“¿Quién, carajo, está llamando a esas horas?” murmurs grumpily Walter, as looks at the clock on the wall.
It’s the Chief of Police of Lambayeque insisting he presents himself immediately at the station. “We’ve come into possession of several objects that we’d like you to inspect.”
“Sure, first thing tomorrow morning,” promises Walter, wanting more than anything to return to his bed, kept warm by his dog. He’s been feeling crappy the last couple of days, has had a fever and a bad cough. Must be the other night that he and his assistant spent in the desert, excavating a promising tomb that, just like all the others, turned out to be ransacked by the Spaniards hundreds of years ago.
He can still feel the cold desert wind in his bones.
“Tomorrow will be too late, you have to come now!” says the voice at the other end and hangs up.
¿¡Qué mosca te ha picado?! Walter takes a quick sip of his ginger tea, grabs his satchel and calls Luis, his assistant.
After entering the run-down building of the local police station, almost empty at this hour, their eyes land on a battered table in one of the rooms illuminated by a blinking fluorescent light. Laid out on it are about thirty objects, wrapped in an old newspaper.
Walter takes one in his hands and unwraps it. Looking back at him is a face made of pure gold and inlaid with large turquoise eyes. A stunning face.
After staring at each other for what feels like the 1,700 years that separate them, Walter picks up another object. It’s a gold jaguar head this time, with a mouth of bared fangs that makes his feeling of pure awe grow even stronger. Never before in his career as an archaeologist had he seen anything like this.
He realizes he’s onto something. Something big. Pieces of such exquisite workmanship, intricate design and unusual quality can only come from a rich burial. An unlooted one.
He’s got to be quick on his feet now.
With his fever suddenly gone, Walter persuades the Chief of Police to give him a crew of 20 policemen.
The tomb, discovered by a local band of huaqueros who had tunneled into one of the three badly eroded, adobe pyramids at the Sipán archaeological site searching for loot, has to be secured immediately.
He and his team build a fence around it and start the excavation work.
Since unearthing and ransacking archaeological remains for a few dollars to feed their families is something local tomb raiders have been doing for generations, since pretty much the arrival of the Spanish, Walter knows they won’t be too happy about it.
Pues, every profession has its dangers.
And he doesn’t mean by that getting cursed by a mummy .
It is February 25, 1985, and tonight begins one of the greatest archaeology adventures of recent decades that will be described by later headlines as the discovery of the Peruvian Tut’s tomb.
The first six months, Walter and his assistant live off donated spaghetti and beer, hiding in the holes dug by looters with a Mauser pistol by their side.
The huaqueros, angry that the site they consider their rightful property, has been usurped from them, and that the police has shot an unarmed member of theirs on a raid, throw rocks and abuse at the excavation crew, attempting to get them out and allow the looting to continue.
A danger worthy of Indiana Jones; except, the punching noises and body blows are not produced by special effects.
The situation gets so tense that Walter and Luis fear for their lives.
With insults, threats and picks flying over the head, the brain never takes long to come up with a desperate idea to save itself. Walter’s is no exception, and before long, the former looters and villagers are transformed into field workers and paid $3/day plus meals.
With things settled down, the first discoveries soon follow. An enormous cache of 1,200 ceramic Moche pots is excavated, protected by a skeleton of a man with his feet removed.
A guard never allowed to leave his post, a feature that will occur in Moche tombs over and over again.
Digging deeper, the archaeologists finally hit gold – a tomb of 16 x 16 feet, carbon-dated to AD 250.
Buried in it are opulent treasures, adorning a poorly preserved skeleton of a man 5’3’’ feet tall and about 35–45 years old. He’s assumed by his full royal regalia to be a high ranking warrior priest, the Moche variant of a lord.
