Unwrapping the Mummy with Rebeca Carrión Cachot

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few other people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am celebrating ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers. The sixth person to be honored is Rebeca Carrión Cachot. She also represents Latinx Heritage Month.

50th Anniversary of Death of Rebeca Carrión Cachot

An Embarrassingly Hard Lesson

Dr. Rebeca Carrión Cachot had an inauspicious introduction to archaeology. In the later 1920s, Rebeca was visiting the National Museum of Archaeology in Lima, Peru. She was studying the display of textiles when Dr. Julio Tello approached her. She recognized him immediately as the country’s first indigenous Peruvian archaeologist. Tello had an encyclopedic knowledge of Peruvian archeology.

“How do you like the displays?”

Rebeca, who had just graduated from college, replied,

“Oh, they are enchanting, Dr. Tello! Do tell me, in what store do you buy such beautiful things?”

Tello glared at her. “In the storehouses of your ancestors, young lady!,” he said, ignoring the fact that she was not an indigenous person.

On future visits, an embarrassed Rebeca avoided Tello by ducking behind exhibits.

One day she summoned her courage and approached him, saying, “Dr. Tello, I would very much like to work here.”

Tello stared at her for what seemed to be an eternity. Rebeca braced herself for rejection.

Finally, Dr. Tello answered: “Very well then. Come in tomorrow at eight o’clock.”

When Rebeca arrived the next day, Dr. Tello led her to an exhibit of pre-Incan pottery.

“Write me a careful description of every piece in this case.”

She enthusiastically got to work describing the detailed lines on the pottery as “graceful as the path of a swooping seagull.”

At the day’s end, Dr. Tello skimmed her descriptions. He pointed to a vase.

“Look at that. See any sea gulls? See any colors as tender as dawn? Let me tell you what I see.”

He tossed her notes on the desk. “I see a symmetrical, unglazed vase twenty-four centimeters high, mouth twelve centimeters across, narrowing to a neck eight centimeters in diameter. Greatest diameter of the vase, twenty centimeters at point eleven centimeters from the top. From that point, vase tapers to a base fifteen centimeters across. Color, natural terra cotta decoration, band three centimeters wide around the widest part, representing stylized birds done in white clay.”

He paused.

“Tender as the dawn. Such twaddle!” He grabbed Rebeca’s notes, ripped them, and ceremoniously threw them in the waste bin.

Dr. Tello turned to her and said, “Now tomorrow you take the same case and write down what you really see.”

Rebeca slunk away, determined not to cry in front of Dr. Tello. The next morning, she set to work, “grimly noting measurements, proportions, and colors.”

For two weeks, Dr. Tello gave her the “dustiest, grimiest, most exacting and dullest tasks that” he could find. She worked hard but was discouraged.

She recalled, “At the end of the second week I went to Dr. Tello to tell him I didn't think I could keep it up. Before I could speak, he said to me, ‘You have done very well, young lady. From now on, you work in here as my assistant.’”

Within three years, Carrión Cachot was the curator of the Museum of the National University of San Marcos. She received her doctorate and became the first woman in Peru to hold a university chair.

Rebeca Carrión Cachot receiving a mummy from shipping

Unwrapping the Mummy

In 1935, Blair Niles, one of the founders of the Society of Woman Geographers, visited Rebeca and Tello at the Museo Bolívariano, on the outskirts of Lima, to witness the unveiling of a mummy.

Rebeca handed Blair a smock.

“There will be much dust.”

Tello told Blair that the mummy they were opening came from outside of Paracas. “I’ll prophesize that this mummy we are going to open will be a priest and an old man, for every mummy that we’ve opened so far from that cemetery has been old and a priest.”

Tello unwrapping the mummy

Tello began to unwrap the mummy with another professor, while Rebeca took notes. Blair expected it to be a relatively quick process, but it took ten hours over two days. When the finally revealed, Blair was surprised to see that the mummy was sitting naked in its basket, “a dark and shriveled figure, in the attitude of the child in the womb, its heels close to the end of its spine, its feet crossed, the sole of one foot on the top of the other, the toes turned in and up.”

Dr. Tello turned to Blair.

“You see, as I told you, this is the body of an old man, and from the richness and number of its trappings we know the man was a priest of high rank.”

“If only he could come alive and tell us … all about it!,” Blair gushed.

“No, it’s better as it is. For now, what we have here is the truth. And if he could come alive he might want to impress us, and some of what he would tell us might not be true.”

After the unwrapping of the mummy, Blair invited Rebeca to join the Society of Woman Geographers. A few years later, two other members, Te Ata and Dorothy Bennett visited Tello and Rebeca on their way to view an eclipse.

Society Members Dorothy Bennett and Te Ata with Dr. Tello, AMNH collections

Rebeca continued to work with Dr. Tello for more than twenty years until his death. In 1947, she assumed his position as the director of the National Museum of Archaeology. She had come a long way from the romantic college student who thought that the museum purchased its antiquities in a store. It was a story she was no longer embarrassed to tell.

Other Posts in this Series

  1. Amelia Earhart, aviator

  2. Mickie Akeley, old school explorer

  3. Mary Vaux Walcott, botanist

  4. Lucile Quarry Mann, naturalist

  5. Frances Oldham Kelsey, pharmacologist

  6. Rebeca Carion Cachot, anthropologist

  7. Louise Arner Boyd, Arctic Explorer

  8. Caroline Mytinger, Artist Explorer

  9. Gloria Hollister, Marine Biologist

  10. Blair Niles, Explorer and Author

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