Region III Quarterly

Volume 2 - No. 1

January, 1940


By Don Watson,
Park Naturalist,
Mesa Verde National Park.

Mummies are the darndest people! You go scratching and digging through the depths of a cave, carefully sifting out the accumulated dust of the ages, suddenly to come face to face with a person who has been sitting there quietly, unblinkingly, for a thousand years. In spite of the sudden intrusion, it still bats not an eye. Mellowed by time, aged in the dust, so to speak, it is immune to surprises.

Except for two things, that mummy is just like anyone else. Only two changes have occurred. The parts of the body are all there; the skin, the hair, the eyes, even the pupils are visible. Every bone is intact and still clothed with the original flesh. The organs are all in place. Long black hair still hangs down over the shoulders and in it are the eggs of lice that once knew it as home. Everything is in place; the body is perfectly preserved. What are the two changes? The only difference between the mummy and anyone else is that the mummy has lost the spark of life and the moisture. Admittedly, it is a big difference!

These natural mummies have been found in ruins in many parts of the Southwest. They are not common, certainly, but many have been found, and others may be sitting in unexplored caves, patiently awaiting the archaeologist's trowel. Preserved through natural processes, these mummies are not to be confused with those of Egypt, where actual embalming was practiced. In the Southwest the process was entirely natural - a slow drying of the tissues due to the dryness of the grave.

The Southwest is an arid region. The air is dry; the earth is dry; the great caves where the ancient Indians built their homes are often as dry as dust. When bodies were buried in those caves a natural dehydration took place. The moisture from the flesh was absorbed by the dry materials surrounding it. Slowly the body dried and shriveled. Finally the moisture had completely disappeared and the body was as dry and as hard as rawhide. In this state it has lasted very well. The process is just the same as that by which a fleshy, juicy plum is reduced to a dried prune. As the moisture evaporated the flesh dried and shriveled. A human prune resulted.

Mummies are practically always found in caves; only very rarely have they been found in open ruins. The dry conditions necessary for mummification can scarcely exist without the protection of the cave. One of the first questions that arises in connection with mummies is that of why the ancient Indians sometimes buried the dead in caves where they themselves lived. First of all it must be considered that the early people buried only a small percentage of their dead in the caves. Cliff Palace, in Mesa Verde National Park, is a typical case. That cave was occupied by three or four hundred people at a time, for a couple of centuries. There were hundreds of deaths. Mr. John Wetherill, who was one of the discoverers of Cliff Palace, says that fourteen mummies were found in it at the time of discovery. In addition there were a few skeletons in the cave. This means that of the hundreds of bodies disposed of during the two centuries, not more than two score were buried in the cave.

Many suggestions have been made, none of which seems especially logical, so no harm can come from the suggestion of another answer to the problem of these few cave burials. During the winter the Mesa Verde is sometimes subjected to severe, blizzard-like storms. The snow reaches a depth of two or three feet. At such times the Cliff Dwellers were probably a cold, more or less miserable group of people. When death came at such a time they were probably very reluctant about going out to dig a grave down through the snow and frozen earth. The only escape was by burying within the cave. In the rear was a long low space where there were no houses. This was the turkey roost and it was here that part of the refuse from the village was thrown. In this dry refuse the mummies are found. Could these have been burials that were made within the cave in order to avoid severe winter storms? There in the back of the cave they would have remained cold for several months. Because of the cold, decomposition would not have set in. By the time warm weather came, dehydration would have been well under way. As a result, the bodies mummified. It seems possible, then, that the mummies may have resulted from winter burials.

In the museum of Mesa Verde National Park are a number of well preserved mummies typical of those found in the Mesa Verde area as well as in other parts of the Southwest. To a few of the visitors they are a bit gruesome, but most people enjoy the mummies more than any other ancient objects in the museum. This is well evidenced by the fact that glasses on exhibit cases containing mummies always gather more finger and nose prints than do the glasses on other cases.

