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Swiss archaeologist Sâm Ghavami with his team of students at the Peruvian Huaca Pintada in northern Peru. Source: Sâm Ghavami

Lost Peruvian Huaca Pintada and its 1,000-Year-Old Mural Rediscovered

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The last time anyone saw this Peruvian Huaca Pintada was over a century ago. Now, a team of intrepid archaeology students and their professor have painstakingly rediscovered the lost 1,000-year-old mural which they say provides evidence for the development and evolution of an ancient Peruvian cultural phenomenon.

The legendary Peruvian Huaca is a 30-metre-high (98.42 ft) rock face painted with mythological scenes including an ancient deity surrounded by indigenous warriors. An article in La República reports that the site was first rediscovered in 1916 by a group of huagueros, or treasure hunters , in Illimo, near the city of Chiclayo, the capital city of northwest Peru’s Lambayeque region.

Hans Hinrich Brüning (1848 to 1928) was a German engineer, ethnographer and linguist who arrived at Chiclayo in 1875. Soon after settling in Peru, Brüning began visiting haciendas (farms) and he was introduced to the Huaca Pintada , which he photographed. However, having been forbidden from excavating their find, the treasure hunters damaged the huaca and it was subsequently lost for over 100 years.

Sâm Ghavami uses a brush to reveal the mural, dubbed the Peruvian Huaca Pintada. (Sâm Ghavami)

Sâm Ghavami uses a brush to reveal the mural, dubbed the Peruvian Huaca Pintada. (Sâm Ghavami)

What Exactly is a Peruvian Huaca Pintada ?

The name Huaca Pintada has both Quechua and Spanish origins. The words huaca, waca or guaca was a Quechuan term referring to anything deemed “sacred” and the Spanish word Pintada means “painted.” Therefore, Huaca Pintada loosely translates to “painted shrine.”

Thousands of ancient national, regional and local huacas are dotted all over Peru, where indigenous chiefs, priests or shamans once worshipped, made offerings and communicated with their gods and goddesses.

Using old photographs left behind by Brüning, the team of Peruvian students, led by Swiss archaeologist Sâm Ghavami, managed to find the lost ancient mural. Ghavami stressed that the Huaca Pintada discovery was “the most exciting and important find of recent years.”

Ghavami told The Guardian that he had endured a two-year-long struggle with the landowners who owned the territory upon which the huaca stands. So when the team were finally granted access to the sacred site in 2019 “it was a huge relief,” said the researcher.

A detail from the Peruvian Huaca Pintada mural. (Sâm Ghavami)

A detail from the Peruvian Huaca Pintada mural. (Sâm Ghavami)

Blazing Display of Otherworldly Scenes at the Peruvian Huaca Pintada

Having downed their tools during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, the team continued their work in 2021. They formally closed the dig in early November 2022. While excavations at Huaca Pintada began back in 2019, it was only in the last two months that the team rediscovered the lost murals showing a mixture of Mochica and Lambayeque (Sicán) culture iconography.

The researchers found the 30-metre (98.42 ft) stretch of wall in an excellent state of preservation and it was ablaze with “red, yellow, lucuma, white, black, brown, and blue” paints, explained Ghavami.

The ancient mural Huaca Pintada depicts ancient warriors marching towards an unknown divinity, with ornithomorphic, or bird-like, detailing iconic of Lambayeque cultural arts. Higher up on the mural wall the ancient artists painted a fish-filled river, all of which causes Ghavami to conclude that the site contains early versions of the iconography of the famous Denver glass, which he described as “a jewel of Lambayeque art.”

The excavation site on private land near the city of Chiclayo, where the Peruvian Huaca Pintada was unearthed. (Sâm Ghavami)

The excavation site on private land near the city of Chiclayo, where the Peruvian Huaca Pintada was unearthed. (Sâm Ghavami)

Mural Provides Evidence of the Genesis of Peruvian Cultural Phenomenon

Ghavami said the rediscovery of the lost Huaca Pintada has enabled him to contemplate the ancient societies of northern Peru, including their deities and mythology. He concluded that this display of huaca art is perhaps “a metaphorical image of the political and religious order of the ancient inhabitants of the region.” However, the archaeologist also said the value of the mural “is not only aesthetic.”

Because the panel features both Lambayeque culture and its ancestor Mochica cultures arts, the researchers claimed that the Huaca Pintada might be “the scene of the process of formation of a cultural phenomenon.”

And if rediscovering a 1000-year-old lost huaca wasn’t enough for one group of students, at a pyramidal mound in the Lambayeque region’s La Leche valley they also identified about 11 meters (36 ft) of hitherto undiscovered Lambayeque period panels dating back to the 9th century AD.

Top image: Swiss archaeologist Sâm Ghavami with his team of students at the Peruvian Huaca Pintada in northern Peru. Source: Sâm Ghavami

By Ashley Cowie

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