In a climate-controlled room in Leymebamba, Peru, more than 200 mummies are displayed, some of them gazing directly at you with unsettlingly well-preserved expressions of dread and anguish.
Inaugurated in 2000, the Museo Leymebamba (Leymebamba Museum) was designed to contain approximately 200 mummies and their funerary goods. The skeletons were unearthed in 1997 during an excavation of Llaqtacocha, a Chachapoya settlement on the shores of Laguna de los Cóndores, a lake situated approximately 80 kilometers south of Chachapoyas.
A number of chullpas [tombs] were tucked into the limestone cliffs surrounding the lake. These stone burial structures remained undisturbed for five hundred years until local farmers began to scavenge through the cemetery, causing significant damage in the process. Fortunately, the Centro Mallqui, a Peruvian cultural association that specializes in bioarchaeological remains, was available to rescue the site.
The archaeologists began recovering the corpses from Laguna de los Cóndores in order to safeguard them from further incidental damage and grave robbers (huaqueros). The Centro Mallqui initiated the construction of a complete museum in Leymebamba, the closest town to the lake, in order to contain so many mummies.
The first two chambers of the museum display antiquities from the region, including ceramics, weapons, and decorative objects from the Chachapoya and Inca provincial periods. Large windows in the third chamber provide a disquieting view of the collection of mummies. Hundreds of them: many wrapped, some ominously uncovered, the majority seated in the traditional funeral position – knees lifted to chests, arms crossed.
It is a disturbing spectacle. A few of the corpses have faces that are so well-preserved that they appear to be able to twitch. A few wrapped infants are also displayed on the shelves, their tiny bodies enveloped in linen.
Chachapoya were accomplished embalmers. They treated the epidermis, emptied the body’s cavities, and sealed the portions that could be sealed. The remainder of the mummification process was then left to the lakeside ledges’ microclimates, which aided to preserve the organic remains.
Now that the museum has a climate-controlled environment, the corpses have found a new home. Here they rest, huddled as a lost tribe, eternally mute, but speaking volumes to archaeologists who continue to study them.