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Mausoleum brings Moche culture to life.

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. Gold was brought from the eastern Andes Mountains, turquoise from southern Peru or northern Argentina, and lapis lazuli stones from Chile.

Alva and his co-workers also found more than 1,000 small pots, bowls, beakers and jars. "It's the greatest cache of pre-Columbian ceramics ever found," he says.

The artifacts in the Sipan tomb clearly identify the main occupant as a Moche warrior-priest, Donnan says. Analysis of the warrior-priest's skeleton indicates he was about 5 feet, 6 inches tall and in his early 30s when he died of unknown causes.

Entombed with the "Lord of Sipan," as Alva calls him, are eight more people, including several servants and two young women who may have been his concubines or wives. Flanking the main coffin are the skeletons of two men. A copper shield, headdress and war club indicate one was a warrior; the other is buried with a dog that may have been a prized hound of the warrior-priest.

Since the Moche people had no written language, most of what is known about them comes from paintings on the walls of looted tombs and decorated pottery depicting a wide range of activities. The Moche apparently fought frequently to capture prisoners for sacrifice. Drawings show a ceremony in which prisoners had their throats cut and their blood presented in goblets to a warrior-priest figure.

The second unlooted tomb further confirms the Sipan platform as a principal burial place for a succession of Moche leaders, Alva adds. It is somewhat smaller and less rich than the first tomb, but contains a Moche elite with a warrior buried next to him. Warriors in both tombs are missing feet, he notes, probably as part of a ritual amputation so they would not abandon their guardposts in the afterlife.

Alva traced artifacts seized by police from a looter's house in February 1987 to a tomb at the Sipan site. There he discovered several similar burials surrounding the looted tomb.
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Title Annotation:archeological excavation
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 17, 1988
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