Discovering Peruvian pyramid tombs

Recent excavations at Huaca El Pueblo have revealed three elite Moche tombs. This one contained a male who appears to have been a high-ranking warrior. The pots are characteristic of the middle Moche style, while the metalwork represents various items of regalia and a fine burial mask.

Recent excavations at Huaca El Pueblo, a mud-brick pyramid erected by the Moche, have revealed three remarkable burials dating to the 4th century AD. As well as providing a poignant glimpse of these individuals’ lives, the rites that consigned them to the earth offer clues to help solve the enduring mystery of the nature of Moche civilisation. Scott McKinney reports.

Archaeologists working on the desert coast of northern Peru have uncovered funerary chambers containing the tombs of three members of the Moche elite. The discovery included numerous offerings of ceramic pottery and copper ornaments, indicating the high status of the buried individuals, and is helping shed light on the structure of Moche civilisation in the middle Moche period of AD 300-500.

The Moche are perennially overshadowed in Peruvian archaeology by the attention-grabbing – and much later – Inca, whom Spanish chroniclers claimed founded the first organised state in the region. They were wrong. Because the Moche had no tradition of writing, the jury remains out on whether they were Peru’s first empire, ruling from the Huacas de Moche, a site sprawling over about 100ha near modern Trujillo (see CWA 67), or just a haphazard collection of city-states strung out for around 400km along the country’s arid northern Pacific coast. There, the desert is broken by glacier-fed rivers flowing from the Andes, and it was the Moche’s ability to irrigate these valleys that sowed the seeds of their success. Many now suspect the truth about how centralised they were combines a southern state centred on Moche, with northern groups adopting elements of Moche traditions. What is certain is that the Moche elite had a penchant for spectacular costumes boasting sumptuous accessories in gold, silver, and copper.

The weather-worn mud-brick pyramid of Huaca El Pueblo is visible in the background. In the foreground, work is under way at the recently discovered tomb chambers, which lay just metres from where the Lord of Úcupe was discovered.

Excavations by Walter Alva in 1987 at the pyramid of Huaca Rajada, near the modern Peruvian village of Sipán, demonstrated the splendour of undisturbed elite tombs. Looters had been in the process of ransacking the site, when a disgruntled member of the gang tipped off police. Among the extraordinary discoveries made at the site was the burial of a man aged 35 to 45 years old, who had received an extravagant send off. As well as more than a thousand pots and an apparent bodyguard – whose feet had been removed, presumably to ensure he stayed at his post throughout eternity – the deceased was accompanied by kingly regalia in the Moche style. These include a gold face-mask, headdresses, necklaces, and three sets of exquisite earspools (see CWA 35). Little wonder, then, that the man became known as the Lord of Sipán.

Excavation under way of a mask found in the tomb occupied by the apparent elite warrior.

Over two decades later, another remarkable tomb was discovered at Huaca El Pueblo, an eroded adobe pyramid site, near the city of Úcupe in the Zaña Valley of Lambayeque province, about 750km north of Lima and approximately a dozen kilometres from Sipán. Despite this distance, it was clear that there were strong parallels with the Sipán tombs. The individual interred at Úcupe was a male in his 30s wearing two funerary masks, as well as a gleaming costume incorporating a stunning array of gold and copper metalwork, which guaranteed a literally dazzling look. Inevitably, the man has become known as the Lord of Úcupe, but he was also memorably nicknamed the ‘King of Bling’ by Canadian archaeologist Steve Bourget, who excavated the tomb.

Chambers of secrets

Huaca El Pueblo still had more secrets to share, though, and in December 2018 further chambers were located within it, just a few metres from the Lord of Úcupe’s resting place. The tombs date to AD 300-400 and include burials of a man, probably a military leader, with a baby and woman interred together in a neighbouring chamber. The funerary chambers were built of adobe bricks, and the tombs contained layers of funerary offerings including copper masks, jewellery, crowns, and hundreds of finely worked ceramic vases.

A ceramic rendering of a Moche dignitary on a throne, found in the woman’s tomb.

‘This is the main discovery regarding the Mochica civilisation in the last ten years, as Úcupe was the main centre of the Mochica in Zaña Valley,’ said Edgar Bracamonte Lévano, an archaeologist in Walter Alva’s team, based at the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum. ‘What’s most surprising about this discovery is that we found one chamber containing a woman and a child 2-6 months of age, with copper funerary masks over the child’s head, but the masks do not correspond in size to the baby – they are adult-sized masks.’

This mask was laid over the baby’s face. As it was too large to have been worn by the baby, it must have been an offering.

The Sipán Moches were clearly connected with those of Úcupe, but tomb discoveries reveal slight differences in character. The Lord of Sipán’s tomb had a sceptre, for instance, probably signifying royal power, while the Lord of Úcupe’s tomb did not. Equally, the Lord of Sipán’s tomb contained wooden coffins – the first to be reported from the Americas – while the Lord of Úcupe’s tomb, and the newly discovered ones, were not equipped with caskets.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 98 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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