Detectives, Loot and Riches

Hi Friends:
In the past few days we have been hearing about some very exciting detective work done by Peruvian archeologists. I remember going to Brookline high school a couple of months ago to address a history class about how much of ancient lifeways are still practiced and reflected in the Andes today. One of the students wanted to know if there are still buried treasures to be discovered, and the answer is a very definitive yes!

US Archeologist Chris Donnan told us in a very modest way about how he fell in love with the artwork of the Moche people who inhabited and united the coast of Peru from around 100 to 700 AD. Since most of the artwork (ceramics, gold, silver and copper work and textiles) had been looted from graves for the past 500 years and was scattered in museums and collections around the world, he set about to photograph every single piece of Moche pottery he could find and started to categorize them and look for patterns. Over a period of 30 years he got very good at distinguishing the essential scenes and characters depicted on these beautiful fineline drawings on pottery, and identified a Sacrifice Ceremony which seemd to be a central theme of Moche mythology. He identified three characters and their symbolic tools that were always present in depictions of this scene on Moche pottery: a lord who drank the blood of sacrificial victims, a bird-priest who presented the victims to the lord, and a priestess. They were always wearing a set number of symbolic vestments, headdresses and holding distinctive goblets, scepters, ritual weapons, etc.

To Donnan´s very great surprise, a Peruvian archeologist contacted him in 1987 to say that he had begun excavating a grave in a heavily looted area and had found evidence of a very important and rich individual burial. (No one had thought there was anything more to be found in this area.) As they excavated, they began to find metal versions of the very same headdresses, scepter, goblets and other ritual items that were depicted in the Sacrifice scene so common in Moche pottery. In the next couple of years they went on to find graves of all of the individuals depicted in the Sacrifice Ceremony scenes!

The story was full of suspense and real grave robbers…and fabulous treasures which were finally found for the first time in a context in which they could be interpreted and put together to make sense of the scenes depicted on thousands of Moche pots, murals, and textiles.

Yesterday, as we viewed the actual contents of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán (the primary character in the Sacrifice Ceremony) we heard that the local paper and the BBC had just reported news of another important tomb excavation in Peru. You can see the report at this link:

Today we saw yet another museum with burials and information from yet another Peruvian civilization. It turns out that this country is full to the gills with thousands and thousands of tombs full of fabulous jewelry, mummies and evidence of fabulous lifeways going way back in time. One of the great accomplishments of Chris Donnan was his ability to work respectfully and productively with the grave robbers who normally would have destroyed a lot of the evidence and clues to solving mysteries about the past. Instead, Donnan and Peruvian archeologists such as Walter Alva, Luis Jaime Castillo and Carlos Elera have begun to engage local people in a new and extremely popular enterprise: rediscovering their cultural heritage, doing careful detective work and restoring the beautiful artifacts so that they can be displayed in places where everyone can see them and make sense of these riches.

Tomorrow we´ll see more.

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