Monday, August 23, 2010

Tomb Raiding: The North Coast of Peru

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

Walt Whitman, excerpt Song of the Open Road

We were probably overdue to depart Lima by the time we left. I had heard about this syndrome from other travellers but never experienced it myself; sometimes you find a place so comfortable you never want to leave, but you know that the road ahead is the real destination, that if you wanted to stay still, you could be staying still more easily and probably more comfortably in your own country.

Before I left Australia I had a chat with a colleague who had heard about the trip Alix and I were planning and expressed his jealousy about it. The fact that I was not going to have to go to work for a long time seemed extraordinary, as if in his imagination I would be swinging in a hammock, tropical cocktail in hand for the next year or so.

The truth is not like that. Don’t get me wrong, travelling is better than working in just about every way. But it is not because it is easier that it is more rewarding than sitting at a desk in front of a computer. The longer you travel for, the more dissimilar you feel to many of the tourists that you meet, who are typically off from work or from school for a short time and whose interests are different.

So it was that when we travelled north through the dusty coastal desert of Peru we encountered very few tourists. Sure, there were foreigners along the coast, but nothing compared with the volume of people hiking, sandboarding and parasailing their way through southern Peru. Instead I spotted another breed of gringo that displayed a very private demeanour, completely lacking that ‘come and talk to me and tell me where you are from and why foreign stuff is awesome’ gleam in their eyes, and I decided they were academics, or archaeologists, perhaps. For one week I heard no other languages than Spanish, unless it came from Alix’ mouth, or my own. In the cheap hotels we stayed in there were no other backpackers, no foreigners at all.

In some ways the lack of foreign attention is peculiar because the north coast of Peru is a very interesting place to visit. The highlands have Machu Picchu and the Incas, but for the history buff, the north coast has everything else. A myriad of ancient peoples and cultures existed here for thousands of years.

There are so many archaeological sites to visit on this coastline that you cannot possibly see them all. Archaeologists have estimated there are around a thousand significant unexcavated sites in northern Peru, so the visitor has to be selective about what to see and experience.
Our first destination along the Peruvian north coast was the archaeological site of Caral. Only a couple of hundred kilometres out of Lima, we visited it as a day trip, José Javier and Jorge were kind enough to drive us up the coast and join us for the tour.

Caral is interesting because it is simultaneously the most recent and most ancient thing, archaeologically speaking, in South America. It is the most recent major archaeological find, having been discovered in 1994. When archaeologists began to study Caral and carbon-dated the objects found at the site they discovered that Caral was the capital city of an ancient civilisation that occupied the Supe, Pativilca and Fortaleza valleys around 5,000 years ago. Contemporaneous with Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, this makes these people one of the most ancient civilisations in the world.

The sundial stone at the centre of Caral, a step pyramid in the background

For archaeologists, this is very exciting stuff because Caral redefines human understanding of this part of the world. For example, they discovered llama bones at Caral, evidence of domestication of this animal. For the first time in history, we have direct evidence that they were doing that as early 5,000 years ago. They discovered grain storage facilities at Caral with different types of seeds carefully separated into seed categories, evidence of complex agricultural techniques. Bingo, agriculture goes back 5,000 years here, too. And so it goes, with each new discovery at Caral, the first example of it ever having happened in the Americas is revealed.

And the process of revealing is, in a word, painstaking. Our guide on the Caral tour was a gentleman named Julio Sandoval Benites, a working archaeologist himself, he was able to explain in detail how the work of archaeology is done. Along with 140 other archaeologists, workers and engineers, this man has made his life’s work out of unearthing half a dozen pyramids and a couple of amphitheatres from underneath the desert sand, work that is all done by hand with a dustpan, a brush and a trowel. Work on one pyramid that Señor Benites pointed out to us was only commenced two years ago in 2008. Here is a picture of how much work on the pyramid remains.

You can see the ‘steps’ have been excavated over 2 years in the centre of the pyramid. The rest of the pyramid is still covered in desert sand

It was an immense privilege to meet and learn from Señor Benites. This humble gentleman has lived in the Supe valley for the last 30 years and now he has dedicated his life to the work of increasing the knowledge of humankind, providing for me a new angle on what is important in life.

From left, Jorge, Alix, José Javier, Señor Benites

Our next destination was 8 hours north by bus; for the people of the Peruvian coast we time-warp around 3,500 years after Caral to the time of the Moche. The Moche occupied the lands surrounding the modern Peruvian city of Trujillo from 100-700 A.D., when their society broke down as a result of natural disasters and a lingering question about whether the Moche priests really had any influence to affect the anger of the gods.

