Between the first and eighth century AD the north of Peru, particularly the coastal area, was ruled by the Moche culture. This was long before the time when the Incas controlled the Andes region. The success of the Moche culture was due to a very efficient agricultural system, which combined the use of fertiliser (guano or bird droppings, found on islands off the Peruvian coast, was a very effective fertiliser – as it remains to this day) and an irrigation system which was unique for its time. At that time the economy was almost completely based on agriculture. Then a long period of heavy rains and flooding seems to have brought an end to this prosperous economy and, at the same time, the whole Moche civilisation. The Moche culture disappeared around 700 AD and was replaced by what later developed into the Chimu culture. The Incas only arrived some time later.
The famous excavation of 1987
The Moche culture was not well known until an archaeological excavation in 1987 near Sipan in the district of Saña in the province of Chiclayo. This is in the Lambayeque region about 35 kilometres southeast of Chiclayo. The work, which was led by the Peruvian anthropologist Walter Alva, uncovered a number of graves belonging to the Moche culture, buried in adobe monuments built in the form of pyramids. These can still be seen today and look like weathered mounds of clay.
Tomb of the Lord of Sipan
The most important find was the grave tomb of “El Señor de Sipán” (Lord of Sipan). As this main grave was found intact and had not been visited by grave-robbers, the find was regarded as one of the most important archaeological excavations of the last few decades. Several graves were found containing Moche jewels, masks and manufactured articles. In total 14 princely tombs were found, including that of El Señor de Sipan and El Señor Viejo de Sipan. (The old lord of Sipan)
Based on these 1987 finds, the Moche people are regarded as accomplished artisans. They possessed sophisticated metalworking techniques, such as using alloys of copper, silver and gold and gold-plating copper. They had no writing but used an impressive range of symbols in their religious, mythic and daily lives. This can particularly be seen on their ceramic ware. The Moche buried their dead with all the goods and objects which they owned while alive and it was this custom that led to continual plundering of graves in the following centuries.
In 1987 objects appeared which had been removed by grave-robbers in the surroundings of Sipan. When local farmers heard of this find there was a sort of ‘gold fever’ and many began to dig in the clay mounds before the police put a stop to the plundering. Fortunately a large number of the looted items were recovered. One of the objects found in the house of one of the gang members was a realistic and dazzling golden head with silver eyes and pupils of lapis lazuli. Another find was the large and expressive heads of two pumas or jaguars with wide-open mouths filled with sharp teeth made of red shells.
The remainder of the stolen objects disappeared on the black market and into the hands of art collectors in America and Europe. In this way a large part of the treasure was unfortunately lost.
After this pillaging the experts went back to work and excavated for a further four months. This is when the undisturbed grave of the ‘Lord of Sipan’ was found. This find was as important for South America as Tutankhamun was for Egypt.
In total eight skeletons were found of servants, concubines and warriors. They lay around a wooden coffin which contained the mortal remains of the most important person in the grave. The grave held countless amazing objects such as head-dresses, symbols, ornaments and burial clothes embellished with gold, gilded copper and semi-precious stones. It took ten months to clean all the finds and record the contents.
Many more graves and objects were found
Further excavations followed and many objects were found, including other graves and also a small chamber containing 1,137 grave goods in the form of earthenware objects. Also in the chamber were four copper crowns, the remains of sacrificed llamas and the skeleton of a man. This was only the beginning as more and more graves were discovered, many containing the most stunning objects. One of the most spectacular finds was the grave of the ‘Old Lord of Sipan’, who is thought to have held a similar status to the ‘Lord of Sipan’. To date, a total of 12 burial chambers have been found.
Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán (Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan)
The famous finds from Sipan are displayed in this museum, opened in 2002, which also tells the story of the Moche culture.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey