Huarmey Queen: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in Ancient Peru
The Huarmey Queen is the name given to the 1200-year-old remains of a Wari woman found in a rich tomb in Peru. She has been a subject of interest since her lavish mausoleum was discovered six years ago. Her skeleton and grave goods have provided details on her appearance, lifestyle, health issues, and role in the ancient Wari society –reflecting the values of that civilization as well.
Discovering the Tomb of the Huarmey Queen
In 2013, a Polish-Peruvian team of archaeologists made a spectacular find in El Castillo de Huarmey (Huarmey’s Castle), a four-hour drive north of Lima, Peru – the first ever intact imperial tomb of the Wari, the ancient civilization that built South America's earliest empire between 700 and 1000 AD.
The team of researchers led by Milosz Giersz, an archaeologist at the University of Warsaw in Poland, suspected that a mausoleum remained buried deep underground in El Castillo and utilized aerial photography and geophysical imaging equipment to evaluate the area. They noticed a faint outline of what appeared to be an underground tomb and went to the site to investigate. Digging through piles of rubble they made their first discovery – a huge carved wooden mace. “It was a tomb marker,” said Giersz. “We knew then that we had the main mausoleum.”
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As the archaeologists carefully excavated the area, they discovered rows of human bodies wrapped in textiles (58 in total), including the Huarmey Queen and three other Wari queens or princesses, who were found in three small side chambers buried along with a wealth of gold and other treasures.
The archaeologists uncovered more than a thousand artifacts, including gold and silver jewelry, bronze axes, silver bowls, gold tools, a rare alabaster drinking cup, knives, brilliantly painted ceramics from many parts of the Andean world, as well as inlaid gold and silver ear ornaments with images of winged, supernatural beings.
The Huarmey Queen was located in a private chamber that was adorned with jewelry, flasks, and gold weaving tools. National Geographic points out three of the grave goods which stand out the most in her burial: “gold ear flares, a copper ceremonial axe, and a silver goblet.”
The skull of the Wari elite woman known as the Huarmey Queen. (Humanidad y Cosmos)
The Huarmey Queen’s Role in the Wari Civilization
When experts carefully examined the Huarmey Queen’s skeleton, they were able to discern that she probably died when she was in her 60s. Her remains indicate that she lived a rather sedentary lifestyle and her missing, decaying teeth, suggest she regularly consumed the sugary corn-based beer called chicha. These have been interpreted as signs that the Huarmey Queen was probably an elite member of the Wari society and a highly-skilled weaver.
This expertise at creating textiles also provides some explanation for why the woman held a high social position in her society – textiles were valued over gold and silver in the Wari civilization.
An elaborate Wari textile found at El Castillo de Huarmey. (Humanidad y Cosmos)
The Wari (Huari) culture is widely believed to be Peru’s oldest empire and their Andean capital named Huari has been called one of the ancient world’s great cities. Their civilization flourished from roughly 600 to 1000 AD and though there are no written records telling their story, a wealth of knowledge has been accumulated thanks to their numerous archaeological sites. In fact, thousands of archaeological sites have been linked to the Wari.
This culture has been recognized for their urban planning, especially their “advanced water conservation system that captured mountain water during the rainy season via canals.” Those canals moved water to springs further down the mountain – which ensured that rivers would continue to flow during the dry season. The Wari canals were so well-planned that modern Peruvians looked to their ancestors when they face water shortages as well.
A common misperception about the Wari is that they had a strong and centralized economic, political, cultural and military control – like their Inca successors – over most of the populations living across the central Andes. However, it seems that trade and semi-autonomous colonies, rather than conquest, enabled the Wari to flourish.
Even when they were at their height of power, it seems that they were never able to completely control their colonies. But trade was one way to keep the colonies united. And instead of just fighting to maintain control, the Wari set up administrative centers with a complex socio-political hierarchy across their domain.
View of Pikillaqta, another important Wari archaeological site. (AgainErick/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Bringing the Huarmey Queen to Life
Of all the members of the elaborate burial in El Castillo de Huarmey, the woman dubbed the Huarmey Queen has received the most attention, in part due to the amazingly detailed facial reconstruction that was made in her likeness in 2017. Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish forensic artist, took a different approach to recreating the appearance of the Huarmey Queen from the more common, yet still impressive, virtual reconstructions we’ve seen before.
Nilsson’s skills are evident. Although his basis was a virtual 3D image of the Huarmey Queen’s skull that was obtained with CT scanning, the forensic artist focused on manual techniques to bring her to life.
Realm of History describes the process: Once the 3D image was obtained, an artificial skull was made out of plastic. From there, Nilsson created the muscle layer of the Queen’s skull with plasticine clay. The woman’s age and ethnicity were taken into consideration at this stage and while Nilsson topped the muscles with a layer of silicone skin.
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Steps to create the facial reconstruction of the Huarmey Queen. (Oscar Nilsson)
Real Peruvian human hair was inserted, strand by strand, into the silicone scalp and replica metal earrings were also used to make the reconstruction more lifelike. Finally, Nilsson added in the details of her face, such as wrinkles and visible pores. Even Nilsson was surprised and pleased with the final result, as he told LiveScience:
“Details, wrinkles, and pores are sculpted to get it [to be] realistic. When I’m finished sculpting the face, I make a mold, in which I then cast the face in silicone. In this way, I can get it very realistic. It looks almost like a real person, even to me.”
After clocking 220 hours on creating the reconstruction, the Huarmey Queen had even been given some character. Nilsson said his representation of the Queen depicts “an elder woman's face with a lot dignity about it. She looks wise [and] experienced, as well as a bit tired and maybe sad, or thoughtful. She is thinking of something, maybe a memory way back, as older people do sometimes.”
Reconstruction of the Huarmey Queen. (odnilsson.com)
Top Image: Ceremonial vessels and gold and silver ear ornaments used by elite Wari women that were found at El Castillo de Huarmey. (Humanidad y Cosmos) Reconstruction of the Huarmey Queen. (odnilsson.com)