The extent of the Moche cultural occupation

The Moche priests did their best work at places called huacas, a huaca being a dual-function temple and burial tomb in the shape of a step pyramid. At the huacas they paid homage to a colourful pantheon of gods, there are demigods of anthropomorphic owl-men, crab-men, spider-men, and even a vampire demigod. Above all of these is the creator god, Ai-Apaec, The Dacapitator. He is depicted in various manifestations all over the Moche huacas.

The image of Ai- Apaec worked in gold. His eyes are those of an owl, symbolising wisdom. His teeth are those of a Puma, symbolising the mountains and the jungle. His corona is formed from the tentacles of an octopus with manta rays on the ends of the tentacles, symbolising the sea.

Our first site visit from Trujillo was to the Huaca de la Luna, where we saw frescoes of Ai-Apaec in various states of restoration on the walls. Every thirty or forty years the Moche experienced a particularly bad weather event that caused massive crop destruction and other problems- we now know this as the El Niño phenomenon -, so to appease the gods the Moche warriors would duel each other in hand-to-hand combat, with the fate of the loser being blood sacrifice by the Moche priests, servants of Ai-Apaec. Here at the Huaca de la Luna, the high priest would decapitate the defeated warriors and the flow of blood, channelled through the semi-divine high priest to the gods in heaven, would ensure the peaceable flow of water in the rivers that made the lives of the Moche people possible.

Ai-Apaec on the walls of Huaca de la Luna

Images of the spider-crab, a divinity that symbolises the flow of water from the mountains to the sea

The temple areas of the huacas were often built directly on top of earlier huacas, which were then turned into tombs for mummified Moche leaders. One such example is outside of Trujillo at the Huaca Cao Viejo in the EL Brujo archaeological complex. It is also an exciting new archaeological find, and there is even a bit of ‘girl power’ involved, because this one is a woman.

Alix stands outside Huaca Cao Viejo in the EL Brujo archaeological complex. The huge white shadecloth protects the recent excavations from seasonal rain

The Lady of Cao, an early Moche military leader who lived around 300 A.D., must have been a phenomenon to the Moche people on the scale of Cleopatra or Joan of Arc. There have been no other examples of female Moche leaders, and the Lady of Cao, who died at the rock star age of around 25, was buried with full military honours. Accompanied into the afterlife by five adult human sacrifices, the lady was buried in a coat of gold, her face masked by four golden face masks. She was buried armed with two huge silver clubs, crowns, golden spear-throwers and a wealth of jewellery and other luxurious objects.

When The Lady was buried, her mummified corpse was preserved with mercury sulphate powder, and you can still see the sacred codex of ritual tattoos that adorn her body like a suit of supernatural armour. Her body is on display at the El Brujo museum, a masterful piece of modern architecture which opened to the public on May 2nd, 2009. Although the El Brujo archaeological complex has been around for a while, the Lady was only discovered in 2006, which might very well make her the most recently discovered mummy in the world.

Reconstructed image of the Lady of Cao. Like most of the museums up here no photography is allowed in the El Brujo museum. If you want to see her shrivelled corpse, you’ll just have to visit Peru yourself

The Lady of Cao is the newcomer on the Moche archaeological scene. For sheer scale, nothing compares to a contemporary of The Lady who ruled a valley a few hundred kilometres further up the coast, a Moche leader known as The Lord of Sipán.

Sipán itself is an enormous huaca, a 6-level step pyramid with no fewer than 13 tombs of Moche religious leaders, military commanders and rulers from several generations. The most significant tombs are on the upper level where the Lord of Sipán himself was buried and the lower level, where the Old Lord, who may have been the Lord’s great-great grandfather or some other relation, is buried. Both rulers are buried with a personal fortune in gold, silver, wives, slaves, textiles, ornaments, shells and animal sacrifices.

In the town of Lambayeque, a small, lazy place outside of the city of Chiclayo, the riches excavated from these tombs are displayed at the Museo Tumbes Reales de Sipán. The work is frequently in both gold and silver; to the Moche people these metals were powerful symbols of Day and Night respectively, and when worn by the Lord of Sipán they confirmed his bond with nature and the divine.

The Museo Tumbes Reales de Sipán in Lambayeque

There must be literally billions of dollars worth of artefacts in this museum, take another look at the golden image of Ai-Apaec, then picture hundreds of similar objects, and you are getting the general idea. Some of these have been recovered from the horde of grave-robbers that originally discovered Sipán itself. One item that is on display at the museum, a huge golden sacrificial knife, was located in the USA by the FBI; it had been sold by a tomb raider to a private collector for $US1.6 million. On discovering this I encouraged Alix to dress up in a pair of hotpants and a racer-back singlet and get busy digging us up a good fortune.

Alix is not yet convinced that this is a good idea.


  1. What wonderful entries! Thank you so much, Alix and Jace, I can't wait to read the book, or the published articles. Love, Uschi

  2. hello

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    To enrich the film, we might use a picture from your website

    Can you, please, grant us your authorization to use the picture on the site?