In 1987, some of the world’s richest and most extraordinary tombs were found on the North coast of Peru. They were left by the people of the Moche culture, who preceded the Inca by some 1,000 years. To this day, the site continues to yield great wonders. The editor Nadia Durrani went to Peru to discover the latest.

This is not ‘deepest darkest Peru’; rather we are in Lambayeque, the white-hot, desert coastal zone of Northern Peru, set between the Andes and the Pacific. I am with archaeologists Walter Alva and Luis Chero. The little-told story of their discovery of the Lords of Sipan, which rivals that of Carter and Carnarvon’s in Egypt, began on the night of 25 February 1987…

Alva, then the 37 year old Director of Lambayeque’s Brüning Museum, was feeling miserable with bronchitis when the phone rang. It was the local Chief of Police: they had retrieved some looted items that they wanted him to see. With a wretched cough, Alva magnanimously agreed that he would come over first thing next morning. But the policeman insisted he come now: tomorrow would be too late.

On arriving at the police station, Alva was presented with items roughly wrapped in paper: a pure-gold face, with wide unblinking turquoise eyes; two giant peanuts made of pure gold, three times normal size; a feline head also of gold, with jagged teeth of shell set in an angry snarl. Alva no longer felt unwell. Despite decades of scientific research, never before had such items been found – yet all came from an unprepossessing pyramid site of Huaca Rajada, not far from the local village of Sipan. By dawn, Alva, his 27 year old archaeological assistant Luis Chero, and a crew of 20 policemen were at the pyramid. But news of the discovery had got out and they found the site swarming with frantic shovel-wielding locals, gripped with gold fever. The crowd dispersed leaving a dusty field of craters.

From this inauspicious start began one of archaeology’s greatest discoveries. Over the past 20 years, Alva and his team have uncovered a whole complex of unplundered tombs containing some of the world’s most extraordinary ancient finds. The treasures – gold, silver, textiles, pottery, and a whole wealth of archaeological data about a lost civilization are continually emerging, so much so that two splendid new museums have been built to house the material. The Lord of Sipan, still relatively unknown to the wider world, is now one of Peru’s greatest celebrities.

Digging pyramids

None of this could have been predicted that fateful night in 1987. The finds on the police table were entirely unexpected. For even though Lambayeque is rich with ancient sacred sites, or huacas (pronounced ‘wakas’), it was also rich with huaqueros (or looters).

Huacas typically take the form of mud-brick pyramids, many up to 30m or 40m high, that date from c.3000 BC until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1532. Today, these adobe pyramids tend to be deeply scored and corroded by centuries of heavy rain-weathering and thus lack the external beauty of Maya or Mexican stone pyramids. However, they were once impressive structures and the depositories of great treasures – hence their attraction to the huaqueros, whose illicit digging work is evident in the heavily pock-marked landscape that surrounds almost every pyramid. These looters tended to be impoverished locals desperate to make some small money on the insatiable international antiquities black market. But rarely would they find much: the Spanish conquistadors had done a sterling job of ransacking the huacas and melting down their hidden gold. Clearly, the Spaniards had overlooked the pyramid of Huaca Rajada.

One can only imagine the excitement of the local gang on uncovering the riches, and the story goes that they excavated non-stop for three days and nights. However, in true gangster style, one huaqero, feeling he had not received his fair share of the treasure, turned informer to the police. The police raided, and hence the gold on the table. Some days thereafter, the police raided again, recovered more gold, but this time they fatally shot a gang member.

There was simply no time to lose. On 1 April 1987, Alva and Chero began work at Huaca Rajada. For the task, they raised $900 from local businessmen and lived off donated spaghetti and beer. These were difficult political and economic times in Peru. However, life was even worse at the local level: for the first six months the two archaeologists were forced to hide in the looters’ holes at night. They feared for their lives from locals who were angry at the death and that their treasure had been usurped. So began Alva’s quest to re-educate the locals, and soon he had gathered a small local team to work with him at Huaca Rajada.

