The Moche Route

8 mins read

The Northern coastal strip of Peru is not well-visited, but it should be. Since the discovery of the Lords of Sipan, an array of other sensational sites have been discovered or revisited. In this Travel Special, Nadia Durrani travels further along the ‘Moche Route’.

The Inca Route of Southern Peru is justifiably famous. Now the so-called Moche Route of the Northern coastal plain is beginning to make a bid for popularity. Following the 1987 discovery of the Moche Lords of Sipan (as described in CWA35’s opening feature), 400 ‘important’ sites have now been identified in the region, of which 15 are under investigation. With an embarrassment of riches, each site seems to outdo the next. Here are the highlights, with a focus on the Moche sites of El Brujo and the Temples of the Sun and the Moon.

Both of these archaeological complexes can be visited from the comfort of Trujillo, a wealthy ochre-painted city founded by the Spanish conquistadors and named after the home-town of Pizarro, the soldier who helped put an end to the Inca Empire in 1528. The drive from Trujillo to El Brujo takes a couple of hours up asphalt roads bordered by potato fields and lush rice paddies. These roads later give way to dirt tracks, then to desert sands, and finally to the magical archaeological complex of El Brujo.

The magic of El Brujo
There are three huacas at the El Brujo complex, which means ‘the wizard’, after the shamen, or brujos, who favoured the site as a location for their healing ceremonies. El Brujo was also a favoured site for looters. However, in 1990, in the wake of the discovery of the Lords of Sipan, a newly-reformed grave-robber brought El Brujo to the attention of archaeologist Régulo Franco.

The looter whispered to Franco that he had found special objects at one of El Brujo’s huacas, the stepped pyramid of Huaca Cao Viejo. These ‘special objects’ turned out to be brightly painted polychrome murals, a wildly hallucinogenic mix of nightmares and wonder. For the past 17 years, work has been underway at Cao Viejo where the archaeologists have revealed a whole Moche ceremonial site, copiously decorated; plus a glorious, untouched, elite female burial.
The pyramid of Cao Viejo rises some 30m from the sands and was made from tens of thousands of mud bricks. It appears to have undergone at least four major rebuilding phases between AD 200 and 650. As is typical of Moche huaca architecture, in each phase, the builders intentionally and carefully buried the previous temple, so creating an ever larger and ever higher pyramid – like a series of Russian dolls. To continue the Russian doll analogy, the artists of each phase tended to repeat the same art and murals of the previous era (with some minor modifications). Many of the site’s numerous multicoloured murals are beautifully preserved as a result of both this cyclical remodelling and the region’s dry climate.

Some of Cao Viejo’s most stunning reliefs can be found on the step pyramid’s northern face, which is fronted by an enormous plaza (approximately140m by 66m). There, on a lower level of the pyramid – at easy eyeshot of anyone standing on the plaza – is an extraordinary mural showing ten naked men tethered together by a rope around their necks. A victorious group follows in their wake brandishing weapons. The ‘prisoners’ are led by a fully-clothed Moche warrior towards a small chamber situated on the left (western) corner of the plaza. The chamber walls are covered with 48 tiny polychrome fighting warriors, each with a different headdress and clothing. Are they involved in real or ritual combat? Indeed, what was in the minds of the tethered ‘prisoners’ – might they have been honoured sacrificial candidates?

These chaotic yet ordered reliefs, with their dark subject matters depicted in the brightest of colours makes for a place that both delights and unsettles. These contradictory emotions may have been intended since Moche religion seems to have centred on ideas of dualistic oppositions (gold/silver; day/night; land/sea etc). The murals certainly would have created great drama for the faithful gathered on the plaza to watch various ritual activities.

As the southern sun was sinking, I asked site director Régulo Franco if he would show me the current excavations at the site. He took me to the summit of the pyramid, with its decorated upper patio and its various covered precincts. It was here that the most sacred rituals, including the act of human sacrifice, would likely have taken place.

Franco unlocked the temporary wooden door protecting one of the eastern precincts. As bats schizophrenically zipped above, he introduced me to The Decapitator, or ‘Aia-Paec’ (a pre-Quechua word meaning ‘all knowing’). This grotesque yet, in true Moche style, somehow charming character is thought to have been their chief god. He is part cat (the teeth, the claws) and part octopus (the wavy tentacles) with bulging eyes and huge ear spools. His outstretched arms wield a sceptre or knife in one hand and an open-mouthed severed head in the other. Depicted multiple times, his image is bordered with ray fish and other abstract designs that zig and zag and hypnotically repeat themselves in unnerving regularity.

What – or who – might he have been protecting? Within this sanctum, the team has been working on uncovering a series of tombs, their wooden-beam covers still in tact, but their contents long looted.
Yet despite the site’s mega looting, not all tombs at the site have been pillaged: in 2007, near to the summit of the pyramid, within a covered patio, the archaeologists discovered yet another find of a lifetime: the entire, unplundered, repertoire of an elite tomb containing the best-preserved Moche-period body yet found: the Lady of Cao.

The Lady of Cao uncovered
This Lady is quite unlike anything yet found – her almost perfectly preserved body is the result of natural desiccation rather than mummification in the traditional sense of the word.
She died in her 20s at around AD 400, and was buried with a host of ceremonial items – including typical Moche gold jewellery and headdresses. In her grave were sewing needles, weaving tools and raw cotton. However, she was also buried with weapons: two ceremonial war clubs and 23 spears. Was she a female warrior? Or were these simply symbols of power? Or were they funeral gifts from men? Was Lady Cao the Margaret Thatcher or Queen Hatshepsut of her time (more honorary male than female)? Whatever the case, such weapons have so far only been found in male graves.