The outstanding mummy in the Mesa Verde Museum is "Esther". She is the newest, having arrived only last summer, but she is already the most famous. In the short time that she has been on display she has gained a host of admirers. A surprising thing about Esther is that, being so well preserved and having a name, she has become a personality. To many people she has become almost an actual being. No one refers to her as a mummy.

"Where is Esther?" is the first question many people ask, upon entering the park museum.

"Esther is just around the corner in the second room," is the museum attendant's answer.

From any conversation that ensues, no listener would suspect that Esther is only a mummy. She was found in a cave in Falls Creek Canyon, nine miles north of Durango, Colorado. The cave was excavated in 1938 by Earl Morris, archaeologist of Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. Esther had been found shortly before the formal excavation, but she was turned over to the Carnegie Institution and has been loaned to the Mesa Verde Museum. The cave, located at the base of a high cliff, was very shallow. In the back was a deep, well-protected cleft in the rocks, filled with dry trash and earth. There, under the protective covering that had kept her intact for at least 1700 years, sat Esther.

Often when a mummy is found someone calls it a name and that name sticks. We will never know the name the woman had in life, but in death she has become Esther. With her in the crevice was the mummy of a young man now known as "Jasper". Just what relations existed between Esther and Jasper is not known but even in death they knew no privacy. Seventeen other bodies were buried in the same spot. Out of all these burials, Esther was in the driest place, so her body was the best preserved of the entire group.

Archaeologists who have seen Esther feel that she is the most nearly perfect mummy that has been found in the Southwest. The skin over the entire body is unbroken except for a small patch on each leg just below the knee. The skin is dried and shriveled, and as hard as weathered rawhide. In color it is a light brown but in some places there is a warm reddish-brown tone that could have been the natural color of the young lady's skin 1700 years ago. Esther weighs only sixteen pounds. In life she was about five feet, three inches tall, so she must have weighed over 100 pounds. This is a striking demonstration of the fact that the human body is 85 or 90 percent water.

Some people are inclined to feel that Esther died in agony because her face is set in a horrible grimace. The tongue is extended and is tightly clenched between the teeth. The right eye is open but the left one is almost closed. The left side of the mouth is drawn up in a leer. The face is such as anyone can make by extending the tongue, biting down on it, squinting the left eye and drawing up the left corner of the mouth. It is the face Esther probably would make at curious onlookers if she were to come suddenly to life.

The Basket Makers and the Cliff Dwellers usually buried their dead in a fully flexed position: the arms folded across the chest, and the legs tightly drawn up against the body. Esther is only partially flexed. The arms are folded across the stomach, with the left hand grasping the right wrist. The lower limbs are bent slightly forward at the hips, with the lower logs bent tightly back against the upper legs. The head, turned slightly to the left, is covered with a thick mat of short hair. Basket Maker women usually wore a short bob, their hair being needed for ropes. The men sometimes wore their hair long, braided into an elaborate coiffure. Esther's only garment is a small apron of juniper bark held by a yucca fiber string about her waist.

Image omitted from the online edition.

It is interesting to speculate about the cause of this young woman's death. No definite conclusions have been reached. Complete X-rays have been taken of her entire body but no evidences of violence are visible. Every bone is intact and no foreign bodies such as arrow or spearheads are present. Even the teeth are perfect. The fact that the wisdom teeth were just ready to erupt indicates an age of about nineteen. Since no evidence of violence shows in the X-rays it is impossible to say what caused the untimely death of this young woman. Considering the fact that she was only nineteen, and was probably very attractive, one is tempted to wonder. Unfortunately, a broken heart does not show in an X-ray!

Esther is becoming more famous every day. Even though she is one of the oldest "women" in the Southwest she still has appeal. Visitors stand in front of her and speculate endlessly on the most intimate details of her life. There was a time when Esther would have blushed at things they say, but now she doesn't seem to mind.

Esther lived during the Basket Maker period. Her people, who are called Basket Makers because of their beautifully woven baskets, lived in the Four Corners region in the early centuries of the Christian Era. They were the first farmers in the region and although their culture was very simple, it developed into the great Pueblo culture a few centuries later.

