WASHINGTON -- She reposes in a refrigerated glass cube set off in a darkened corner of the National Geographic Society's headquarters here. She is history personified, a being from the past abruptly removed from her mountain tomb.
Her hair is long and black and luxuriant; it falls down and away from her oval face. Her skin is faintly olive in color, with the pink windburn on the cheeks typical of the people of the sierra. Her arms are sinewy. Her graceful throat is dusted with frost. Her lower body is wrapped in alpaca wool, of red and faded ocher. Her sandals rest by her side.
This is Juanita, the 500-year-old mummy-cum-virgin sacrifice from the Peruvian Andes that went on display this week in Explorer's Hall. Her presence here is generating excitement, especially among children. Mummies generally do.
Katie O'Hara, a tour guide, found that out this week. She was taking 70 children through the building when they learned that Juanita had just gone on display.
"We had to force the kids to see the other exhibits," she says. "They all wanted to see her."
So did O'Hara. She believes people are drawn to mummies because they personify the idea of life after death, something which they are struggling to understand.
Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University, agrees. Few people are more familiar with mummies than she. She's dug up about 100 over the past couple of years during her summer excavations in Luxor, Egypt. She is also the caretaker of Baltimore's premier mummy, a woman named Boris.
"There's always been that fascination with life after death, the possibility of preparing for having life after death," says Bryan. "Because the Egyptians seemed more convinced of it than most cultures, they spent a vast part of their personal resources preparing for it."
The average Egyptian who could afford mummification would spend up to a year and a half's worth of his or her income for the three coffins needed to cruise safely into the afterworld, she said. That money did not pay for all the expensive pharmacological procedures involved in the process.
Juanita isn't that kind of mummy. She was killed by a hard blow to the head and left by Incan priests on Mount Ampato as a sacrifice to appease the mountain gods. Mummified naturally by freezing temperatures, she was discovered in the snows last September.
A week ago, over protests by archaeologists in Peru, Juanita was shipped to Baltimore for X-rays at the Hopkins Hospital. Then she kicked off the dust of our town for the allure of Washington.
She'll be on exclusive public display in Explorer's Hall through June 16. That's a pretty good gig for a mummy only 500 years old -- a tyro, and frozen at that.
The children fluttering around the exhibit here seemed to relate to Juanita almost as if she were a contemporary. They were less inclined than adults to thoughts of eternity and mortality.
"It's like we can see what people wore back there," said Kristina Blake. At 14 she is just about the same age as the Incan sacrificial victim. "This is really fascinating. She looks like she's doing a sit-up. She's got good teeth."
Roxanna Rosel, an older visitor from California, was unsettled by the mummy. "I feel eerie having this woman here," she said. "It seems she should be back in the mountains where she died rather than here in Washington in a box."
The suggestion is that, somehow, Juanita is not quite a legitimate mummy, rather just a frozen human being snatched out of her century. Which is to say, there are mummies and there are mummies.
But with Baltimore's Boris, there's no doubt, no place for questions about authenticity. As mummies go, Boris is the real McCoy. She's 2,500 years old.
So how did she get her inappropriate name? According to Betsy Bryan, graduate students in archaeology always called her that before Hopkins radiologists X-rayed her and learned she was a female. By then it was too late. The name had stuck.
Boris has a crooked smile like actress Ellen Barkin. She has cheekbones that Cindy Crawford would kill for. Her arms are crossed, modestly, to conceal her bare breasts -- though it's hardly necessary, since they're long gone. Even with that strange hole in her side, she's worth contemplating now that Juanita has moved down the parkway.
Boris reclines in a two-room museum in Gilman Hall that displays mainly artifacts from ancient Egypt and classical Greece and Rome. It -- and she -- constitute one of the city's best kept secrets.
"This is a first-class mummy," says Bryan. "She's a terrific specimen. The skeleton is in absolutely perfect condition. There's an awful lot of original tissue, and nerves visible."
They are visible because Boris is unwrapped from the waist up, which is why, as the curator puts it, "the kids love her." They can see what she looked like.