PeruIn 1987, some of the world‘s richest and most extraordinary tombs were found on the North coast of Peru. They were left by the people of the Moche culture, who preceded the Inca by some 1,000 years. To this day, the site continues to yield great wonders. The editor Nadia Durrani went to Peru to discover the latest.

This is not ‘deepest darkest Peru’; rather we are in Lambayeque, the white-hot, desert coastal zone of Northern Peru, set between the Andes and the Pacific. I am with archaeologists Walter Alva and Luis Chero. The little-told story of their discovery of the Lords of Sipán, which rivals that of Carter and Carnarvon’s in Egypt, began on the night of 25 February 1987…

Alva, then the 37 year old Director of Lambayeque’s Brüning Museum, was feeling miserable with bronchitis when the phone rang. It was the local Chief of Police: they had retrieved some looted items that they wanted him to see. With a wretched cough, Alva magnanimously agreed that he would come over first thing next morning. But the policeman insisted he come now: tomorrow would be too late.  

PeruOn arriving at the police station, Alva was presented with items roughly wrapped in paper: a pure-gold face, with wide unblinking turquoise eyes; two giant peanuts made of pure gold, three times normal size; a feline head also of gold, with jagged teeth of shell set in an angry snarl. Alva no longer felt unwell. Despite decades of scientific research, never before had such items been found — yet all came from an unprepossessing pyramid site of Huaca Rajada, not far from the local village of Sipán. By dawn, Alva, his 27 year old archaeological assistant Luis Chero, and a crew of 20 policemen were at the pyramid. But news of the discovery had got out and they found the site swarming with frantic shovel-wielding locals, gripped with gold fever. The crowd dispersed leaving a dusty field of craters.

From this inauspicious start began one of archaeology’s greatest discoveries. Over the past 20 years, Alva and his team have uncovered a whole complex of unplundered tombs containing some of the world’s most extraordinary ancient finds. The treasures — gold, silver, textiles, pottery, and a whole wealth of archaeological data about a lost civilization are continually emerging, so much so that two splendid new museums have been built to house the material.   The Lord of Sipán, still relatively unknown to the wider world, is now one of Peru’s greatest celebrities.

Digging pyramids
None of this could have been predicted that fateful night in 1987. The finds on the police table were entirely unexpected. For even though Lambayeque is rich with ancient sacred sites, or huacas (pronounced ‘wakas’), it was also rich with huaqueros (or looters).

Huacas typically take the form of mud-brick pyramids, many up to 30m or 40m high, that date from c.3000 BC until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1532. Today, these adobe pyramids tend to be deeply scored and corroded by centuries of heavy rain-weathering and thus lack the external beauty of Maya or Mexican stone pyramids. However, they were once impressive structures and the depositories of great treasures – hence their attraction to the huaqueros, whose illicit digging work is evident in the heavily pock-marked landscape that surrounds almost every pyramid. These looters tended to be impoverished locals desperate to make some small money on the insatiable international antiquities black market. But rarely would they find much: the Spanish conquistadors had done a sterling job of ransacking the huacas and melting down their hidden gold. Clearly, the Spaniards had overlooked the pyramid of Huaca Rajada.
One can only imagine the excitement of the local gang on uncovering the riches, and the story goes that they excavated non-stop for three days and nights. However, in true gangster style, one huaqero, feeling he had not received his fair share of the treasure, turned informer to the police. The police raided, and hence the gold on the table. Some days thereafter, the police raided again, recovered more gold, but this time they fatally shot a gang member.

There was simply no time to lose. On 1 April   1987, Alva and Chero began work at Huaca Rajada. For the task, they raised $900 from local businessmen and lived off donated spaghetti and beer. These were difficult political and economic times in Peru. However, life was even worse at the local level: for the first six months the two archaeologists were forced to hide in the looters’ holes at night. They feared for their lives from locals who were angry at the death and that their treasure had been usurped. So began Alva’s quest to re-educate the locals, and soon he had gathered a small local team to work with him at Huaca Rajada.


This is an extract taken from the full article in   CWA 35.

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