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They Beat Peruvian Grave Robbers to Treasures of Great Lord of Sipan : Archeologists Win Race to Most Valuable Ancient Tomb in Hemisphere

November 06, 1988|MONTE HAYES | Associated Press

SIPAN, Peru — Grave robbers came within 3 feet of making off with the contents of the most valuable ancient tomb ever found in the Western Hemisphere before Peruvian archeologists with the help of police beat them to it.

Thus was saved the tomb of the Great Lord of Sipan, which one American specialist says ranks with King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt as one of the world's most important views of ancient times.

The Sipan discovery was announced Sept. 13 by the National Geographical Society in Washington, but details of how close the grave robbers had come and how they worked were made known recently here at the site.

"They were close to reaching him," said Walter Alva, director of Peru's Bruning Archeological Musuem, which conducted the excavation. "If they had, they would have destroyed his tomb and we would not now have a discovery of incalculable value that will allow us to know better the ancient Peruvians."

The archeologists were tipped off to the grave robbers by other robbers angry because they were not included in the plan.

Looters Took Treasure

The robbers, who worked around the clock with a system of sentries, succeeded in making off with peripheral treasures, but the tomb itself was found intact by the archeologists who were able to preserve its contents and clues to a warring people who preceded the Incas and made a desert bloom.

But it took a police raid and gunplay near the site to finally secure the area for the archeologists to move in.

The Great Lord of Sipan, a name given him by archeologists, ruled over a vast desert kingdom in what now is northern Peru. He died in his mid-30s and lay unmolested for 1,500 years before the grave robbers started their encroachment.

His burial chamber contained finely crafted gold jewelry worth half a million dollars and more than 1,200 ceramic vessels with painted scenes of daily life of the Moche people, one of the earliest civilizations of the Americas.

The tomb, found on the upper platform of a pyramid near the coastal village of Sipan, 500 miles northwest of Lima, has astonished archeologists for its wealth and the information it contains about a little-known culture.

Artifact Smuggling

The find also has focused a spotlight on the shadowy world of international artifact smuggling and its impact on Peru, an impoverished nation without the resources to protect and investigate hundreds of pre-Columbian temples.

"This is the richest tomb ever excavated archeologically in the Western Hemisphere. The quality of the gold work is stunning," Dr. Christopher Donnan, an expert on ancient Peru, told a news conference in Washington when the discovery was announced at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society, which financed the excavation.

The importance of the tomb's contents to archeology ranks with the discovery in 1922 of King Tutankhamen's burial place in Egypt, Donnan said. He is the director of the Museum of Cultural History at UCLA.

The cache contained, among other items, a gold face mask, a 2-foot-wide solid gold crown, a gold knife, two strands of large gold and silver beads shaped like peanuts and a gold warrior's shield weighing almost 2 pounds.

The Lord of Sipan was a warrior-priest with administrative powers. He was about 35 at death and was 5 1/2 feet tall.

Guard With No Feet

Buried with him were a dog, apparently a favorite pet; a child; three young women, possibly wives or concubines; and three men, including one believed to be a sentry, whose feet had been cut off to prevent him from abandoning his duty of guarding the tomb in the next life.

"Imagine the power he had! All those people were sacrificed and entombed with him," said Luis Chero, resident archeologist at the site. "He was a great lord with absolute control over the lives of his subjects.'

The tomb was at one end of a ceremonial, adobe-brick platform 230 feet long, 166 feet wide and 33 feet high.

The 150-foot-high pyramid, called Huaca Rajada by local villagers, juts up out of miles of surrounding sugar cane fields, some of them still watered by canals built by the Moche, according to Juan Martinez, an archeologist on the excavation.

Archeologists say the Moche people were a warring nation given to human sacrifice, highly skilled in metallurgy and proficient in using complex irrigation systems to make desert lands produce bountiful harvests of cotton and corn.

Civilization Disappeared

The Moche dominated a 300-mile stretch of Peru's northern coast from about AD 100 to AD 800. Their civilization mysteriously disappeared long before the Spaniards arrived in the 1530s and destroyed the better known Inca empire, which held sway hundreds of years after the Moche.

The Huaca Rajada pyramid apparently was a giant mausoleum for a succession of Moche rulers, and archeologists have recently discovered a second tomb, now under excavation, of another warrior-priest, although of lesser rank than the Lord of Sipan.

"It is as if we were making the Moche live again," archeologist Chero said of the discoveries.

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