The Moche: Peru's unsung historical heroes

To visit the pyramids and tombs of the Mochica is to travel back a millennium from Machu Picchu

This hot desert landscape is unremitting. There isn't another soul for as far as the eye can see. I trudge towards a lofty pyramid rising from the Lambayeque river valley of Peru's northern coastal plain. Under the searing equatorial sun, a mangy viringo dog paws listlessly at the dry soil, and a bright scarlet cardinal warbles from the top of a carob tree.

But this eroded adobe outcrop - the Huaca Rajada, or literally "cracked pyramid" - has yielded a treasure trove that rivals that of King Tutankhamun's tomb. It was here, under an avalanche of gold and silver finery, that in the 4th century AD, the ancient Moche, or Mochica, people buried one of their greatest warrior priests: the Lord of Sipán.

"Ninety percent of tourists visit Machu Picchu, but only 10 percent come here"
It took six months for the archeologists to reach the mummy beneath the gold

Hundreds of kilometers to the southeast in the Andean Highlands, the Incas would not inhabit Machu Picchu - Peru's top tourist destination with almost 3,000 visitors daily - for another whole millennium. As Peru gears up to celebrate the centenary of the US explorer Hiram Bingham's re-discovery of the Inca citadel next year, it feels only fair to shine some of the spotlight on a pre-Incan jewel every bit as dazzling as Machu Picchu, both culturally and geographically: the Moche pyramids of the northern coast.

"Ninety percent of tourists to Peru visit Machu Picchu, but only five to 10 percent come here," laments archeologist, anthropologist and historian, Guillermo Cock. "Sipán receives just 1,300 visitors monthly, Machu Picchu has 2,800 a day. The Highlands and Inca culture have always dominated but the north coast and the colorful exuberance of its Moche art deserve much more attention than they get."

As the first base for our exploration of Mochica culture - which flourished from 100 to 800AD - we arrive in the somewhat non-descript northern town of Chiclayo, Peruvian capital of friendship. Here, our hotel's logo is the great Moche deity who presided over rites of human sacrifice: the "Decapitator" or Ai Apaec. Half-man, half-spider, our friendly and bulging-eyed host wields a crescent-shaped knife in one hand and a severed head in the other. "Visitors are always hungry for tales of blood and gore," laughs Guillermo. "I have to be careful not to succumb to poetic license for the sake of a good story. Much of what we know is speculative - there's so much more to Moche culture."

And nothing attests to Moche sophistication and artistry more than the awe-inspiring gold artifacts housed inside the Royal Tombs of the Sipán Museum. We ascend the external ramp to enter the apex of this neo-pyramid (designed by Celso Prado and opened in 2002) before working our way down to the ground floor; en route we take in the contents of the funereal complex of the Sipán site. Photos transport us back to 1987 when the archeologist Walter Alva and his team first found 16 tombs in Sipán - the first three contained the Lord, the old Lord (a direct ancestor of the young Lord according to DNA testing) and the Priest (a peer of the young Lord, alongside whom a 15-year-old girl was sacrificed).

"The young Lord was 1.76 meters tall and was between 40 and 50 at the time of his death. He had a chip in his left tooth, arthritis in his spine, slightly effeminate features and was of medium build," the director of excavations at Sipán, Luis Chero Zurita, explains. "Up to 15 kilograms of gold and silver jewelry were piled on top of him." So much after-life jewelry, in fact, that it took six months for the archeologists to reach the mummy beneath.

But Alva and his colleagues only struck gold following the most extraordinary run of events. Supposedly, the first clue to the Sipán tombs' existence came when a local woman's pet guinea pig excreted gold pellets after burrowing underground. Following this fecal portent, hundreds of looters - or huaqueros - began to dig in the area. Miraculously, they didn't raid the main tomb, which was untouched when Walter Alva arrived on the scene.

Among the most iconic objects Alva would find in the Lord of Sipán's tomb was the gold and silver scepter, crowned by a tiny intricate temple. This beautiful symbol of power is displayed to perfection in the Royal Tombs Museum: invisibly suspended on a dramatic diagonal, it appears to float in a dark void.

