Tuesday, 2 August 2022

The Lost Andean Mummy of The Royal College of Surgeons

The Hunterian's Peruvian mummy as depicted in Pettigrew's History of Egyptian Mummies (1834)

Don’t ask me why but I am fascinated by the lost mummies of the Hunterian Museum. Before the second world war the Royal College of Surgeons had an outstanding collection of preserved corpses including the mysterious Miss Johnson who died at the Locke Hospital in the early 1770’s but was preserved by the surgeon John Sheldon and then kept naked in his bedroom in a specially designed cabinet. Also dating from the 1770’s were the remnants of Maria Van Butchell embalmed by her eccentric dentist husband Martin and John Hunter himself. Along with these relatively recent, and unusual, experiments in human preservation the museum had a small selection of Egyptian mummies, both human and animal and as well as sundry other preserved remains acquired at one time or another by John Hunter or his successors.  A recent anonymous comment on my post about the mummified boy found in a bricked-up vault at St Botolph’s Without Aldgate in 1742 alerted me to an entry in C.J.S. Thompson’s 1929 Guide to the surgical instruments and objects in the Hunterian, which included the St Botolph’s mummy. I had not been aware that this object had found its way into the Hunterian – I had thought it had simply been lost. It was in my efforts to trace when the Hunterian acquired the mummy that I came across an article on the museum from 1860 by Andrew Wynter in the long defunct Once a Week magazine.  The article mentions not only the St. Botolph’s but yet another lost mummy, this one from Peru. It even carries an illustration of it although it is only mentioned in passing in the text. The Peruvian mummy however is not mentioned in the 1929 guide and must not have been on display at the time so there is a possibility it survived the incendiary bombs. 

Note from Sir Everard Home

The Peruvian mummy was donated to the Hunterian on 27 May 1823 by King George IV; a hastily scrawled note from Sir Everard Home, John Hunter’s son-in-law, in the archives of the RCS says “Gentleman, I have the King’s command to authorise the transfer of the mummy of the Inca to the Royal College of Surgeons”. Entry 742 on page 53 of Part IV of the 1831 catalogue of the Hunterian, printed for the RCS by Richard Taylor of Red Lion Court, not only explains how it came to in the museum but gives a very detailed description. This striking passage is quoted in full in Thomas Pettigrew’s History of Egyptian Mummies (1834) alongside a line drawing of the mummy;

The body of a Peruvian, which was found in one of the native sepulchres, or guacas in some calcareous hills in the district of Caxamarca in Peru. Tradition, preserved among the inhabitants of the country, stated the spot in which the body was found buried, to have been the site of a voluntary sacrifice of the life of a Curaca, one of an order of nobles immediately following in dignity the members of the blood-royal. Colonel Tomas Heres, at that time (1821) Governor of the province of Caxamarca, hearing of this tradition, and knowing it to have been the custom of the ancient Peruvians to bury with their dead whatever household goods or implements they had, during life, been possessed of, ordered these guacas to be opened. As he expected, he found therein various objects of interest, which he remitted to the Museum of Lima. He also found, at about ten or twelve feet below the surface, three human bodies viz the above specimen which is a male, another of a female, which crumbled to dust when exposed to the air, and a third, of a young child about a year old, which latter was presented by Colonel Heres to General Don Juan Gregorio las Heras, and is preserved in the Museum of Buenos Ayres.

Tradition also places the period of interment a very short time previous to the arrival of Pizarro at Rimac, or Lima, somewhere between 1530 and 1540. The only weapon found with the bodies was an axe, or bludgeon of green jade stone very similar in shape to those brought from New Holland. Under the arm of the child was a ball, of two or three inches diameter, of very fine thread or worsted of Vicugna wool. The bodies were merely placed in an excavation in the earth of about ten feet deep. The soil is calcareous, and perhaps, to this circumstance, as well as the dryness of the air, is to be attributed the preservation of the bodies in an undecomposed state. Indeed throughout the highlands of Peru the desiccating process goes on so fast, as to arrest the putrefactive process very much; animal substances will be completely dried up by mere exposure to the air. The bodies are not found wrapped up in linen, as amongst the Egyptians, but they are sometimes covered with the skin of the Vicugna or Peruvian camel, bound closely to the body with ligatures. The poorer classes were generally buried on the eastern aspect of mountains, while the richer were entombed in their own dwellings; the bodies being clothed in their accustomed garments and the weapons, utensils &c. they had used during life, were buried with them; the house was then forsaken by the rest of the family, and the interior of its walls filled up with earth so as to become quite solid. The bodies are generally found extended and lying on the back.

