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Science: The Secrets of A Moche Lord

5 minute read
Dick Thompson/Washington

The moment the archaeologists came upon the coffin in the 1,500-year-old tomb near the coastal Peruvian village of Sipan, they sensed they were on the verge of a historic find. Working with rubber air bulbs and artists’ brushes, they gently cleaned away layer after layer of earth with painstaking precision, recording each with sketches and photographs. After they had labored for two months, their efforts began to pay off: slowly, breathtakingly, the gilded remains of a Moche warrior-priest began to emerge. The ancient form, surrounded by an array of what appeared to be family members and retainers, was clothed in 13 layers of funeral shrouds interspersed with exquisite gold and silver objects. Among them were a solid-gold crown, a gold warrior’s shield and a rare symbol of the warrior-priest’s high station in life, a ceremonial gold rattle. Exulted Walter Alva, the Peruvian archaeologist who led the National Geographic Society-backed expedition: “These are treasures that belong to all the Peruvian people.”

The stunning trove of artifacts offered scientists a wealth of new information about the Moche civilization. A resourceful people of artisans, warriors and farmers who had no written language, the Moche dominated Peru’s northern coast from A.D. 250 to 750, some 700 years before the Incas. Using an ingenious system of irrigation canals and channels, they flourished in the arid strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific, at one point reaching a population of more than 50,000, but seem to have vanished abruptly.

Their contribution to later Andean civilizations, however, is believed to have been substantial, perhaps even comparable to the influence of the Egyptians on Mediterranean cultures. Moche experts ranked the Peruvian find with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. Said Anthropologist Christopher B. Donnan of the University of California, Los Angeles: “This is the richest tomb ever excavated in the Western Hemisphere.”

The unearthing of the “Lord of Sipan,” as the warrior-priest was named by Alva’s team, was the culmination of a circuitous — and bloody — series of events. As is often the case in Peru, energetic and astute huaqueros, or grave robbers, were the first to uncover the riches of the burial ground. Alva was tipped off after Peruvian police raided a huaquero home early last year and confiscated 33 Moche objects, including a gold head with eyes of silver and pupils of lapis lazuli.

More raids followed, including one in which a looter was killed. The trail took police and archaeologists to a huge adobe platform at the base of a weathered Moche pyramid near Sipan. When the authorities arrived, they found men, women and children combing the area for artifacts dropped by the huaqueros, who unload the contraband on the black market for buyers in the U.S., Latin America and Europe. Driven off by police, the villagers viewed the new diggers as little more than government-protected thieves. Threats followed, including oaths of vengeance sworn by the relatives of the slain huaquero. Nightly, intruders were warned off by bursts from police submachine guns.

Near the 23-ft.-deep hole made by the looters, Alva and his team uncovered a cluster of five human skeletons and the remains of two llamas and a dog surrounding the wooden coffin of their master. Alva believes the warrior- priest, who may have presided over such ceremonies as the sacrificing of captured enemies, was about 35 years old. A spinal deformation suggested that he suffered from arthritis, but there was no indication of how he died. Besides the layers of rich funeral clothing and objects, the skeleton was adorned by a necklace made of gold and lapis peanuts, a gold chin-and-cheek mask, bracelets with hundreds of tiny turquoise beads, a gold backflap and 16 gold disks around its neck. Says Alva: “I’m sure that when we finish digging here, we will know more about the life, social and economic organization, and religious practices of the Moche.”

The archaeologists have already learned a great deal. Chemical analysis of burial objects, including gold fragments from the eastern Andes, turquoise from northern Argentina and lapis from Chile, suggests the extent of Moche trade. Some of the artifacts reflect remarkably advanced technologies. Several pieces of copper, for example, are plated with gold by means of a technique that was not used in Europe until centuries later. A number of the gold objects, such as a finely crafted figure of a warrior about the size of a thumb, are so richly detailed that they can be fully appreciated only under a microscope. “The quality of the goldwork is stunning,” says Donnan. “It puts our understanding of New World metallurgy on a different plane.”

The Lord of Sipan lies at a site that may hold still more archaeological treasures. Alva and his colleagues speculate that the plateau may be a burial ground for generations of what they call the “popes” of the Moche. If he succeeds in raising the necessary money, Alva hopes to excavate fully the Sipan site and unearth its remaining Moche treasures — before the huaqueros get to them and sell them off piece by piece.

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