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Main: The ancient city of Chan Chan. Inset: One of the newly-discovered wooden sculptures

Peculiar Wooden Sculptures Discovered at Chan Chan in Peru and May Mark the Graves of Ancient VIPs


Archaeologists excavating the site of the ancient city of Chan Chan in Peru have just announced the discovery of four intriguing wooden sculptures (three male and one female), and an untouched tomb.

Peculiar Wooden Sculptures

Archaeologist Cintia Cueva Garcia has made known through her statements to Andina News Agency that four wood sculptures, a scepter, metal vessels, textiles, and winkle shells were unearthed at the Chayhuac An, possibly the first large enclosure at the pre-Columbian adobe city of Chan Chan, which is located on Peru’s northern coast. The objects were found lying on a funerary platform, while the fourth sculpture depicts a male figure holding a cup at chest height and his face is covered with white clay as a mask. Excavators and conservators are still working to bring the peculiar wooden sculpture to the surface in order to examine it. "It is common to find wood figures at Chan Chan, but what matters now is that we have found one right over there [in a funerary context]," Garcia told Andina News Agency, who also added that the carving is about 40cm high and 20cm wide.

Archaeologists work to uncover one of the wooden statues. Credit: ANDINA

Archaeologists work to uncover one of the wooden statues. Credit: ANDINA

Marking the Graves of Ancient VIPs

Such sculptures are believed to have been used to mark the tombs of significant people. Interestingly, one of the four wood sculptures is female, which is very uncommon compared to previous discoveries at the site, “We can infer they [figures] were used to mark tombs of important people. We've found metal vessels and a body we haven't yet touched, alongside the sculpture. Similar individuals have been found at the entrance of other contexts," Garcia explained as Andina News Agency reports.

Chan Chan: The Immense Mud-Brick City

Chan Chan, which literally translates to “Sun Sun”, is located a few minutes outside Peru’s northern city of Trujillo in the once fertile river valley of Moche and Santa Catalina. This city was built in AD 850, and lasted until its conquest by the Inca Empire in AD 1470. Chan Chan was not only the capital city of the Kingdom of the Chimor, but also the largest city in Pre-Columbian South America. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that it is one of the world’s largest adobe (mud-brick) complexes. As previously reported in another Ancient Origins article, Chan Chan reached nearly 20 square km, with a city centre of 6 km, and housed almost 100,000 people during its heyday in AD 1200. The entire city, from its grandest temples to its humblest residences, was constructed entirely from bricks of sun dried mud. Spectacular reliefs, sculptures, and wall carvings adorned the entire city.

An aerial model of the city shows just how large it was at its peak

An aerial model of the city shows just how large it was at its peak (public domain)

Chan Chan is a reflection of the Chimú’s strict political and social strategy. This is evident in the layout of the city. The heart of Chan Chan consists of nine large rectangular complexes, known as citadels or palaces, which were delineated by high, thick earthen walls. Within these units, various buildings were arranged in an open space. These buildings included temples, residential homes and storage buildings. In addition, reservoirs and funerary platforms were built in the citadels. Beyond these nine citadels were 32 semi-monumental compounds and four production sectors for activities such as textile weaving, metalworking and woodworking. Further north, east and west of the city are extensive agricultural lands and a remnant irrigation system. Thus, one can see that the city of Chan Chan had a well-defined hierarchy, in which an urban core was supplied by the industrial products of its suburban areas and the agricultural produce of its farmlands.

The great city of Chan Chan (CC by SA)

The great city of Chan Chan (CC by SA)

The first European known to have laid eyes on the spectacular city of Chan Chan, was the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, and his men, who arrived at the site around 1532. Since then, the city has been pillaged by Spanish treasure hunters and their modern counterparts, the huaqueros (‘grave robbers’).  In the reports of Pizarro’s expedition, the walls and other architectural features of Chan Chan are described as being adorned with precious metal. For instance, Pedro Pizarro, one of Francisco’s kinsmen, found a doorway covered in silver, which is estimated to have been worth more than $2 million by today’s standards.

Although the treasure hunters are a serious threat to Chan Chan, they are not the most dangerous. As a city built entirely of adobe, Chan Chan’s greatest threat comes from the environment. Thus, heavy rains, flooding and strong winds have the potential to dissolve the mud brick structures of the city. During the time of the Kingdom of the Chimor, the El Niño phenomenon, which occurred every 25 to 50 years, caused the most damage to Chan Chan. Today’s climate, however, has made the occurrence of this phenomenon more frequent, hence posing an increased threat to the site.

Top image: Main: The ancient city of Chan Chan. Inset: One of the newly-discovered wooden sculptures (ANDINA)

By Theodoros Karasavvas



The ancient city of Chan Chan, Peru is one of the most impressive cities of that period in the Americas. To say that it is astounding does not do this unique adobe city justice. With an area totalling nearly 20 sq km, and a population of nearly 100,000 inhabitants, the words phenomenal, or incredible seem to be more appropriate.

The beauty of the workmanship displayed in the sculptures, and reliefs all show the touch of a masters hand, and are present in nearly all parts of the city. The design and layout of the city itself displays a knowledge of engineering seldom seen in the Americas before the Incas, and hints at an advanced understanding of mathematics and surveying techniques.

In addition, they solved their construction material problems in a logical way by using the materials at hand: mud and vegetable matter already present in the immediate area. Thus, there was no need to quarry and transport heavy stone blocks to build their city. This allowed the builders of Chan Chan to construct a far larger and more detailed city, one which would not have been possible using quarried stone.

R. Lee Bowers

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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