In awe of ancient past

Scientists know that besides dinosaurs, mummies are the other subject that never goes out of style.

A National Geographic special, "Inca Mummies: Secrets of a Lost World" (May 15, PBS, 9-10 p.m.), brings us face to face with the real thing, in what are being billed as the most important Inca mummy discoveries to date.

A cemetery excavation beneath a Peruvian shantytown, high in the Andes Mountains, made international headlines recently. The excavation uncovered the largest single cache of Inca mummies. But it was being threatened with imminent destruction by townspeople eking out a living without plumbing or electricity.

It is a race against time, says Guillermo Cock, leader of the Puruchuco Project, as the dig is known. The show covers 10 weeks of the race to recover some 2,200 buried individuals, representing a full spectrum of Incan society. "The main reason this is so important," the Peruvian scientist says, "is both the size and quality of the sample. It's a perfect sociological sample from all ages and ranks. We can get inside this society in a way we have never been able to before."

Experts on the brief, but powerful and wealthy era (roughly 1450-1550) during which Incan culture flourished, say the find will yield invaluable details about a people who built a world-class empire thousands of feet high among cloud forests. A small elite of a mere 100,000 dominated some 10 million people on the western coast of South America. The Incas built 14,000 miles of roads crisscrossing the countryside, which were used by royal messengers carrying Incan rule from the north to the south of the continent, and from the Amazon to the Pacific.

This brief flowering is another reason for the importance of this particular find – the relatively compact time frame from which all the dead date. From an archaeological standpoint, "this is a very small period of time, only about 75 years," says Johan Reinhard, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. "We just don't have anything about that period anywhere else...."

The most compelling site is the shantytown dig, which proceeds under the watchful eye of the villagers, many of whom are wondering what this expedition will do for them. Poignant moments are documented as the workers from the local utility are forced to stop installing electrical lines while delicate mummy bundles are carefully cut from the bone-dry dirt.

"The mummy bundles were literally decomposing as we worked," Mr. Cock says, "because all the town's liquids were being poured into the dirt, 60,000 gallons of water a day. It was a crisis."

Viewers are rewarded by moments of intimacy with the past. The remains of a three-year-old child with a feathered headdress is unwrapped, and details about his poor health (porous skull) and high social status (elaborate textiles and headdress) are immediately obvious to the scientists. At another location, the face of a young girl is so well-preserved that you expect her to shake off a nap and open her eyes.

Awe about the past and attention to our future is what the scientists involved hope the program will evoke. "To understand ourselves, we need to look at other cultures and lives," Mr. Reinhard says. "Whenever you can get general interest sparked in science, it's a wonderful opportunity to build on that and discuss other things."

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