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MESA VERDE NOTES
December, 1939Volume IX, No. 1.


"ESTHER"
Jean McWhirt

The Mesa Verde Museum was honored this summer in being chosen as the permanent home for a young lady of rather wide renown. The honor was bestowed by the Carnegie Institution of Washington which, after careful consideration and in accordance with their policy, decided that as this museum was the nearest scientific institution to the original home of the young lady it should be made her final home. Her coming was eagerly awaited and it may safely be stated that she, on her arrival, conquered even the most skeptical of the welcoming museum staff.

"Esther" is the name that has been bestowed upon this young woman. Her own and real name will never be known, having been lost many centuries ago. For "Esther" was born a Basket Maker and they, unfortunately, left no written records. Though her successors did not bother to give us an obituary they were considerate enough to choose for her supposedly last resting place a very dry and protected crevice; thereby, giving us one of the finest mummies that has ever been brought to light.

So it is that "Esther's" claim to fame is a double one. First, it is granted that she is one of the oldest "young ladies" in the Southwest; second, she is considered by many who are well qualified to pass judgement to be the finest mummy ever discovered in this arid southwestern region that is noted for having produced so many excellent mummies.

"Esther" was discovered with eighteen other mummies in a cleft in a cave in Falls Creek Canyon nine miles north of the city of Durango, Colorado. The site was excavated by a Carnegie Institution Field Expedition led by staff archeologist Earl H. Morris in the summer of 1938. The cleft was well protected and several of the eighteen bodies were in fair condition. "Esther" had the ideal location in the back of the crevice where no moisture could ever penetrate and desiccation was so perfect that she suffered only two blemishes. A small patch of skin is missing on each leg just below the knee. Only one other body approached such complete mummification; that of a young man who has been nicknamed "Jasper."

At the end of the summer expedition "Esther" was sent to Washington, D. C., where she was on display at the Annual Carnegie Insituation Exhibit. There she attracted the attention of thousands of visitors and her fame spread over the country. She became so well known that since her arrival at the Mesa Verde Museum it has been interesting to note the number of people from all sections who come in and at once inquire for "Esther", or "Esther, the Gorgeous." The latter addition to the original nickname is more than tinged with irony in as much as the lady wears a hideous grimace which is startling anew each time one meets her full face.

"Esther," as has previously been stated, is the mummy of a Basket Maker woman about twenty years of age. Her only clothing is a little yucca fiber apron secured by a cord around her waist. The condition of the mummy is perfect. The skin which completely covers the body has been reduced to leather and has not cracked or checked with the exception of the above-mentioned small breaks on the legs. Every finger and toe nail is in place, the eye balls are in position and the hair is still on the mummy's head. The tongue is pronouncedly still intact for it protrudes between the teeth and curves over the upper incisors which are well displayed by the retraction of the lips. This, and the fact that one eye is partially shut and the other wide open, combines to give "Esther" the aforementioned grimace. The effect produced by the perfect features set in such an expression is a cynical leer. One almost wonders, when viewing the mummy and experiencing a rather chilly sensation down the spine, if, given the power of speech, she would not suddenly say "Boo" and set one into startled and precipitous flight. At least, one feels she did not suffer from any social inhibitions and consequently were her feelings openly on her face. X-Rays revealed perfect teeth and the condition of the teeth indicated that "Esther" was nineteen or twenty years old when she died. These same X-Rays failed to show any internal reason for death and since the condition of her body gives no evidence of its having suffered violence or accident the verdict can only be, "Cause of Death: Unknown."

There are several reasons why it has been determined that "Esther" lived during the Basket Maker Period. Her physical type is identical with that known as Basket Maker; she was slender and long-headed, with no evidence of skull deformation. Furthermore, she was associated with artifacts that are typical and diagnostic of the Basket Maker culture. The cave, when excavated, gave definite evidence of having been inhabited during Basket Maker times, and showed no evidence of any later people. Tree-ring dates for the site have not been announced but the Basket Maker Period is now given an approximate dating of 1 A. D. to 400 A. D.

Evidences that Basket Makers had been the occupants of the cave were the presence of corn, the presence of coiled basketry and the lack of pottery. The most surprising discovery was that crude houses had existed. Saucer-shaped clay floors with post holes that indicated former roofs were found. This is the only site so far discovered where the Basket Makers seem to have constructed houses before they discovered the art of making pottery.

"Esther" was without doubt a Basket Maker and final dating of the site will probably reveal that she lived a short time after the beginning of the Christian Era when those early Indians were spread widely over the Four Corners Country. The Mesa Verde Museum makes a very proper last resting place for "Esther." Members of her tribe once lived on the Mesa Verde and she probably feels quite at home.

The National Park Service and the Mesa Verde Museum feel deeply indebted to the Carnegie Institution for "Esther." She is a valuable acquisition and helps immeasurably in completing the exhibits of the Basket Maker culture and physical type.

* * * * * * *

"Esther" has had some very amusing effects on the Navahos who have an intense fear of the dead. Anything connected with death or the dead is regarded as absolutely evil and dangerous and is to be avoided at all costs.

In October many Navahos came to the Mesa Verde to put on an evening of dances. All of them visited the museum, or "chindi hogan," as they call it. Chindi means devil, so naturally the museum with its skeletons and mummies, is known as the "chindi hogan" or devil house.

Three old men were watched as they went through. They proceeded slowly from case to case, looking intently at each object; not glancing on ahead. Suddenly one of the old fellows found himself face to face with "Esther." Without apparent effort he seemed to glide across the room to crash into the case on the opposite side. After a moment of animated conversation about "chindis" the three men left. Later they said that for a long time after they saw "Esther" they were "dizzy in the head."

One elderly Navaho woman, upon seeing "Esther," left the museum and hurried to the hogans, half a mile away. She claimed that she knew nothing from the time she left the museum until she reached the hogans. Two young Navaho women, upon meeting "Esther," went immediately to the park hospital and wanted some "pills for their heads."

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