ONE NIGHT in 1987 the police woke Walter Alva, a Peruvian archaeologist, and invited him to come to inspect some stolen gold objects. The tip would lead Mr Alva to discover the intact tomb of a ruler of the Mochica (or Moche) civilisation, whom he dubbed the Lord of Sipán. It held the lord’s full regalia of gold breastplates and crowns, exquisite nose- and ear-pieces and a unique necklace of giant gold and silver peanuts.
It was the start of an archaeological revolution in northern Peru. Since then Mochica temples, built from mud reinforced with gravel and shells, have been unearthed at Huaca de la Luna, near the colonial city of Trujillo. They are decorated with embossed and colourfully painted friezes of fanged warlord deities and bound prisoners. In 2005 at a site called El Brujo, Régulo Franco, another archaeologist, found a tomb almost as rich as that of Sipán, but of a woman, now known as the Lady of Cao.
These discoveries underline that ancient Peru was one of the half-dozen cradles of civilisation. It remains a creative place, as its gastronomic boom attests. But modern Peru’s dysfunctions are preventing it from reaping the full benefit of the new finds.
The Mochicas thrived from around 100 to 600AD by irrigating the valleys of the coastal desert. Theirs was perhaps the most artistic of Peru’s ancient cultures, far more so than the much later Inca empire. Apart from their metallurgical prowess, they were skilled potters, producing sculpted vessels and stirrup-spouted jars on which they recorded their likenesses, lives, animal deities and religious ceremonies. Thanks to the recent tomb discoveries, it is now clear that some of these representations accurately portrayed priests and rulers.
Although the pots and friezes describe warfare and human sacrifice, archaeologists now believe these were rituals to placate the deities of a people acutely vulnerable to drought and flood. “There are no Mochica fortresses, there are temples,” says Ricardo Morales of the University of Trujillo, who directs the Huaca de la Luna site. Recent scholarship also suggests that there was no Mochica super-state, but rather a collection of local lordships in each valley, linked by a common religious ideology and iconography. Finding the Lady of Cao “changed our conception of power in ancient Peru”, and the role of women within it, notes Mr Franco.
The Sipán treasures are displayed at a superb museum, directed by Mr Alva, in a nearby town. There are museums on site at Huaca de la Luna and El Brujo, both run by non-profit foundations. They represent a kind of miracle. For decades locals lived from tomb-robbing, and Peru’s treasures were melted down or sold on an international black market. The country has around 100,000 archaeological sites. It is impossible to police them all.
Although funds are always tight, the archaeologists are trying to win over the locals. Mr Morales says he sees Huaca de la Luna as a “development pole”. His project employs 38 staff, while another 98 sell handicrafts to visitors. Peru is developing archaeological skills. Whereas many of the Sipán artefacts were sent to Germany for conservation, this was done on site for the Lady of Cao. The archaeologists say that the biggest impact of their discoveries is on Peruvians’ self-esteem. “There wasn’t a native hero,” says Mr Alva. Now there are several. At the village next to El Brujo, DNA testing is under way to see whether the residents are descended from the Lady of Cao.
Visitor numbers are rising, but remain low. The Sipán museum received 198,000 last year, mostly Peruvians. Despite recent decentralisation, Peru revolves around Lima. The government promotes the Inca sites of Cusco and Machu Picchu, although they are saturated with tourists (1.4m went to Machu Picchu in 2017). Roads in the north are vulnerable to the El Niño flooding that helped to end the Mochica civilisation. Because of a damaged bridge, the fastest bus between Trujillo and Chiclayo, the two main cities, takes almost five hours to cover 200km (125 miles). There are few good hotels. Official incompetence leaves roadsides strewn with rubbish.
Yet from the top of the temple mount at El Brujo the view is breathtaking: the Pacific breakers, the desert and the sugar-cane fields that stretch to the Andean foothills. Turkey vultures glide overhead. The archaeologists have revealed that what once seemed to be desert hillocks were the ramped, decorated and tomb-filled temples of one of the world’s most sophisticated early civilisations. They deserve to be far better known.