Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Multimedia: Frozen in the Past Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by Paul G. Bahn

NOVA's Ice Mummies, an extraordinary trio of one-hour shows on ancient frozen corpses, which aired last fall, offers a judicious balance of academic commentary and excavation shots that make for some of the most riveting of recent archaeological programming. "Frozen in Heaven," the most interesting and moving, investigates evidence for the Inka rite of capac cocha, the sacrifice of children to the mountain gods. Andean villagers still believe that the great mountains have supernatural power, especially over the weather and that they must be placated. According to early European chroniclers, this was achieved by child sacrifice, and the discovery in recent decades of several well-preserved children's bodies from this period, recovered at high elevation, seems to bear this out.

We are shown three of the best-known examples: a seven-year-old boy found in 1985 on Mt. Aconcagua in northeast Argentina who seems to have been fed just before death a red liquid, which still coats his teeth and clothing (the liquid may have provoked vomiting); the famous Juanita, found in 1995 on Mt. Ampato in southern Peru, who was shown by CAT scans to have died from a blow to the head; and the amazingly well preserved El Plomo boy found in Chile in the 1950s wearing magnificent textiles and footwear.

The second show, "Siberian Ice Maiden," concerns the now-famous 1993 excavation of a frozen tomb on the Ukok Plateau in the Siberian Altai by Russian archaeologist Natalya Polosmak. The tomb contained the bodies of six fairly old horses, sacrificed with blows to the head to accompany the deceased, a practice still common in the region earlier this century. We see Polosmak and her team open the long, larch-log coffin and melt the solid white ice inside with cups of hot water. In it is the body of a 25-year-old woman who died about 2,400 years ago. Her head has lost its flesh, but some wonderful swirling tattooed figures of mythical beasts can be seen on her arms and hands. About 5'6" tall, she was carefully embalmed: the brain and internal organs were removed and the body was packed with fur, wool, and natural preservatives such as bark and peat. Her eyes were also cut out and the sockets stuffed with fur.

The third program, "Return of the Iceman," deals briefly with the now well-known tale of the discovery of a 5,300-year-old frozen corpse in the Italian Alps in 1991, focusing on the latest findings and bringing the story up to date with the Iceman's transportation to, and installation in, the new museum in Bolzano, Italy (see "Ötzi's New Home," January/February 1999). In some ways this is the most informative of the three shows because the Iceman, unlike the Andean children or the Ice Maiden, died on the mountain while going about his daily routine, and his clothing and equipment provide us with a glimpse of life in this region 5,300 years ago.

These exceptionally informative shows stand as important documents in their own right and will be invaluable teaching aids for years to come.

Paul G. Bahn is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America