More than Moche

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There is a range of other must-see sites on the Northern coastal ‘Moche Route’ that date from before and after the Moche period. Among the gems is the ancient huaca of Cerro Ventarron, which neighbours the Lords of Sipan site, excavated by Walter Alva.

At Cerro Ventarron, Walter’s son, Ignatius Alva, is working his father’s magic: having shifted four trucks’ worth of modern garbage from the site (which aptly translates as ‘Dusty Hill’), Ignatius revealed a complete, (almost) unplundered, 4,000 year old temple, built from rough chunks of river sedimentation, rather than mud-bricks per se. The huaca is divided into niched chambers and contains a number of in situ burials, including a female buried with a weaving loom and cotton thread.

However, his huaca hit the headlines in 2008 owing to Ignatius’ discovery of the Americas’ oldest mural: a 4,000 year old multicoloured painting of a deer caught in a net. The site is under the proud guardianship of the nearby village women and, when I visited, I was met by an energetic 50-something local who sprang from wall to wall of the huaca as she guided me through the site. No other visitor was there. This is the place to see ‘real’ archaeology.

Chan Chan and the Valley of the Pyramids

At the other end of the spectrum is the sanitised World Heritage Site of Chan Chan, 5km east of Trujillo. The largest pre-Hispanic mud-brick settlement in America, it was the massive royal capital of the early 2nd millennium AD Chimu Kingdom until the Inca conquered the region around AD 1470. Covering 7.7 square miles, one portion of the city was archaeologically investigated in the 1960s and was found to include massive storerooms, enormous tombs, sunken gardens, wide open plazas, and niched ritual areas. Though comprehensively looted in Colonial times, the archaeologists did find evidence for large-scale sacrifice. Though interesting, it has been rather overly-preserved.

Equally grandiose is Tucume, or the Valley of the Pyramids, containing 26 adobe pyramids dating from AD 1000 to the Inca period and investigated by explorer Thor Heyerdahl. The locals refer to it as Purgatorio, or purgatory, owing to Christian Spanish tales of the dangers of visiting this site. Having climbed the interminable turistico steps to the top of one of its mosquito-rich adobe pyramids, I had to agree with their prognosis. Chan Chan and Tucume are the only two sites to be described in my 2008 guide book to Peru, and deserve to be on any itinerary, yet far more compelling is Huaca les Ventanes, again under current excavation.

Golden Huaca les Ventanas

Huaca les Ventanas is thought to have been the capital site of the Sican people (not to be confused with the earlier Lords of Sipan described in the opening feature). Whether a capital or not – there are many competing theories about how society was organised in pre-Inca times – it was clearly an important site from its foundation in AD 700 until its destruction by flooding in c.1160. It centres on a wide mud-brick funerary platform, bordered by walls modelled into staircase-shaped designs – a recurring symbol of royalty. Rising high behind the platform is the appropriately named pyramid of Huaca del Oro, or Huaca of the gold.

Work is ongoing at the both the platform and the pyramid, but one of the most spectacular discoveries was made at Huaca del Oro during the 1990s, again in the wake of the Sipan excavations. Tipped off by a local looter, the archaeologists began digging at the entrance of the pyramid. Some 7m down, they found an untouched grave containing a massive 1.25 tonnes of glorious metal artefacts, making this the richest archaeologically uncovered burial in America. Nonetheless, Carlos Elera, the director of the impressive Sican Museum (see sican.perucultural.org), thinks that this is likely to have been a relatively unimportant tomb since it comes from outside the huaca, rather than within its inner sanctum; moreover, the locals reported finding much bigger burials! Who knows what else the archaeologists will discover at the site in the coming years.

Huaca Ventanas and del Oro lie in the 6,000 ha Pomac Forest, Peru’s only surviving dry equatorial forest, and a place of natural wonder. Pomac is also a protected archaeological zone. Indeed, 90% of the known pre-Inca gold (tonnes of which was looted in the last century, and much of which is now held in the Gold Museum in Lima) is believed to have been taken from Pomac, and not Cusco of the South as has sometimes been suggested.

Both the Sipan and the Sican tombs are, without question, among the finest wonders of the ancient world. Yet at most sites on the Northern coastal stretch, aside from Chan Chan, we were the only visitors. For a true taste of the adventure of archaeology, take the Moche Route.

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

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