The Lord rises

Huaca Rajada – meaning ‘split’ huaca – takes its name from a large cut made through the site by road-building. The complex consists of two large and badly-eroded mud-brick pyramids, one 35m the other 37m high, to the east of the road, plus a smaller, mud-brick platform. The low platform plus one of the pyramids was built before AD 300 by people of the Moche culture who lived, worshipped and farmed in the region from around AD 1-700. The second pyramid was built by hands of a later culture at around AD 700 (but still long before the fabled Inca Empire that was established around AD 1200, with its centre at Cusco some 1,500km to the south-east).

It was Huaca Rajada’s more accessible low platform (80m by 55m and 11m high) that the looters had targeted. Even on clearing the rubble left behind by the looters, Alva and Chero found sumptuous Moche-culture objects including fine ceramics, metal masks, metal earplugs and, embedded in a side wall, a heavy copper sceptre over 1m long, intricately decorated with a supernatural scene. (It remains unclear how much else the looters recovered but Chero tells me that a quantity of material is still in the hands of a private Italian collector based in Lima.)

Unsurprisingly, the archaeologists’ first major discovery came soon. Adjacent to the looters’ hole, they found an enormous cache of 1,137 ceramic Moche pots. Then, beneath these, they found the skeleton of a man in a seated position. This was odd since Moche dead tend to be laid on their backs; but stranger still, his feet had been removed. Why?

Digging deeper, they would find the answer: a tomb, about 5m by 5m, still sealed and in an unplundered context, carbon-dated to c.AD 250. The man’s feet had likely been severed so that he could never leave his post – guarding what lay within. For in the centre of the tomb was a wooden sarcophagus – the first of its type to be reported in the Americas. And within the wooden box, Alva and Chero discovered opulent treasures: a full royal regalia adorning the poorly preserved skeleton of a man, aged 35-45 years old, and around 1.63m (5’4′) tall.

The man’s costume included an enormous crescent headdress made of beaten gold 0.6m across, a gold face mask, and three exquisite sets of gold earspools, masterly inlaid with turquoise. Two necklaces hung around his neck, each bearing ten preternatural thrice-sized peanuts – ten in gold and ten in silver and exactly of the type recovered by the police. On his body he wore a pure gold warrior’s back-flap shield weighing almost 1kg; pectoral shields made of shell, bone and stone; feather ornaments; and banners of gilded metal each with a central figure with outstretched arms begging attendance. He was covered with several blankets adorned with ornate, gilded, copper platelets. In his right hand he carried a golden sceptre-like object in the form of an inverted pyramid. On his feet were copper sandals.

His tomb contained a range of other ceremonial utensils including a rattle hammered from sheet gold and hafted with a solid copper blade; gold bells showing a deity severing human heads; three other headdresses; hundreds of beads; and tropical spondylus sea shells. His tomb contained a total of 451 ceremonial utensils and offerings in gold, silver, copper, textile and feather intended to accompany or protect him in the afterlife.

So who was this man? Research by physical anthropologist John Verano discovered a lack of wear to his teeth, implying that he ate a special diet – as does the fact that he was rather tall for his time. Current thinking suggests he may have perished of an epidemic during a period of famine. But what was his role and why was he buried with so much pomp? Though the Moche, like the Inca, had no writing system, they did paint their history in ceramic form. Thus their buried art helps us to reconstruct their rituals and even to identify individual figures. Based on a comparison of his regalia with iconographic depictions found in his tomb, this man is understood to have been a high ranking Moche warrior-priest or a lord. Half god, half man, he was very likely the pre-eminent ruler of the Lambayeque valley. This mighty pre-Inca aristocrat is now known (after the local town) as the Lord of Sipan.

Six other individuals were also buried with him: at the head of his coffin lies a child aged nine or ten. Two men flank his coffin – their robust stature suggests they may have been warriors, possibly ritually sacrificed on the occasion of the burial of the Lord. Three women, aged between 15 and 25, lie at the Lord’s head and foot in coffins made of cane. The women – possibly the Lord’s young wives – appear to be re-burials, indicating that they died a certain time before the Lord. A dog and two llamas were also slaughtered and laid in the tomb – the dog perhaps to guide the man to the afterworld (according to folk traditions that still persist in the area), and the llamas to provide sustenance. Five niches in the walls of the tomb contain a further 211 pieces of pottery, some of which probably once contained food and drink offerings.
This outstanding tomb is the find of a lifetime, and a worthy rival to King Tut. Yet the Lord and his associates were not alone at the site.