The arachnid Decapitator rears his head (as well as that of his victim), of course, several times: notably in the Lord's gold nosepiece, his belt buckle and his "coxal protector" or back plate. As I look, aghast, at the Lord's ear-rings - vast gold and turquoise saucers on three-inch-long thick rods to be pushed through the earlobe - Guillermo Cock grins knowingly. "Humans are crazy. They do incredible things." In the case of the Moche, as I admire the powerful expressivity of the anthropomorphized feline faces of yet another gold necklace, I can't help but agree. But where did so much gold come from? "The Moche mined the gold in the Andean foothills and Highlands. In fact, Peru is the third biggest producer of gold in the world today. While the Moche took their gold, copper and turquoise from the Central Andes, they went to Chile for lapis lazuli."

Aside from bearing golden fruits of such startling beauty, the Lord of Sipán tombs are of huge cultural significance for Peru. Guillermo Cock explains: "Sipán brought a new image of Peru's past. For the first time, the people could identify themselves with a nobleman from Pre-Columbian northern Peru. Instead of feeling ashamed at being descended from Indians, Sipán gave them renewed pride in their identity." Not only that, but the tombs broadened experts' understanding of the Moche way beyond their expectations. "Before Sipán there were only five burial typologies but afterwards, Sipán was classified as type 19, so sophisticated and rich were the findings," enthuses Luis Chero Zurita from the top of what would have been the administrative block of the Huaca Rajada.

As we travel south from Sipán along the Pan-American Highway through arid sand-scapes towards Trujillo, Guillermo Cock explains the difference in Incan and Moche legacies. "Much of what we know about the Incas has been passed on through generations via the chronicles - documents written by the Spanish conquistadores - so we are reliant on sometimes-biased interpretations or inaccurate theories. The Moche culture, however, is rooted in real objects - some 100 burials yielding at least 300 personal effects. As the Incas had fewer personal effects, they live on more in the collective imagination than in tangible objects. But the Moche have bequeathed us the most amazing and evocative artifacts imaginable."

After leaving the highway for a dirt track which winds through the Chicama valley towards the sea via sugar cane plantations, we arrive at the Huaca del Brujo, so named because - from 2500BC until 1750AD - witch doctors congregated at this complex of temples to perform shamanic rituals. But evocative artifacts aside, this location is utterly spectacular. Bordered to the east by the Pacific Ocean, the pyramids are set in a desolate, washed-out lunar desert that plunges you back to the beginning of time. Yet, despite the sense of pre-history, this tourist destination could not be more now. After 15 years of excavation, the site, opened in 2006, boasts a sleek, futuristic museum and shop.

Comprising three main temples or pyramids - Cao Viejo, Cortada and Prieta - this religious center dominated ceremonial life in the area. Colorful adobe friezes bear witness to this and depict lines of bound and naked prisoners with semi-erect penises (perhaps a symbol of fertility) before a sacrifice; looking on is the bloodthirsty Decapitator deity, Ai Apaec, with his six spider legs and giant ogling eyes. Beautiful abstractions of the manta ray and the catfish are also incorporated into some of the designs. In one corner of the site, Guillermo Cock points out a vast trench peppered with holes where Spaniards plundered the area in the 1600s.

The conquistadores may have enriched themselves - after, that is, paying the obligatory quinto (fifth) of their assets and income to the Spanish king - but they omitted to dig up one of the most intriguing and unique Moche discoveries: the Señora de Cao. This warrior princess was buried 1,700 years ago with 23 spear throwers and 44 gold and silver nose ornaments (no male Moche has been found with this many). She also had tattoos of spiders and snakes on her arms and fingers respectively. Tattoos are not frequent in Andean culture but it is thought she had them because she was a priestess. This notion of her as both priestess and warrior has been difficult for experts to reconcile. "She's like a Joan of Arc for the Moche." Aware of the clichéd oversimplification, Guillermo jokes, "They'll hang me if they hear me saying this sort of thing!"

A captivating video in the museum records the slow unveiling of Señora de Cao's funereal bundle after its discovery in 2005. Much to the joy of the archeologists, the corpse of the princess - estimated to be between 20 and 25 years old at the time of her death - had been well preserved in a protective and poisonous layer of mercuric sulfate. The esthetic sensitivity with which she has now been put on display is remarkable: while she lies behind glass and out of sight in a cool black box, her dignity covered in a diaphanous shroud, her reflection in a mirror reveals her ethereal form suspended in the dark.

