca history and not knowing Juanita’s story, most of our group wanted to go to see the ‘mummy’. However the museum does a really good job, in my opinion, of telling her story, bringing her to life and humanising her, so that you come out of the museum feeling a bit sad for the young girl who died, cold and afraid at the top of a mountain all those centuries ago.
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