As for the Lady’s body, she was found wrapped in hundreds of yards of carefully woven cotton cloth. Her funeral bundle was decorated with a large embroidered face (something not known from other Moche burials). She was covered by a cane mat, thought to have been her bed in life. A pillow lay beneath her. Upon her body was a finely woven dress that bears small stains of human blood – accidentally splashed upon her during a ceremony? Beneath her gown, Lady Cao’s skin is largely intact. Complex tattoos of spiders, seahorses and snakes cover her arms, though are quite distinct from usual Moche designs. Skeletal analysis, together with the slack skin around her abdomen, shows that she gave birth at least once. Did she die in childbirth? Some Moche reached their 60s and 70s so the reason for her expiration during her prime is unclear.

Beside her lay a teenage girl who had been sacrificed – the rope still around her strangled neck. She was accompanied by five other burials: three adults and two teenage sacrifices. These bundles are yet to be unwrapped and analysed. The archaeologists hope to extract mitochondrial DNA from them to determine if they were related, and to do isotopic work to track the elite woman’s lineage and life history.

The Lady’s body can now be viewed in a wonderful new museum, inaugurated two days before our visit to the site. Its fine layout and design is testament to the good efforts of the Wiese Foundation and to the sterling dedication of the archaeologists working at the site.

Temples of the Sun and the Moon
The complex of the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, approximately 4km south of Trujillo, is believed by many to have been the former capital of the Moche state. The site is dominated by two huge adobe brick buildings: the Temple of the Sun, or Huaca del Sol, to the west of the site; and Huaca de la Luna, or Temple of the Moon to the east. While it was originally thought that these were isolated structures, excavations begun in 1996 have revealed the presence of a thriving city in the quarter mile plain between them.

One can but imagine the great riches once contained within the stepped pyramid of Huaca del Sol. Even its history of destruction is incredible, including, in 1602, the presence of gold-seeking Spaniards who intentionally diverted the small Santa Catalina River to flush out the pyramid. Their efforts washed away over half the pyramid yet, despite this, it still covers about 400m in length and rises over 40m above the surrounding plain – making it the tallest adobe structure in America. It comprises four major platforms and was erected in about AD 600 using an estimated 50 million mud bricks, many of which still have their original makers’ marks (hands, feet, crosses and so on) perhaps indicating guilds or a system of taxation. Its name ‘Huaca del Sol’ was recorded by the Spaniards but is likely a misnomer: there is neither evidence that it was the place of a solar cult nor any sort of religious centre. Rather, the Temple of the Sun was more likely the city’s administrative centre. However, it is yet to be fully investigated. For the past 15 years, excavations have instead focussed on the monumental Temple of the Moon.

Inside the Temple of the Moon
The Temple of the Moon has the grandeur befitting of a (possible) capital city. It covers c.300m north to south and 250m east to west, and has three platforms and four open courts or plazas. It underwent at least five construction phases between about AD 300-600 and each phase covered the next in the typical Russian doll style referred to above. Nine industrial-scale Spanish looters’ tunnels allow an unprecedented peak at the evolution of the temple – including the long tradition of beautiful polychrome murals, repeated from one phase to the next.

Racing for its gold, the Spaniards threw tonnes of rubble to the base of the Temple of the Moon so burying, and thus inadvertently protecting, metre upon metre of impressive polychrome murals, particularly from the northern wall of the pyramid, which was again faced by an open plaza. The story of The Decapitator, and his journey to the afterworld, adorns this wall. A small side chamber decorated with a ‘chaotic calendar’, uncovered in 2004, is also akin to a relief found at El Brujo: animals, activities and seasons are all confused – presumably reflecting the chaos caused by the El Niño rains that periodically devastated this area.
Though the summit of the pyramid was comprehensively levelled by the Spaniards, empty tombs and highly decorated chambers from the temple’s previous incarnations have been uncovered. In addition, the archaeologists have thus-far found over 70 sacrifices. All are adult males, all with their throats cut. Many have broken arm and hand bones.

The pathology suggests the men died fighting: their arms crushed when holding shields, their fingers broken with maces. This seems very much like actual combat. However, DNA tests reveal that the men were related to the people living in the city. Moreover, they were buried in multiple alternating levels of windblown sand and mud in the side of the huaca, indicating to the excavators that some were killed during periods of rainfall, and others when the rains had stopped. Were these sacrifices made to appease the weather gods – some sort of ritual combat at the time of El Niños or conversely during droughts?

The latest work at the site has focused on the city between the two structures, which covered some 100 ha at its height. In addition to ceramic workshops and large-scale maize-beer production, the archaeologists have found evidence for intensive textile production and metalworking. This seems to have been a ‘middle class’ city (or, at least, no poor dwellings have yet been discerned). Many graves have also been uncovered. Though they tend to be thoroughly looted, the skeletons – the bounty of archaeologists – have usually been left behind. DNA analysis and skeletal hereditary traits – such as knee-bone malformations – show that people, whether ‘normal’ citizens, the sacrificed warriors, or the religious elite – were all related. As work progresses at the city, more and more will undoubtedly be revealed about the daily lives of the Moche.

But there is more to the Moche Route than just sites of the Moche period (a bow to the mighty Lords of Sipan who set much of this research rolling): rather, the region has many other sites from other periods. The following pages include some of the region’s meta-Moche highlights.

Written by Nadia Durrani.

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

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