The priest of death

In 1988 the archaeologists discovered a second major tomb at Sipan. ‘Tomb 2’, also dated to around AD 250 – contemporaneous with the Lord of Sipan. It contained the body of a man holding a copper cup in his right hand and wearing a headdress featuring an owl with out-spread wings. Around his neck he wore a metal necklace adorned with small golden pendants modelled into eerie human faces that strike a variety of expressions. Only one pair of earspools accompanied this burial while his metal rattles are not as elaborate as those found in Tomb 1.

He, too, is buried with other people, but they are arranged somewhat differently. And he is also accompanied by a man whose feet have been cut off – his ‘guard’? But this time, the guard was placed in a coffin together with gourd vessels, a feather ornament, and a copper headdress. Two women were also found, one facing up and one facing down but neither woman was interred in a coffin, although they were probably wrapped in textile shrouds. The young woman to his left had an elaborate copper headdress similar to one worn by the female buried at the feet of The Lord of Sipan, possibly indicating that these women may have shared similar social rank.

Whatever the case, based on the collection of artefacts, the buried man has been identified as a priest: the man who – according to iconographic depictions – would have collected blood from sacrificial victims to ceremonially feed to the Lord, second only in status to the Lord himself.

While these two contemporary burials may give the impression the Huaca Rajada was a mausoleum, this was not its main function. Rather, its chief purpose was probably as the sacred and thus political centre of the area. Throughout the region, pyramid huacas (or at least those that have been studied – there are 28 huacas within walking distance of Huaca Rajada alone) tend to follow the same pattern. Each would be in use for centuries, undergoing a series of layer-cake rebuildings over time, with (presumably) each new leader building a new and larger pyramid atop the previous pyramid, creating a ‘Russian doll’ effect. Each layer was built for the performance of ritual activities deemed necessary to keep life going, and it was only as a corollary that each layer would ultimately serve as the resting place for the leader and his entourage.

At Huaca Rajada, the site has six known phases and Tombs 1 and 2 are contemporary with the pyramid’s sixth and final phase. So what of the other phases? The answers are still emerging. However, about 5m below the current surface, and associated with the site’s earliest platform, the archaeologists struck gold yet again, with the discovery of Tomb 3.

The Old Lord

In Tomb 3, beneath an extraordinary 16 layers of the finest ornaments and clothing, the archaeologists found another body. In life, he had been a strong man, perhaps an expert warrior, and skeletally healthier than the Lord of Sipan. His possessions demonstrate the same high rank as the Lord of Sipan, and DNA analysis has shown that the two were related through the matriarchal line. Had the archaeologists discovered the site’s founding father? It seemed likely, so the archaeologists named this man the ‘Old Lord of Sipan’.

The Old Lord’s tomb was rather more subdued than his descendant’s, with neither a niched chamber nor a wooden coffin. Also, he was buried with just one woman, and a footless man, again interpreted as his guardian. However, his tomb contains the finest metalwork found at the site, including many pieces made of thin, hammered plates of gold, and gilded copper and alloys.

Among the star items is a tiny gold figurine of a Moche warrior found above the dead man’s nose, between two pairs of earplugs. Measuring just 38mm high, the miniature figurine holds a shield and club, wears turquoise inlaid earplugs, a turquoise shirt, a moveable nose ornament and an owl headdress with tiny, moveable platelets (akin to the headdress of the ‘Priest’ of Tomb 2). The Old Lord himself was covered with a great amount of gold armour and adorned with intricate jewellery such as a striking necklace of golden spiders all held together with very fine wire.

It is notable that many items found with the Old Lord are related to the sea – such as a large octopus breast plate and a model of a crab man with an almost comically perturbed face. The archaeologists also found an array of hefty spondylus shells. The latter live off the coast of Ecuador but are washed onto the Peruvian coast during periodical, calamitous El Niño rains. In Spanish times, it was said that the Inca regarded these shells more highly than gold.

