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Applying Science Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by Tom Gidwitz

Stuart Fleming uses modern technology to read the human past hidden within the simplest objects.

[image] Stuart Fleming, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology, stands in front of the building that has been his professional home for more than 25 years. (James DeMarco) [LARGER IMAGE]

Early one Saturday morning in August 1981, Stuart Fleming watched eagerly as a small bundle had its picture taken in the University of Pennsylvania Hospital radiology lab. The bundle was an Inca mummy dated from the sixth to ninth centuries A.D. swathed in reeds, netting, and a beautiful textile of red and cream squares--a sign of high status. The machine hummed, the pictures were taken, and the film was dispatched to the processing lab. Fleming, director of the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, is a regular visitor to the radiology lab during off hours, when he, museum conservators, and hospital staff x-ray ancient artifacts for information hidden from the naked eye.

"We knew we had an important individual there," Fleming recalled over coffee in the museum café this past spring. The mummy, one of more than a million objects the museum has acquired throughout its 100-year history, had been unearthed in Peru in 1896 at a huge temple complex dedicated to Pachacamac, god of fire and bringer of life. According to myth Pachacamac had created food when he killed his newborn stepbrother in a jealous fit, cut up the corpse, and buried the pieces, which then grew into fruits and vegetables.

The processed x-rays were rushed from the lab and snapped into the light box on the wall. Everyone gasped. "It gave me one of the most extraordinary experiences of my career," says Fleming. "Here was an x-ray of an infant with a stone blade in its throat, literally struck right through its mouth." Thrust by a practiced hand, the blade had penetrated the baby's neck and severed the spine. The infant's legs had been cut off at the thigh and crossed. He says, "It was all there as a story written right in front of our eyes, an expert sacrifice, a very deliberate spring fertility rite."

The skull showed trauma, and the researchers wondered if a blow had rendered the child unconscious. "We know all the bloodthirsty aspects of sacrifice in Mesoamerica, but this was something much softer. You had a sense they cared about this child even though they were going to kill it," says Fleming. "There had been a very conscious approach to making it a painless death."

This was a typical Stuart Fleming moment: uniting technology, a knowledge of history, and an empathy for human motive to reveal the past. For Fleming, an artifact's composition can be as illuminating as its form and function. Originally trained as a radiation physicist, the 61-year-old, Welsh-born Fleming has spent decades revealing how changes in materials, design, and manufacturing reflect the course of ancient cultures.

Tom Gidwitz is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America