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A rich Moche grave with elaborate copper artifacts and several ceramic vessels.

Making Copper Look Like Gold: 1,400-Year-Old Moche Graves Reveal Rich Artifacts of Ancient Elite

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A team of archaeologists digging at the Ucupe archaeological site in the north-western Peruvian region of Lambayeque have discovered Moche civilization graves dating back 1,400 years.

The Moche people, also known as the Mochica culture, ruled over the northern coast of modern-day Peru beginning about 2000 years ago, and according to a news report in RPP the archaeologists discovered “ceremonial chambers”. According to Archaeology News Network , “the first grave may have belonged to a military leader as weapons and a crown were found with the remains.”

Archaeologists believe the first grave may have belonged to a military leader as weapons and a crown were found with the remains. (RPP Noticias/Deisy Cubas)

Archaeologists believe the first grave may have belonged to a military leader as weapons and a crown were found with the remains. (RPP Noticias/ Deisy Cubas )

Skeletons of a woman and a child were found in one grave “surrounded by copper ornaments” and three ceramic urns were recovered from the second grave. The third burial contained the remains of a man, the eldest of the group.

A Moche grave with the remains of a woman and a child and grave goods. (Deisy Cubas)

A Moche grave with the remains of a woman and a child and grave goods. ( Deisy Cubas )

One of the urns was found to contain symbolic content and depicted “a leader” sitting upon a throne, and while it is easy to imagine that it might be a depiction of the man in the grave, his social status is currently undetermined .

One of the urns depicted “a leader” sitting upon a throne. (CEN)

One of the urns depicted “a leader” sitting upon a throne. ( CEN)

The other urns have images of a snail and an erotic act being performed , all of which the archaeologists hope “will give insights into the social organisation of the Moche civilisation.”

An urn depicting an erotic act being performed. (andina)

An urn depicting an erotic act being performed. ( andina)

Who Were the Moche People?

Predating the better known Inca people, the Moche are generally thought of as a group of autonomous polities sharing a common culture that flourished in northern Peru between 100 AD and 700 AD. Their capital city is situated near present-day Moche, Trujillo, Peru where pyramids and temples still stand today.

According to a research paper titled The Moche of Northern Perú , by scholars Luis Jaime Castillo Butters and Santiago Uceda CastilloIn, in 1899 and 1900, archaeologist Max Uhle excavated the first Moche site. Known as ‘Huaca de la Luna’ this is where the architectural complex called  Huacas de Moche  (Pyramids of Moche) is located in the Moche Valley, and the name of this particular architectural site is where the name of the Moche culture came from.

Cerro Blanco and Huaca de la Luna. (Chiwara/CC BY SA 3.0)

Cerro Blanco and Huaca de la Luna. (Chiwara/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Modern Moche Discoveries

A February 2001 article published in New York Times tells of a team of U.S. archaeologists exploring at Sipan, in northern Peru, where royal tombs were uncovered in the late 1980s. They uncovered “three treasure-filled tombs in a 105-foot-high pyramid” and lead archaeologist Christopher Donnan of the University of California in Los Angeles told reporters at the time that these tombs “are among the richest that have ever been found.”

The tomb of the Lord of Sipán. (Public Domain)

The tomb of the Lord of Sipán . ( Public Domain )

Then in 2013, National Geographic published an article about a team of archaeologists at the site of  San José de Moro  in the Jequetepeque River valley of northern Peru discovering a 1,200-year-old Moche woman. Laid to rest in an elaborate ceremony in about 750 AD, this highly “ revered woman ” was buried in a chamber located 20 feet (6 meters) beneath the ground and the walls of her tomb were painted red with niches holding ceramic offerings.

The woman’s skeleton was found on a low platform at one end of the chamber and it was adorned with a bead necklace. A “silver goblet” was found beside the woman’s body, an artifact which often appears in Moche art depicting human sacrifice and the ritual consumption of blood. Accompanying this woman to the afterlife the archaeologists found “two sacrificed female attendants along with five children.”

Gold nose clip/ring showing a priestess giving a cup of blood to a bird warrior. ( Proyecto Arqueológico Sipán, Lambayeque )

Gold nose clip/ring showing a priestess giving a cup of blood to a bird warrior. ( Proyecto Arqueológico Sipán, Lambayeque )

The Fate of the Moche People

Excavations at Huaca de la Luna have revealed a timeline for the end of the Mochica civilization, which seemed to occur around 800 AD, at which time there was an increase in the performance of the Sacrifice Ceremony, and multiple transformations of the Huaca de la Luna monument.

In spite of the collapse of the political institutions and elite class, life remained mostly unchanged on the north coast of Peru after they were gone, evident in the field irrigation systems which continued functioning, and the use of their advanced technologies, such as their ability to make copper appear like gold.

Top Image: A rich Moche grave with elaborate copper artifacts and several ceramic vessels. Source: Deisy Cubas

By Ashley Cowie

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