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Eighth Priestess and Precious Grave Goods Unearthed in Famous San Jose de Moro Tomb

Eighth Priestess and Precious Grave Goods Unearthed in Famous San Jose de Moro Tomb

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The remains of a Moche priestess have been unearthed at the famous tomb site of San Jose de Moro in Northwestern Peru. She is the fifth Moche priestess to be found at the site (an additional three priestesses belonging to the Transitional Period have also been discovered there). This has led to an increase in the interest surrounding the Moche culture. The priestess had been buried wearing an elaborate headdress and necklace, along with precious grave goods including a ceremonial knife and silver goblet.

The Moche period priestesses have been previously discussed in "Performance and Power"; this article intends to examine the later priestesses from San Jose de Moro (dating from the Transitional period) in relation to the most recent Moche finding.

The newest Moche priestess was once again discovered by Luis Castillo, one of the primary investigators responsible for the original priestess findings in 1992-3. As this new tomb possessed symbols of the high-status of the priestess as well as human burials, it was not difficult to recognize the tomb for what it was meant to express—the power and prestige of one of the final priestesses of the Moche Empire.

Representation of a Moche priestess.

Representation of a Moche priestess. (cinabrio blog)

Dated approximately 1200 years ago, the tomb of this new priestess was discovered in 2013, though it is only recently that studies of it have been published. With the priestess were many of the same high-profile items found in the previous burial chambers: most significantly "precious pottery vessels, a ceremonial knife, and a silver goblet" as well as wearing an elaborate headdress and beaded necklace.

This priestess was also discovered in a chamber tomb fitting the initial pattern of the previous tombs: "a large quadrangular pit…greater than two meters…divided into two sections", one of which was an adobe room built "with niches in its walls".  It was the finding of this eighth burial tomb that solidified the agreed upon belief by archaeologists that Moche priestesses also held roles equivalent to that of queens, officially disposing of the misconception that men were the sole rulers of the empire.

This royal tomb, discovered in 2013. Courtesy of Luis Castillo

This royal tomb, discovered in 2013. Courtesy of Luis Castillo (

During a period known as the Transitional Period, the tradition of burying priestesses with an assembly fit for a king continued. The "Transitional" period lasted from 850 AD to 1000 AD, and is called such because it pertains to the span of time when the authority of the Moche empire was disintegrating. As such, this period was much more fluid insofar as cultural expression; it was an amalgamation of both Moche and later Lambayeque traditions, the latter eventually taking over as the primary hegemony by 1000 AD. It is unsurprising that during this period the Moche tradition of extravagant priestess burials continued, particularly because—if current scholars are correct in assuming the priestesses also served functions akin to that of queens—it makes sense that the Moche would want to preserve their state and religion as long as possible. It was likely very important to the Moche that they were able to continue creating such elaborate funerals, even as their power faded.

The three Transitional tombs discovered have thusly been named the Transitional Priestess and the Absent Priestess and the collective mausoleum, the latter tomb the eternal resting place of more than one Moche woman. As with the tombs of the Moche era priestesses, these burial chambers had numerous high-status artifacts buried with the women: these included "house models, ceramics of diverse styles, camelid bones, crisoles or miniatures, and other ritual objects." The Transitional tomb housed numerous bodies, though only two have been identified as priestesses. A young boy, two young men and the remains of four children and three sets of adult legs were likely part of the human sacrifice.

The tomb of the Absent Priestess was the largest found at San Jose de Moro, and was divided into a "funerary chamber, the antechamber…and the annex", with "more than ten individuals" buried below the antechamber. Along with the artifacts previously mentioned, this tomb had numerous metal plaques outlining the shape of the priestess (as seen on the Moche period tombs as well). The priestess herself, however, is missing from the chamber. The purpose or reason for her removal is currently unknown as scholars have not yet found evidence indicating to where or when she was moved.

Archaeology site of San José de Moro

Archaeology site of San José de Moro (Luis Jaime Castillo Butters)

The final Transitional period tomb again possesses only two priestesses, but as it is also the eternal home of multiple other people—nearly sixty, in fact—it is the most unique find at SJM:

"During the excavation process, four levels of deposition were recorded, each one composed of a series of offerings (208 ceramic pieces’ total) and approximately 58 individuals of different sexes and ages."

Its excavation was by far the most intriguing as well as this collective tomb indicates there may have been a hierarchy determining the types of ritual burials chosen for priestesses, or this might be indicative of a particularly valued, powerful priestess- queen. Although the most recent Moche priestess tomb discovered determined nearly definitive proof of priestess-queens during the Moche period, it is possible this tomb from the Transitional Period indicates a changing value in the status of the burial rites of those priestess-queens.  What it does appear to indicate, however, is that the rank of priestess-queen likely continued during this period of Moche decline. By the final era of occupation at SJM, the value of priestess-queens had nearly come to an end.

Top image: Moche Tomb (1992) (Luis Jaime Castillo Butters)

By Riley Winters


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Bruhns, Karen Olsen and Karen E. Stothert. 1999. Women in Ancient America. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Donnan, Christopher D. and Luis Jaime Castillo. 1992 "Finding the Tomb of a Moche Priestess." Archaeology. 45.6 pp. 38-42.

Fagan, Brian. 1994. "Timelines: The Magnificent Moche." Archaeology. 47.3. pp. 12, 58-59.

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Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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