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Feb. 13, 2019

William Lovis: A mummy returns home

Feb. 13, 2019

William Lovis (pictured left) is professor emeritus of anthropology and curator emeritus of anthropology in the College of Social Science. He is currently an editor of Midwest Archaeological Perspectives and an affiliate for Lithic Microwear Research Laboratory.

After a 45-year career at MSU, the absolute last thing I ever thought I would be doing during retirement was to complete the repatriation to Bolivia of the 500-year old mummy of a young Andean girl!

My multiyear effort recently culminated with the Jan. 22 arrival of the mummy and her funerary accoutrements at the Washington, D.C., Embassy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia — many months after my retirement.

The mummy, nicknamed Ñusta, a Quechua word for “Princess,” has a long MSU history. Research with MSU Museum records revealed that she had been donated to the MSU Museum in 1890 by then U.S. Consul to Chile and MSU Board of Trustees member Hon. William B. McCreery. She came from south of LaPaz, Bolivia, and had originally been placed in a stone tomb, or chullpa, along with a variety of accoutrements including pouches, bags, a small clay jar, sandals, beads, feathers and several types of plants including maize, beans, grasses, kapok and coca.

In order to assess the age of the burial, which was reputed to be “Pre Columbian” and “Inca,” I had the maize from a pouch radiocarbon dated, which revealed that it was as old as the second half of the 15th century, corroborating the likelihood of the tomb burial predating Columbus’s arrival — and prior to the Spanish conquest of the Inca.

These documents also revealed that throughout the first half of the 20th century she had been prominently displayed in early iterations of the MSU Museum, including locations in Zoology, the Auditorium and, ultimately, in the current MSU Museum building, the location where I first saw her in the mid 1960s.

I recall her being on display through the 1970s. My documentary research found her mentioned in the State News from the 1940s, as well as on blog posts, including one by the daughter of former Museum curator Victor Hogg.

Her image was even included on a MSU Museum postcard, and even today people still inquire as to her whereabouts. As societal sentiments toward the display of human remains in the U.S. changed, I became part of a group of museum curators who successfully recommended that the Bolivian mummy be taken off display.

Following her removal from the exhibits, she remained in storage for more than 30 years. As a research curator, I tried to generate interest in someone undertaking analysis and documentation on the mummy, as had been done with Ötzi in Europe, and the famous Egyptian mummies — but to no avail. With a limited prospect for research, and the dim likelihood of future display, I initiated discussions with then acting MSU Museum director Lora Helou about repatriating the mummy and her associated burial objects to Bolivia. Helou agreed, catalyzing an effort starting in 2016 that took me through my consulting year and into retirement.

One of my goals was to develop an information archive useful to future researchers and to museums in her home country of Bolivia. I began — and coordinated — a comprehensive, collaborative, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional program of photographic and minimally-invasive documentation using leading edge technologies — the results of which will be published and shared with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the National Museum of Archaeology of Bolivia. Researchers from MSU Departments of Radiology, AgBio Research and Anthropology participated in this work.

Optimistically, I thought this would take less time than it did. Surmounting multiple national and institutional bureaucracies and personalities, MSU administrative changes, language differences, juggling documentation protocols and working through ethical and legal issues presented an ongoing series of, at times, daunting challenges — only accomplished with the assistance of colleagues Jose Capriles, Allison Davis and David Trigo.

Remember the coca leaves? There were some minor legal diversions surrounding their presence, including consultation with and a visit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

As my repatriation efforts came close to closure, I finally attended the Oct. 26, 2018 MSU Board of Trustees meeting, where they deaccessioned the mummy and her associated funerary paraphernalia. La Momía was no longer an MSU possession, but had officially become the property of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

Arrangements were subsequently made by current Museum director Mark Auslander to have U.S. Art package and transport our Bolivian charge to Washington D.C. and deliver her to the Bolivian Embassy on Jan. 22, 2019, where I witnessed her arrival on Bolivian soil in the United States.

By design, her arrival coincided with the annual anniversary celebration of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, which included a reception with the young lady in prominent view, an indigenous Aymara ceremony, members of the Bolivian delegation, including Deputy Charge d’Affairs Alejandro Bilbao La Vieja Ruiz and a group from MSU — including me.

While I am now quite pleased and personally gratified that the physical transfer is complete, my continuing goal, in retirement, is to make the information we acquired available to Bolivia and other interested audiences, and to continue my collaboration with the National Archaeology Museum in LaPaz.

After 129 years, on the anniversary of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, MSU’s “Bolivian mummy” has been repatriated to her home nation and people.