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Burial Site of 'Peruvian King Tut' Discovered

September 14, 1988|LAURIE DUNCAN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The National Geographic Society on Tuesday announced discovery of the tomb of a "Peruvian King Tut," laden with a wealth of elaborate gold and silver artifacts, and hailed it as the richest archeological find in the Western Hemisphere.

The discovery of the burial site, containing more than 100 precious ornaments, clothing and decorated ceramics, sheds light on the Moche people, a little-known civilization that flourished on the northern coast of Peru 1,000 years before the Incas.

The tomb "far surpasses in the quantity of precious objects and the overall quality of the craftsmanship anything that we have ever seen before that has come from scientific excavations," Christopher B. Donnan, a UCLA anthropology professor and expert on Moche civilization, said at a press conference announcing the find.

Walter Alva, a Peruvian archeologist working on the excavation, said that "to discover the tomb of a Moche leader is also to discover the information regarding their technology and their past."

Discovered Last Year

The 1,500-year-old site was discovered near the northern coastal village of Sipan last year by officials investigating the looting of artifacts from a nearby archeological site.

The painstaking excavation was sponsored by the National Geographic Society, with the treasures turned over to the Bruning Museum in Lambayesque, Peru. Alva, the museum's director, led the investigation and the recovery effort.

The excavation, which is detailed in the October issue of National Geographic magazine, reveals that the Moche people were superior craftsmen and architects, using metal-plating techniques not seen in Europe until the 18th Century, Alva said.

He said that the Moches, who were highly skilled farmers, developed an artificial irrigation system to make arable the desert-like terrain of the coastline. In addition, they used an elaborate system of commerce, trading gold for turquoise and other precious commodities in the region.

The occupant of the mud-brick tomb was a Moche warrior priest, who apparently died in his early 30s and whose role in the culture was determined by his ceremonial garments and the gold weapons found in the eroded mud-brick tomb, Alva said.

The archeologists said it was clear that the man was at the pinnacle of political, religious and military power in Moche society, reflected by the ritual knife in his right hand, which showed he had the power of life and death over prisoners.

"He was really a Peruvian King Tut," said Wilbur Garrett, editor of National Geographic magazine, a reference to Tutankhamen, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who reigned from 1348-1339 BC whose lavish tomb was discovered in 1922.

About 30 items will be on display at the society's headquarters in Washington. They alone are insured for more than $500,000, a spokesman said. The value of the full collection has not been estimated.

Solid Gold Crown

The items found in the tomb included a solid gold crown two feet wide, a golden warrior's shield weighing almost two pounds, two strands of large gold and silver beads shaped like oversized peanuts, a gold face mask, gold bells, a ceremonial rattle made of hammered sheet gold, gold bells and gold and turquoise ear ornaments. Alva's team discovered more than 1,000 ceramic pots.

Cemetery for Warrior Priests

Donnan said that the tomb and other burial sites near it could be a cemetery for warrior priests.

" . . . There is a pattern of cemeteries of adult males being related to themes in Moche art," he said in an interview.

A second tomb is being excavated, which may contain a warrior priest, but it apparently does not contain such a wealth of objects.

Alva said that the ceramics found are decorated with depictions of various rituals, such as the sacrifice of prisoners of war, a ceremony presided over by warrior priests.

The burial ceremony was among the most important rituals of Moche culture, a civilization characterized by complex religious and social customs, Alva said. The warrior priest was placed in a wooden box and buried with all his earthly belongings, including his slaves.

Servants Believed Buried

Eight skeletons were found in the tomb, presumably the remains of the priest's servants. Another skeleton, known as the "guardian," was found above the others. His feet were amputated, probably to keep him from abandoning his post, Alva said.

The tomb was discovered after an increase in lootings of archeological sites in Peru. Investigators alerted to the appearance of gold and silver artifacts on the black market in January, 1987, raided the home of a suspected grave robber. Alva traced some artifacts recovered to a site near the northern coastal village of Sipan. He noted a depression in the earth near one looted tomb and found several other burial sites.

Six months after the raid, and working under armed guard, Alva and workers assigned to him opened the warrior priest's tomb.

The archeologists decried the ransacking of sites by looters, saying that crucial information about ancient societies is being lost as the thieves scavenge artifacts for black market sale.

Donnan said that negotiations are under way between the United States and Peru on a policy that would provide for the confiscation and recovery of stolen artifacts smuggled into the United States.

The U.S. Customs Service and the Justice Department in Los Angeles recently recovered 1,300 Peruvian artifacts, Garrett said.

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