The burial equipment includes an enormous crescent headdress of beaten gold two feet across with a plume of feathers; a pure gold face mask;
two necklaces with ten large peanuts made of gold, and ten large peanuts made of silver, representing masculinity and the sun, femininity and the moon; a back-flap shield of pure beaten gold, with an image of the Decapitator God holding a human head by the hair (weighing over 2 pounds);
three sets of gold earspools masterly inlaid with turquoise; eyes, nose and lips sheets hammered in gold; pectoral shields made of spondylus shells;
a gold and silver scepter in the form of an inverted pyramid, showing a warrior and his nude prisoner; bracelets strung with hundreds of turquoise, shell and gold beads; gold bells with images of severed human heads; banners, textiles and pottery – in short, some 451 objects in total.
The Warrior Priest of Moche people to whom the grave belongs is named after the archaeological site the Lord of Sipán, El Señor de Sipán.
Half gods-half men, these mighty, pre-Inca rulers reigned over the Moche people, a highly sophisticated culture about which very little is known.
The Moche inhabited the north coast of Peru around 100 AD, a millennium before the Inca, and built huge pyramids of millions of mud bricks, and extensive networks of aqueducts with canals up to 20 miles long that channeled streams flowing down from the Andes.
Especially astounding is their metalwork of pure beaten gold, silver and copper, that establishes the Moche as one of the most sophisticated artisans of ancient times; the gold-dipped objects indicate the metalsmiths knew the advanced technique of electroplating.
Six people accompanied the Lord in death, including three young women, possibly his wives, two men of robust statures, suggesting they were warriors, and a child aged 9 or 10, along with two llamas and a hunting dog.
A year later, a second tomb is discovered in this soon-to-be Peruvian “Valley of the Kings.”
It has a skeleton that holds a copper cup and wears a headdress, adorned with an owl with its wings extended. He, too, is buried with other people, one of them a man with his feet cut off.
He’s identified as a priest, the man who collected blood from sacrificial victims, second only in status to the Lord himself.
Both these tombs are found in the upper layers of the platform. As Moche pyramids were rebuilt multiple times over already existing structures to praise the current ruler, the excavations are moved to the site’s earliest platforms 16 feet below the surface.
A good call.
The third tomb is slightly older than the first two, and contains a male body buried under 16 layers of the finest ornaments and clothing. A DNA analysis establishes the body is related to the first one; he’s named the Old Lord of Sipán.
His tomb has only two people buried with him, a young woman and a man with amputated feet, but it contains some of the finest Moche metalwork and jewelry found, like a necklace of golden spiders held together with fine wire,
a mask and a headdress representing a bat,
or a 1.5 inches high gold figurine of a Moche warrior, holding a shield and a war club and wearing turquoise inlaid earplugs, a turquoise shirt, and an owl headdress with tiny moveable platelets that make it an incredible piece of miniature craftsmanship.
To date, Walter Alva and his team have found a total of 14 Moche elite burials, that rival those of Egypt.
Many more still wait to be found.
The latest, 14th tomb was discovered in 2007 and contains a richly decorated man’s body, implying the dead man was, again, a warrior priest.
Two museums had to be built to house all this gold, silver, textiles, pottery and archaeological data, Alva and his team have uncovered over the past 30 years.
Objects from the last burial are held in the Museo de Sitio Huaca Rajada, a new, on-site museum, opened in 2009, that displays items in a novel way – they’re shown half preserved, half left in their original, sometimes corroded state, just like they were when taken from the ground.
The items, found during the 1987-2000 excavations and representing the greatest discovery of gold artifacts in the Americas, are held in the Museum of Tumbas Reales de Sipán, the Royal Tombs of Sipán, inaugurated in 2002 and located in the nearby city of Lambayeque.
This three-story, six-million-dollar building is shaped like a dark-red, Moche pyramid under which the tombs were discovered.
On show are the burials of Lords of Sipán and the priest, surrounded by ceramics and items found in their tombs.
Most of these copper, gold and silver objects were found badly corroded, especially the copper ones, and were in need of urgent restoration. Aid was offered by the Mainz museum in Germany, that between 1988 and 1993, restored about 560 of them.
Dozens of pyramids remain to be excavated.