A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
You can almost feel the frigid Andean winds in Johan Reinhard's The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Books, 2005; $26), which combines adventure writing and insights into Inca culture with an introduction to the rigors and rewards of high-altitude archaeology. The book also offers a less-than-inspiring look at what one of Reinhard's colleagues calls "mummy politics," as competing scientists, universities, and South American bureaucrats vie to control these finds.
The opening chapters cover the remarkable discovery, conservation, study, and display of the "Ice Maiden," dubbed "Juanita," a well-preserved mummy that Reinhard spies by chance on a Peruvian mountain in 1995. Some 500 years earlier, Juanita had been marched up the slopes and sacrificed to the Incas' fierce mountain gods. Now she compels the attention of scientists and journalists worldwide and draws crowds wherever her refrigerated remains are exhibited.
One of a handful of archaeologists who frequently work at high altitudes, Reinhard has spent 20 years in the Andes, and his clearly written narrative moves back and forth in time as he searches for "the perfect mummy," one in even better condition than Juanita. After some repetitiveness--one climb begins to merge with the next--the tale climaxes with his account of scaling the Argentinean peak Llullaillaco. The expedition is dogged by catastrophe: blizzard conditions slow the digging; two archaeologists pursue a personal feud; the photographer develops a near-fatal illness; and Reinhard is plagued by laryngitis.
But the archaeological, and narrative, payoff is worth the arduous journey. As awed by the Incas' mountaineering skills as he is appalled by their murderous religion, Reinhard discovers three mummies so perfectly preserved that their internal organs are intact. A bureaucrat tries to force him to store them in a former Argentinean military facility, but he musters the power of the press and wins their release to Argentina's Catholic University.
"There is nothing...that can begin to compare with the uniqueness, complexity, and unlimited knowledge provided by a frozen mummy," Reinhard exults, and the last few pages of The Ice Maiden are devoted to analysis of the remains. Still, this is mostly a story of adventure and discovery. It's clear that for Reinhard, most powerful of all is the joy of his mountain quests.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic for The New York Times, Smithsonian, and other publications.
Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's bookstore.