This same sensitivity for the past is palpable at the nearby Huaca de La Luna - winner of Spain's Reina Sofía prize in 2007 - where the emphasis is on careful and non-invasive conservation. Head archeologist Moises Tufinio explains that this pyramid is thought to have been the most important temple and the leading political and ceremonial center in Moche society. Set at the foot of the imposing, pyramid-like Cerro Blanco, this awe-inspiring monument stands adjacent to its sister, the Huaca del Sol. Like the Egyptian pyramids these two dusty adobe outcrops - at one point home to some 20,000 citizens - were once painted in vibrant hues of red and yellow ochre.

Hard and fast evidence of human sacrifice has been unearthed at the Huaca de la Luna: 61 young adult males with bone fractures of the forearm, scapula and ribs that were in the early stages of healing at the time of death. One set of victims are estimated to have died in 300AD, another in 500AD; many were found accompanied by ceramic vessels in the form of seated prisoners. "DNA testing shows that these men came from the same valley so this was not some form of ethnic cleansing or warfare. We think that the Moche engaged in tournaments, rather like medieval jousting - some sort of two-man combat with large clubs - and losers were sacrificed and their blood drunk by high priests in a public ceremony. The winners would then join the ruling elite," explains Tufinio.

As we work our way towards the sacrificial altar at the top of the huaca, we see that the adobe bricks bear distinctive marks, including swirls, stars, spots and even stick men, which once identified the different Moche masons working on the site. To date, 148 of these 'signatures' have been noted. Fast-forward to today and a record of the site conservationists' handiwork is etched in white chalk on these (over five million) ancient building blocks. From the latter, six successive building phases have been identified, the last dating back to 600AD. For, in the manner of all Moche pyramids, the Huaca de la Luna is like an onion whose every layer reveals a new cycle of rebuilding and renewal. On entering the sacrificial chamber (where the killing of victims took place away from the public's gaze), we see three stages of wall murals from different periods in the temple's history; naturally, all these phases depict the deadly Decapitator deity, accompanied by fearsome two-headed serpents.

As we emerge, entrails intact, from this deadly inner sanctum, our visit comes to a climax: at a giddying height above the vast public ceremonial plaza, we stand where high priests once wielded their sacred blood-filled goblets. Then, in the opposite direction to those last steps taken by prisoners as they were led like lambs to the slaughter, we descend the ramp to observe the lofty north facade with its seven staggered levels of ceremonial frieze. In muted tones of terracotta and ochre contrasted with black and white, these depict prisoners, dancers, fishermen, dragons and Decapitators alike. But most intriguing of all is a wall which - rather like a vast and intricate oriental carpet - offers us a mesmerizing glimpse of the Moche cosmos. Half-way up its densely detailed surface, a conservationist brushes the dust from a tiny human figure holding a lizard by its tail. This has to be among the world's best and most lovingly kept archeology sites.

With the frisson of this epic encounter still circulating in our veins, we arrive in Trujillo - Peru's third largest city, allegedly founded by the Extremadura-born Francisco Pizarro who, after sailing past the site of Chan Chan, set up the Spanish colony and named it after his birthplace in 1535. Today, the vibrant blue and yellow colonial façades seem a far cry from the sober, stone-clad austerity of the city's Iberian ancestor.

Fortified by a lunch of ceviche, we retrace the footsteps of the Spanish conquistador, not to mention thousands of tourists, and visit Chan Chan - the world's largest adobe citadel built by the Chimu, successors to the Moche, in 850AD. Like Machu Picchu, it may be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but this vast complex of low, latticed walls has none of the drama, surprise and humanity of the Moche pyramids. The best things in life, it seems, are often the most unexpected.

More information at:

www.visitperu.com

www.peru.info/en

For 10-day Peru trips including Guillermo Cock's three-day tour and flights from 4,950 euros: www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

Lord of Sipán's tomb, the site of which was only discovered in 1987.
Lord of Sipán's tomb, the site of which was only discovered in 1987.
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