The Tombs of Ancient Peruvian Rulers: Myth Becomes Reality

By Donnan, Christopher B. | Americas (English Edition), May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Tombs of Ancient Peruvian Rulers: Myth Becomes Reality


Donnan, Christopher B., Americas (English Edition)


Archaeologists are discovering that the Moche of northern Peru were the mastercraftsmen of ancient America

We were inside the tomb of a pre-Inca ruler. We had opened his coffin and carefully removed the upper levels of objects inside it. Then, near his head, we found multiple sets of necklaces, ear ornaments, and nose ornaments of gold and silver, piled one on top of another in a dazzling display of wealth and opulence. But the object that most captured my attention was what he was holding in his right hand--a magnificent scepter of gold and silver.

The scepter had a trapezoidal, boxlike chamber, superbly crafted of sheet gold. In low relief was an elaborately garbed warrior thrusting his war club at the head of a captive. The rattle handle, made of solid silver, was decorated with military equipment: a conical helmet, a tunic, a circular shield, and armor. On the sides of the handle were war clubs with slings wrapped around them. The base of the handle flared slightly into a spatula blade.

The year was 1987, and Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva had been directing an excavation at Sipan, an archaeological site located in the lower Lambayeque valley, in northern Peru. I was visiting the site regularly to witness the uncovering of an extraordinary Moche tomb. As I stared at this rattle, I thought back to a time, more than ten years earlier, when I had seen the same rattle depicted in the ancient art of these people. It was associated with a ceremony in which prisoners of war were ritually sacrificed. The principal figure at the ceremony was a Warrior Priest, and the rattle was his property. Now we had excavated the tomb of an ancient ruler who was buried holding the rattle in his right hand. Could it be that he was the Warrior Priest? The possibility left me stunned. The correlation between depictions in ancient art and individuals buried in royal tombs was soon to have a profound effect on the way we viewed the Moche people of ancient Peru.

Moche civilization flourished on the north coast of Peru between the first and eighth centuries A. D. Human occupation in this desert environment is limited to a series of valleys whose rivers flow out of the Andes toward the Pacific shore. As in ancient Egypt, organic materials such as plant remains, textiles, basketry, leather, and even human bodies are often remarkably well preserved by arid climatic conditions. Consequently, there is abundant materials available today for archaeologists seeking a detailed reconstruction of these ancient societies.

The Moche were agriculturalists. They grew a wide variety of crops, including corn, beans, guava, avocados, squash, chiles, and peanuts. From the Pacific Ocean, as well as from rivers, marshes, and lagoons, they harvested a rich catch of fish, shrimp, crabs, crayfish, and mollusks. Domesticated llamas, guinea pigs, and ducks were additional sources of food, along with land mammals, birds, snails, and wild plants, which were occasionally hunted or gathered.

With an abundant and nutritious diet, the Moche sustained a dense, highly stratified population that was able to construct irrigation canal systems, pyramids, palaces, and temples. They also supported skilled artisans who produced objects of extraordinary artistic and technological sophistication. In day, they brought animals, plants, anthropomorphic deities, and people to life, re-creating scenes of hunting and fishing, combat, and elaborate ceremonies.

Moche metalworkers alloyed gold, silver, and copper in various combinations to create remarkable jewelry and ornaments that were worn by the elite. Their weavers created sumptuous textiles of cotton and wool, often decorated with complex depictions of people, plants, and animals. The Moche also carved and inlaid bone, wood, and stone; pyro-engraved gourds; and painted colorful murals on the wails of their religious structures.

In all, thousands of examples of Moche art have survived through the centuries. …

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