The native Peruvians are now Catholics, and bury their dead according to the rites of that church, although they introduce some of their Pagan customs with the prescribed ceremonies. The above specimen was brought to England by the late General Paroissien, Deputy from the government of Peru, as a present from General San Martin to his late majesty King George the Fourth, by whom it was presented to the Museum in 1823.

General James (Diego) Parossien

General James Paroissien is an interesting character. Despite the French name he was born in Barking in 1784, to a Huguenot family.  At the age of 22, recently qualified as a doctor and fired with the spirit of freedom and liberation that was sweeping Europe at the time, he took ship to South America and joined the army fighting to free Chile and Peru from the yoke of Spanish rule. He became surgeon-general to the army of the Andes and a trusted confidant of José de San Martín, the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru. In 1822 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Europe to raise funds for recently liberated Peru. He was in London when he heard the news that San Martin had resigned and waited here until the exiled General arrived, arranging temporary lodgings for him until he moved to Brussels. To aid Paroissien’s diplomatic mission he had been sent with gifts for King George IV, including the Peruvian mummy. The mission was brought to England by H.M.S Conway, commanded by Captain Basil Hall. There is an original letter in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York from Captain Hall to General Paroissien dated March 13 1823. Hall writes about the arrangements that will be needed to get “the old Inca” through customs and recommends the commissioning of a glass case to protect from the damp English climate before it is presented to the British Museum. Hall also wrote about the mummy in his diary which was published in 1823 as Extracts from a Journal Written on the Coasts of Chile, Peru and Mexico;   

Captain Basil Hall of H.M.S. Conway

13th of Dec.—I went this morning to breakfast with the Protector, and to see a curious mummy, or preserved figure, which had been brought the day before from a Peruvian village to the northward of Lima. The figure was that of a man seated on the ground with the knees almost touching his chin, the elbows pressed to his side, and the hands clasping his cheek bones, the mouth was half open, exposing a double row of fine teeth. The body, though shrivelled up in a remarkable manner, had all the appearance of a man, the skin being entire except on one shoulder. In the countenance there was an expression of agony very distinctly marked. The tradition with respect to this and other similar bodies, is, that at the time of the conquest many of the Incas and their families were persecuted to such a degree that they really allowed themselves to be buried alive, rather than submit to the fate with which the Spaniards threatened them. They have generally been found in the posture above described, or pits dug more than twelve feet deep in the sand, whereas the bodies of persons known to have died a natural death are invariably discovered in the regular burying places of the Indians, stretched out at full length — There was seated near the same spot a female figure, with a child in her arms. The female had crumbled into dust on exposure to the air, but the child, which was shown to us, was entire. It was wrapped in a cotton cloth, woven very neatly, and composed of a variety of brilliant colours, and all quite fresh. Parts of the cloths also, of which the female figures had worn, were equally perfect, and the fibre quite strong. These bodies were dug up in a part of the country were rain never falls, and where the soil consequently is so perfectly dry, as to cause an absorption of moisture so great, that putrefaction does not take place. The male figure was sent to England in the convoy, and is now in the British Museum.

As already mentioned, the Peruvian mummy did not feature in the 1929 Guide to the Hunterian. Did the Royal College of Surgeons give it away? If they did, I can’t trace it to any other location. If it wasn’t on display in 1929 was is it in storage safely somewhere else? Did it survive the 1941 bomb? There are no answers to any of these mysteries that I can find and so I have contacted the Royal College of Surgeons and asked them if they can shed any light on the fate of the mummy from Cajamarca.  

The mummy as illustrated in Once A Week magazine in 1860


  1. People had some macabre ideas with bodies years ago. No doubt they are lost to the world

    1. The times they are a changing Bill; I went to see another Peruvian mummy at the Wellcome Collection last week and it has been removed from display.