Human Skeletal Remains from Tomb 1, Sipan (Lambayeque River Valley, Peru); and Their Social Implications

By Verano, John W. | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview
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Human Skeletal Remains from Tomb 1, Sipan (Lambayeque River Valley, Peru); and Their Social Implications

Verano, John W., Antiquity


In late 1987 and early 1988, an archaeological team led by Walter Alva, Director of the Bruning Archaeological Museum, excavated the first of a series of high-status Moche tombs at the site of Sipan (Huaca Rajada), in the central Lambayeque River Valley on the north coast of Peru. The context and contents of the Sipan tombs have been described by Alva & Donnan (1993) and Alva (1994); they provide a rare opportunity to examine the mortuary practices of the elite in the early to middle phases of the Moche state (c. AD 300) (Donnan 1995). This article presents my analysis of the human skeletal remains recovered from the first large chamber tomb at Sipan, designated Tomb 1 (Alva & Donnan 1993).

In January 1988, at the invitation of Walter Alva, I visited the site of Sipan and recorded information on the skeletal material as it was being excavated. After the remains had been removed from the field, I conducted additional study of the material at the Bruning Museum in Lambayeque. The objective was to provide information on the age, sex and physical characteristics of the individuals interred in Tomb 1, and to examine the remains for evidence of pathology and possible cause of death.

The skeletons

Nine human skeletons were recovered from Tomb 1, designated [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]:

Skeleton 1: the principal burial in the tomb

Skeleton 2: adult male placed above roof of the tomb

Skeleton 3: adolescent female at head of Skeleton 1

Skeleton 4: adolescent female at feet of Skeleton 1

Skeleton 5: adult male at Skeleton 1's right side

Skeleton 6: adult male at Skeleton 1's left side

Skeleton 7: adolescent female under Skeleton 3

Skeleton 8: child in southwest corner of the tomb

Skeleton 9: adult female in niche above the roof of the tomb

General observations

Human skeletal remains and other organic materials in Tomb I are relatively poorly preserved compared to contemporaneous materials I have examined from other Moche sites (Verano 1987; 1994a; 1994b; 1997). Factors causing this likely include pressure from tomb fill and overlying sediment, acidity of the clay matrix in which the tomb contents were embedded, and dampness from ground water and occasional episodes of heavy rainfall.

In an attempt to preserve the fragile skeletal remains and to facilitate their removal, the excavation team applied a polyvinyl acetate consolidant to the skeletons as they were exposed. While the consolidant permitted the skeletons to be removed in block for transport to the Bruning Museum [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], its presence made subsequent cleaning and study of the osseous remains more difficult. Solvents applied to separate the skeletal material from its cemented matrix of clay and consolidant were found to cause additional damage to the fragile bone. For this reason, treatment was limited to gentle cleaning of the exposed surfaces of bones. The presence of metal objects, beaded pectorals and other grave-goods presented additional challenges. Many of these were removed during excavation, others left in place and treated with polyvinyl acetate. In such cases, little of the underlying skeletal material could be observed, and complete examination of the skeleton was not possible.

Skeleton 1

I examined the skeleton of the principal burial of Tomb 1 at the Bruning Museum. The bones are in very poor condition, and most are splintered into small fragments. The best-preserved elements of the skeleton are the skull and mandible, the bodies of four vertebrae (T11, T12, L1, L2), and the calcanei.

Burial position was extended on the back, with the hands at the sides. The bones comprising the left elbow joint are well enough preserved to indicate that the left forearm was supinated, with the palm of the hand facing upward. The right arm, less well preserved, appears to have had a similar orientation.

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Human Skeletal Remains from Tomb 1, Sipan (Lambayeque River Valley, Peru); and Their Social Implications


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