The Head That Lost Its Body

December 03, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Little is known about the head under glass.

Old, certainly. Perhaps more than 2,000 years old. But well preserved: hair, ears, nose, lips, even eyelids, all there.

One problem, said Arnold Norden, vice president of the Natural History Society of Maryland: "We don't have a body to go with it."

They looked around the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where bodies and limbs of some 200 people are preserved, but couldn't find it. It wasn't at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, either, nor the Field Museum in Chicago.

Years ago, possibly somewhere between Peru and Maryland, the body was lost.

Near as anybody can tell, the mummified head, apparently that of a man, has been sitting around the Natural History Society of Maryland in Baltimore since the 1930s. It spent years in a cardboard box before being put on display in a glass bell about 15 years ago.

Lately, Mr. Norden has been getting concerned about the head. It's not looking well.

"You can see it's got flakes coming off here," said Mr. Norden, noting cracks forming on the hard, brown, leathery surface of the cheeks. "These things need to be kept in climate-controlled, temperature-controlled conditions."

Nothing of the sort exists at the headquarters of the Natural History Society of Maryland, an organization with a budget of about $7,000 and fewer than 20 active members.

Years ago the society moved from a museum in the Maryland House in Druid Hill Park to a three-story rowhouse on North Charles Street. Dusty shelves are jammed with several hundred thousand specimens collected since the society was formed in 1929: skulls, fossils, minerals, preserved reptiles and insects, American Indian artifacts, pottery shards, stuffed birds and small animals. And the mummified head, which sits atop a wooden specimen case on the third floor.

"Every once in a while we have a small child who's scared to death of it," said Mr. Norden. "My teen-age daughter doesn't like to come up here for that reason."

Months ago, Mr. Norden said, he hoped to find it a new home at the Smithsonian "where they can take good care of it and hopefully unite it with the rest of the body."

Mr. Norden figured there was a chance the Smithsonian had the body because the inscription that goes with the head says that a study of the mummy is on record there. He called the Smithsonian and asked them to check. A lengthy search came up empty.

"The body is not here," said David Hunt, the Smithsonian collections manager for the physical anthropology department. He said the museum has a storage room with ancient limbs and bodies preserved at about 70 degrees and 40 percent humidity, but nothing that fits the mummified head.

Mr. Hunt called the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum, but no body was there.

The Smithsonian will accept the head in the next week or two as a donation from the Natural History Society. John Verano, a Smithsonian research anthropologist whose specialties are physical anthropology and Peru, said he's anxious to have a look at it.

"I think it would be a good addition for us," said Mr. Verano, who has visited the desert peninsula of Paracas on Peru's southern coast where the head is believed to have been found.

If the information on the inscription is correct, Mr. Verano said, the head was part of a "spectacular" find: the cemetery at Cerro Colorado, which in Spanish means "colored hill."

The site was scientifically discovered in 1925 by Julio C. Tello, a medical doctor and anthropologist considered the "father of Peruvian archaeology," said Mr. Verano.

Looters had already found the place by the time Dr. Tello got there, but he was able to supervise the excavation of a mortuary probably dating from 400 to 200 B.C.

The cemetery yielded several hundred mummies wrapped in hundreds of yards of brightly colored wool and cotton cloth.

The richness of the fabrics suggests that "some very high status people were buried in Paracas. It could be considered an elite burial site," Mr. Verano said. Most of the mummies found there were moved to the National Museum in Lima, but Dr. Tello brought some to New York and Europe, said Mr. Verano.

Mr. Norden said he doesn't know how the head got to the society. Neither did Milton Oler, of Timonium, who has been a member since 1934.

"It's been here probably since the beginning of the society," said Mr. Oler.

The only information the society has on the head is the 13-line inscription in Spanish. The head is identified as that of either a high priest or governor, but Mr. Verano doubts anyone can say for sure what the person did in life.

"We don't know enough about Paracas society to identify individuals," said Mr. Verano.

The body would help identify the sex of the person and perhaps yield clues about the cause of death, Mr. Verano said. He said he'll probably examine the head with an X-ray, but with just "the head by itself, it'll be hard to say much about it."

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