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Explorer Hopes to Beat Grave Robbers to Tombs

December 25, 1987|From Times Wire Services

CAIRO — Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl hopes grave-robbers will not plunder the objects of his newest project--Peruvian pyramids.

He plans to investigate the ancient South American structures to find out where their builders came from.

Tomb robbers, the bane of archeologists' lives, have already taken 95% of the gold treasures from one pyramid at Sipan, on Peru's northern coast.

"It had been dug through by treasure-hunters. It looked like worm-eaten cheese," Heyerdahl said.

And he does not want them trampling over another 26 untouched pyramids which he plans to explore with Peruvian partners near a village called Tucume, 90 minutes' drive from Sipan.

"That's a great risk after the enormous treasures found at Sipan," said Heyerdahl, who has asked Lima officials to secure the site for excavation planned to start in April or May.

Part of Lifetime's Theme

The latest project of the 73-year-old scientist, disclosed this month, is part of a life spent tracing ancient maritime links between continents and different civilizations.

Heyerdahl, interviewed while on a tour of old haunts for a television series on his life, is clearly more interested in balsa-wood rafts than in gold.

"I do not expect necessarily that we will find any treasures. That's not what we are looking for," he said.

"But we feel that such an enormous complex which has survived intact for so long must contain a lot of clues about the beginning of civilization in South America."

Heyerdahl has no theory yet about the origins of the ancient pyramid builders whose rafts washed up on Peru's coast. But his mind is bubbling with the possibilities.

He rules out links between Tucume's adobe structures and Egypt's 5,000-year-old Pharaonic pyramids, but says there is a strong parallel with those of ancient Mesopotamia, now Iraq, which served as both tombs and temples.

"I do not believe that they are linked with ancient Egypt nor do they necessarily have to be linked with ancient Mesopotamia," he said. "But somehow, I believe there is a common root."

In a half-century of exploration, Heyerdahl has returned repeatedly to the theme that oceans unite continents rather than divide them.

"We must stop looking at the ocean as an isolator in archeology," he said. After rafts were invented, "the ocean was a convener."

Heyerdahl is best known for the Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, when he crossed the Pacific Ocean in a balsa raft from Peru to a coral island near Tahiti, showing that ancient South Americans could have populated the Pacific Islands.

In 1970, he sailed a papyrus boat, Ra-II, from Morocco to Barbados, to show that ancient Egyptians could have reached the Americas centuries before Christopher Columbus landed in 1492.

He made his latest Peruvian find when he returned to Peru last June as part of his biographical odyssey for television.

He then met archeologist Walter Alva, now his partner on the planned Tucume excavations.

"He showed me a sensational discovery . . .," Alva said. "He had just started to excavate a pyramid at a site called Sipan, where grave robbers had been caught emptying the largest gold treasure found in South America this century."

Alva took over when perhaps 5% of the treasure remained. The rest "had been sold--probably melted down--to non-scientists," Heyerdahl said.

"Still there was an enormous scientific treasure to be saved and it was saved by Alva and his Peruvian colleagues, including two masks of pure gold," he said.

Older than Incan Civilization

Sipan dated back to the early Mochica period of Peruvian history, well before the Incas. It meant "that here we had solid archeological proof of long-distance voyages at least 1,000 years before Columbus," Heyerdahl said.

Alva took him to Tucume.

"Unbelievable as it is, in a desert valley next to the village were 26 pyramids never touched by archeologists or grave robbers," he said.

It was the world's biggest complex of prehistoric adobe structures, covering 550 acres, dating from the first 500 years A. D. and maybe earlier, Heyerdahl said.

The pyramids, 100 to 130 feet high, probably stayed unexplored for centuries because they looked more like eroded sandstone mountains than man-made structures.

Also, "there are so many archeological sites in Peru that there is plenty to do for the limited number of archeologists who work there," Heyerdahl said.

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