Mausoleum Brings Moche Culture to Life

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Mausoleum brings Moche culture to life

Nearly a year of intensive excavation at an archaeological site in northern Peru known as Sipan has uncovered one of the richest and most significant pre-Columbian tombs ever found in the Americas, according to scientists at a press conference held at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., last week.

The 1,500-year-old burial place, untouched by looters who ravaged another nearby tomb, contains a wooden coffin with the remains of a warrior-priest of the little-known Moche culture. The Moche people farmed a series of river valleys along a 220-mile stretch of northern Peru from roughly A.D. 100 to 700. The Inca civilization appeared around A.D. 1400.

According to Walter Alva, head of the excavation and director of the Bruning Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque, Peru, several similar burials surround the tomb, forming a royal mausoleum. Excavation of a second unlooted tomb at Sipan is nearly complete, and work on a third unlooted tomb is underway. The burials lie in an adobe platform in front of a flat-topped mud pyramid raised by the Moche around A.D. 200.

"This is the richest tomb ever excavated archaeologically in the Western Hemisphere," says anthropologist Christopher B. Donnan of the University of California, Los Angeles, who analyzed photographs of objects from the tomb and compared them to a photographic archive of Moche art at UCLA. "The quality of the gold work is stunning. It puts our understanding of New World metallurgy on a different plane."

Among the Moche treasures recovered are a 2-foot-wide, solid-gold crown, a gold face mask with pupils of lapis lazuli, a gold knife, two strands of gold and silver beads fashioned into large peanuts, a ceremonial rattle made of hammered sheet gold, a gold warrior's shield weighing nearly 2 pounds and gold-and-turquoise ear ornaments with minute decorations.

These remains reveal an extensive Moche trade network, Alva says. …