Another excellent mummy in the Mesa Verde Museum is that of a small boy of perhaps two or three. X-rays of the teeth have not been taken so the exact age is uncertain. The body is well mummified, but small patches of skin are missing and the lower part of the right leg has disappeared. The skin has lost all of its former color and is an uninteresting dull gray shade. Part of a small slip-over cotton shirt still hangs around the shoulders. Several pieces of cotton in which the body was wrapped are well preserved. This mummy is not popular with visitors. It has such a negative personality that it has never been named. Even though it is well preserved, it fails to click. The spark is not there; that certain something is missing.

It seems strange that an archaeological museum should house a problem child, but for a great many years the Mesa Verde Museum had "Tony". Some doctors and dentists claimed that Tony was a normal child of four or five. Others argued that it was a cretin, or dwarf, of much greater age. Many years ago when Tony was found in a crevice in Mummy House, a well-known doctor said the body was that of a cretin. This meant that Tony was an adult who, through some glandular deficiency, had failed to grow larger than a five-year-old child. Certain things about the formation and size of the bones led the doctor to that conclusion. Other doctors were consulted and immediately there was dissension, some arguing that Tony was a normal child. For years the argument continued until at last Tony was taken to a dentist. On that day the mummy became a child of five years. The X-ray showed the six-year molars in their normal place in the jaw bone, almost ready to erupt.

Tony is only a fair mummy. The legs are missing and some of the skin is gone from the face. The torso, however, is in good condition, with the internal organs well preserved. The sex of this mummy is not known, even though the name indicates that the child was a boy. Tony is only a nickname, however. Originally the mummy was christened "Antoinette".

In 1935, the mummified head of "The Old Man" was found. The condition of the bones indicates decapitation. For some reason the head was cut from the body and buried by itself. Over it was a willow mat and a turkey feather robe, and beside it was a mug. It seemed to be a perfectly normal burial - except that the body was missing! This perplexing burial was found in Adobe Cave, a very shallow opening at the foot of the cliff near Mug House, a large cliff dwelling. This mummified head is in good condition except that the face is somewhat contorted due to pressure in the grave. Practically all of the hair is still in place. "The Old Man" was a Pueblo Indian, not a "Basket Maker", for the skull is broad and is decidedly flattened from the pressure of the hard cradle board. Since the burial was found so near Mug House, it seems safe to assume that he once lived there. It is impossible to determine whether decapitation took place before or after death.

One of the interesting features of this mummified head is the definite evidence that it was once very thickly populated. The hairs are covered with hundreds of little silvery specks. They are nits - louse eggs! And if the scalp were searched very carefully the mummified lice themselves probably could be found. "The Old Man" was a serious menace to the comfort of his neighbors. Perhaps they resorted to a very drastic method of getting rid of the infestation!

These are excellent examples of the mummies that are found in the ruins of the Southwest. They hold a peculiar fascination. To a few people they are morbid and ghastly. To many, however, they have a certain warmth, for they are the nearest approach to the ancient people. When viewing Esther, one need only remember that there, minus the moisture and the spark of life, is a Basket Maker woman. The moisture could be replaced easily - a thorough soaking in a tub of water would do that. Then if, by some strange alchemy, the spark of life could be restored, this young woman of seventeen centuries ago would arise and speak. No one would understand her, though, and Esther would be terribly embarassed, so the experiment may as well be dropped.

Mummies, because of this human touch, will always be the most interesting reminders of the ancient inhabitants of the Southwest. They have come to us solely because of the natural dryness of the region. The air is dry; the earth is dry, and the great caves where sorrowing relatives sometimes buried the dead are often exceptionally dry. Natural mummification, or dehydration, was the result.

Visitors to the region often notice the dryness. Occasionally some suffer from nosebleed, because the membranes of the nose dry out and become brittle. Their lips crack, and their hands get dry and rough. They fail to realize that they are in the first stages of mummification!

<<< Previous
> Contents <
Next >>>
Date: 17-Nov-2005