The spectacular Mochican tomb complex of Huaca Rajada, Peru
In 1987, some of the most extraordinary tombs in the world were found in Sipán’s Huaca Rajada, a Moche archaeological site on the North coast of Peru, which predates the Inca by some 1,000 years. While a whole complex of unplundered burials has now been unearthed, the most famous belongs to El Señor de Sipán (‘The Lord of Sipán’), a Mochican warrior priest who was buried among unfathomable riches. The treasures, along with a wealth of archaeological data about the little known civilization of the Moche, are continually emerging, so much so that two large museums have been especially built to house the ancient relics. The finding is considered to be among the most important archaeological discoveries to have taken place in South America.
The Moche were a pre-Incan civilization who ruled the northern coast of Peru approximately two thousand years ago. They built huge pyramids made of millions of mud bricks and created an extensive network of aqueducts which enabled them to irrigate crops in their dry desert location. They were also pioneers of metal working techniques like gilding and soldering, which enabled them to created extraordinarily intricate jewellery and artifacts.
Little was known about the Moche civilization because they left no written texts to help explain their beliefs and customs. However, the discovery of detailed paintings and murals on pottery work and on temple walls, as well elaborate tombs such as those found at Huaca Rajada, have helped to provide insights into their culture and beliefs.
The discovery of the elaborate tomb complex of Huaca Rajada was made by archaeologist Walter Alva and his wife Susana Meneses, after they became aware of reports of local villagers leaving the area carrying precious treasures. Alva, with the help of local police, immediately set to work with securing the area and beginning excavations. What they found was unprecedented – it was the first ever Mochican tomb complex that had lain undisturbed by looters for nearly 2,000 years. It was a rare find as almost all the huacas in Peru were looted by the Spanish during and after the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.
“This discovery revolutionized Moche studies the way the discovery of King Tut changed Egyptian studies”, said Alva, “We understood suddenly that the people we’d seen in drawings – and their ceremonies, their rituals – were real”.
The Huaca Rajada tomb complex near Sipán. Image source .
The Huaca Rajada tomb complex
Huacas, like the Huaca Rajada complex, were structures associated with veneration and ritual by the Moche and other Andean cultures. The term huaca can refer to natural locations, such as immense rocks, or monuments that were constructed for this purpose. They are commonly located in nearly all regions of Peru and were often built along processional ceremonial lines or routes, which were aligned astronomically to various stellar risings and settings, in accordance with the cosmology of the culture.
The Huaca Rajada, which means ‘split huaca’ and was named after the large cut made through the site by road-building, consists of two mud-brick pyramids measuring 35m and 37m in height, plus a low mud-brick platform.
The platform and one of the pyramids were built before 300 AD by the Moche, who lived, worshipped, and farmed in the region from around 1 – 700 AD. The second pyramid was built in approximately 700 AD by a later pre-Incan culture.
A reconstruction of the Huaca Rajada showing two adobe pyramids and the mud-brick platform. Image source.
While excavations spanning two decades have revealed fourteen elaborate burials, its original purpose was not a mausoleum, but a sacred and political centre of the region. In the immediate surrounds of Huaca Rajada are another 28 huacas, each displaying successive layers, which were used for carrying out ritual activities, before a new leader would commission the next layer. It was only secondary that each layer would ultimately serve as the burial place for the leader and his entourage.
When excavations at Huaca Rajada began, researchers first discovered an enormous cache of 1,137 ceramic pots, which overlaid the skeleton of a man in a sitting position. This immediately struck archaeologists as unusual as previously discovered Moche burials showed the deceased lying flat on their backs, facing upwards. But there was something else that was different – both of the individual’s feet had been amputated, whether before or after death is unknown.
Researchers named the man ‘The Guardian’ as they speculated that he had been placed in a sitting position to remain on guard, and his feet had been cut off, perhaps to prevent him from leaving his position. As the scientists would soon find out, the footless man was indeed guarding something extremely important – the tomb of ‘The Lord of Sipan’.
Featured image: Reconstruction of the Tomb of Lord of Sipán, on view in the Archaeological Museum of Lima, Peru. Image source .
View a 3D reconstruction of the Huaca Rajada:
Tombs of the Lords of Sipan – World-Archaeology.com
Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum – Inka Natura
Sipan and Huaca Rajada – Inka Natura
El Señor de Sipán (The Lord of Sipan) – Go2Peru
The Lord Of Sipán Museum – Delange.org