As the current guardian of the tomb of the Lord of Sipan -- the biggest archaeological find in Latin America in recent decades -- Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva explains how the village of Lambayeque has profited from a treasure miraculously saved from looters and international smugglers
How was the Lord of Sipan discovered?
When our team reached the site on February 25, 1987, it was already being extensively pillaged by grave-robbers, who had stripped pieces of gold from one tomb. Local people had taken control of the monument, and in the grip of a kind of gold-fever, were trying to break into other tombs in search of more precious metals. If we hadn't done anything, the site would have very quickly been totally destroyed, as has already occurred in many other sites like Vicus, Lomanegra, Frias and the Valley of Jequetepeque. Peru was then in a serious economic and moral crisis. People thought it was crazy for the police to protect an archaeological treasure that they believed was their rightful property. The situation was very tense, and the only way to save the monument was either to mount a heavy police guard or turn it into an archaeological site, which is what we eventually did.
What financial backing did you have at the start?
Very little. Three hundred dollars from a local foundation, government assistance to hire 20 labourers and, somewhat later, money from a brewery. Hiring the labourers not only meant the site could be cleaned up, but also eased the tension with local people by giving them work. One grave-robber died in a clash with police as the monument was being repossessed.
Was there any help from abroad?
We received aid from the Heinz Foundation and from National Geographic in mid-1987 when we were certain that it was a very important find. The main tomb of the Lord of Sipan contained a body wrapped in hundreds of copper, gold and silver objects that were part of the funeral hoard. But the copper items were disturbingly corroded and needed urgent restoration. Fortunately the Roman-Germanic Museum in Mainz (Germany) offered to restore about 560 pieces and train technicians to run a small workshop funded by German aid money which we established in Lambayeque after 1990.
Why was this necessary?
We needed it to restore fresh finds. When we discovered a new tomb in 1989 belonging to the Old Lord of Sipan that was just as opulent and important as the first one, the pieces were restored by Peruvian technicians to exactly the same effect as the earlier ones had been in Germany. This laboratory, which has been partly funded since 1992 by the Spanish government, has also restored artefacts from other digs. Our curators, four of whom were trained in Madrid, have also taught a course in metal conservation to Latin American technicians. We have been entirely self-sufficient since 1998, which goes to show how international aid creates a lasting momentum.
The United States has managed to recover and return to Peru various items stolen previously from a tomb in Sipan. How important is that help?
It's crucial. In 1987, a gang of smugglers tried to sell one of the ornaments for $1.6 million in a scandal involving several diplomats. Luckily, the United States restricted the import of pieces from the Lord of Sipan's tomb in 1990. This law could only be extended once, but after it finally expired a memorandum of understanding was signed in 1998 covering not only items from Sipan, but also almost all the Peruvian heritage currently held in the United States. …