Pyramid in Peru Yields Unprecedented Buried Treasure
Archeology: UCLA scientists find unique cultural artifacts in three 1,500-year-old tombs of the Moche people.
By THOMAS H. MAUGH II, Times Staff Writer
UCLA archeologists have found three unlooted tombs in a 1,500-year-old
Moche pyramid in Peru, a finding that has left them
scratching their heads over the burial chambers' unusual contents.
Each of the three treasure-filled tombs was accompanied by a miniature tomb containing a copper figurine of the deceased and
miniature versions of the tomb's artifacts--something never seen in any culture before, even in the most elaborate Egyptian chambers.
Perhaps even more puzzling, all three of the deceased, and two other young males apparently included as sacrifices, were giants
among the short-statured Moche people, whose empire flourished in the desert plain between the Andes and the Pacific from about
AD 100 to 800.
"More than 350 Moche burials have been excavated [by archeologists]," said UCLA archeologist Christopher B. Donnan, who
led the team, "but neither I nor my colleagues have seen anything elsewhere remotely like the ones at this site."
Fewer than 15 of those previously discovered tombs contained silver and gold, but all three of the new ones do, and one contains
unusual amounts, suggesting that its occupant was very powerful. The tombs and artifacts are expected to give archeologists new insights
into the religious beliefs of the Moche, said archeologist Steve Bourget of the University of Texas at Austin.
The discovery, announced Wednesday by the National Geographic Society, which sponsored the excavation, is also important
because the tombs are from the early stages of the Moche empire. Most previous discoveries have dated from the end of the Moche
"We certainly know what happened at the end [of the Moche empire], but what happened at the beginning has been a mystery,"
said Moche expert Carol Mackey, a professor emerita at Cal State Northridge. "It's really important to find a beginning and an end
The Moche were primarily farmers, who probably migrated to the Peruvian plain from Central America. They diverted rivers into
a network of irrigation canals, growing corn, beans, chili peppers, potatoes and squash. They also dined on ducks, llama, guinea pigs
A sophisticated culture, the Moche raised huge pyramids of sun-dried mud bricks, laying their noblest dead inside. They also created
splendid objects of gold, silver and copper. Although the Moche apparently had no written language, their artifacts are decorated with
scenes of hunting, fishing, combat, punishment, sexual encounters and elaborate ceremonies.
Their departure from the area is a source of some mystery, but many experts believe that it was hastened by a prolonged drought
followed by a series of floods. They were eventually succeeded in the region by the Incas.
The new tombs were discovered at Dos Cabezas, the first big settlement identified from the early Moche culture. Dos Cabezas is at
the mouth of the Jaquetepequa River, about 40 miles south of Sipan, where even more elaborate tombs were found in the 1980s.
Donnan's team began working at Dos Cabezas in 1994, initially confining its efforts to exploring and preserving opened tombs that
already had been looted. Members also discovered a fishermen's neighborhood and an enclave occupied by farmers during the early
The team has been searching intensively for workshops and tools to explain how the Moche constructed the sophisticated artifacts
found there, said team member Alana Cordy-Collins of the University of San Diego, but so far without success.
Donnan found the first tomb in the summer of 1997. It contained an adult male with a 15-year-old female lying crosswise at his
feet--most likely a sacrifice. The man had been buried wearing a cylindrical metal headdress and a gold nose ornament.
Four "absolutely awesome" ceramics were arrayed in the corners of the tomb, Bourget said. "Each piece is museum quality," he
One was a white ceramic vampire bat, one was a black sea lion, one was a red condor and the last was a brown owl. The bat is
associated with human sacrifice, Bourget said. The sea lion is associated with being the victim of a sacrifice. The owl is associated
with the preparation of funeral offerings and the condor is associated with eating the dead--liberating the soul of the dead by taking
the flesh off the bones.
At one end of the tomb, Donnan said, was a little compartment containing a copper figurine wrapped in textiles and accompanied
by miniature artifacts.
"When we finished, the big question for me--and one that haunted me throughout the next school year--was what was the
relationship between the little compartment and the tomb?" Donnan said. "We were at a loss to explain it."
The following summer, the team opened a second tomb that contained 10 to 15 times as many riches as the first, Donnan said.
"The only tombs that are richer are those that were excavated at Sipan."
The individual was buried in multiple layers of textiles, with 14 headdresses, clubs, spears, spear throwers, three gold-plated
shields, a burial mask and five gold objects in his mouth. "Around the corners were the most spectacular set of ceramic vessels ever
found in a Moche tomb, even better than those at Sipan," he added.
And at the end of the tomb was a small compartment, about 14 inches square, containing another copper figurine wrapped in
textiles. With it were a miniature burial mask, a miniature circular shield, two war clubs, spears and other small artifacts.
"It was now clear that the figurine was meant to be a miniaturization of the figure in the tomb," Donnan said.
A third tomb, opened in the summer of 1999, was very similar to the first.
The final surprise was the size of the deceased. Moche ranged in height from 4 feet 10 inches to 5 feet 6 inches, at most. All the
deceased were between 5 feet 9 inches and 6 feet tall--the equivalent of 7-footers in today's society.
"We had never imagined males of this stature," Donnan said.
The skeletons were all very thin and fragile and at least partially misshapen. Cordy-Collins is convinced that the three people
suffered from a genetic disease, possibly Marfan syndrome, a congenital disease marked by unusually long limbs, fingers and toes,
and heart abnormalities.
"These were people who had a genetic disorder that disabled them," she said. "They could not have led an active life. Yet they
were maintained as elite individuals, not looked down on. Did the disorder make them revered? We don't know. But it provides a
window into their social behavior."