A profound interest with the sea is a recurrent theme in the pre-Spanish cultures of this region. Origin myths tend to centre around the ocean, which was regarded both as their provider and – because of the Los Niños – as their potential destroyer. Though the North coast of Peru typically receives less than 25mm of rain per year, shifting Pacific weather patterns known as Los Niños periodically unleash torrential, terrifying downpours that the ancients clearly tried to placate and control through rituals. It is even possible to observe the impact of the El Niño at various levels at Huaca Rajada: in the stratigraphy just above the Old Lord’s tomb there is evidence of very heavy rainfall, accompanied by a burnt level – could this be the remains of people lighting fires to pray for the end of the rain? There is a also great deal of sediment in Tomb 1, again implying the presence of much rain. Was it an El Niño that marked the end of this use of the platform at Huaca Rajada?

The 14th tomb

To date, Alva and his team have found a total of 14 Mocha elite burials at the site – and it seems quite clear that many more are still waiting to be found in this Peruvian micro-‘Valley of the Kings’. The latest, 14th, tomb was found in 2007. It contained a man’s richly decorated body together with the skeleton of a woman, two llama heads and a basket of dried llama meat. Many of the items found within the tomb imply the dead man was once a warrior priest. He wears the costume appropriate to this role: a grand golden headdress, highly decorated. His tabard is fringed with gold triangles and covered with gleaming moveable golden squares that would once have caught and sparkled in the sunlight – almost identical to the gown worn by the ‘warrior priest’ in ceramic representations. With him was placed a small copper owl with wings outstretched, while in his hand is a metal-covered wooden mace/sceptre, again of the type seen on ceramic depictions. Two metal cups also found with him are assumed to have been used to receive human blood – as shown on ceramic representations. About his neck is a collar adorned with seven snarling feline faces.

Seeing Sipan’s Splendours

The items from Tomb 14 are held in a new site museum: Museo de Sitio Huaca Rajada, opened in January 2009, while all the items found during the 1987-2000 excavations are held in the Museum of Tumbas Reales de Sipan (or the Royal Tombs of Sipan), inaugurated in 2002, and located in the nearby city of Lambayeque. Both museums are must-visit places. Walter Alva, who no longer subsists on a diet of donated spaghetti, directs the magnificent Tumbas Reales, while Luis Chero – once his 27 year old unpaid assistant – is in charge of the new site museum at Sipan.

Alva’s striking Tumbas Reales museum echoes the multi-levelled Moche pyramid platform: the visitor ascends an external ramp (a feature of Moche pyramids) and enters at the upper level to view the burial of the Lord of Sipan and his priest, then moves down to view the splendours of the Old Lord beneath. The items have all been beautifully preserved and full site reconstructions are offered.

Reflecting a subtle shift in thinking, a novel approach has been taken to the displays in Chero’s site museum. Thus, many items are displayed half preserved and half left in their original, sometimes corroded, state. This allows one to appreciate how material appears when taken from the ground. One wonders how many beautiful things must have been discarded by looters over the centuries, unable to see merit in any item aside from untarnished ceramics and gold.

Alva, despite his modesty, is now one of the most famous men in Peru – second only, perhaps to the Lord of Sipan himself, whose name has lent itself to many a street side café and even to a new university. Alva’s work – met, initially, with such passionate hatred – has won over the locals: many work at the site, and since 2000 Alva has set up a range of projects to benefit the community, such as the installation of running water, the construction of a community building and recreation areas, plus training in traditional arts. Northern Peru is also beginning to benefit from tourism – in 2008, 160,000 visitors (80% of whom were Peruvian) visited Alva’s museum.

Looting is no longer an issue in the area. But more than this, the work of Alva and his team has given the Peruvians a new pride in and understanding of their pre-Spanish past, while, to the world, they have cast light on some of the most extraordinary treasures of a forgotten people. All hail the Lords of Sipan!


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 35. Click here to subscribe

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