The Lord of Sipan
Treasures from the Tomb
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Only tomb-robbers knew of the riches buried near Lambayeque in northern Peru.
Then police discovered a golden head, with eyes of lapis lazuli at the home of a thief, and archaeologists started excavating the site, finding an amazing pyramid burial site for a warrior-priest more than two thousand years old.
They named him the Lord of Sipan, and set about discovering his secrets – probably the most important such find in Peru, which sheds new light on the ancient Mochica people who were highly developed fighters and artists.
ERIC PASQUIER photographed the treasures of Sipan, which are now housed in a new museum – a must-see site for any visitor to the region. One night in February 1987, there was a knock on the door at the home of Walter Alva, director of the Bruning Archaeological Museum of Lambayeque, Peru. It was the police.
They informed the startled archaeologist that they had just discovered ancient loot in the home of a local tomb-raider, who had been stealing from a pyramid at Huaca Rajada.
Dr Alva was ill, and reluctant to leave his house. Unwillingly he went to the police station, expecting to see a few shards of pottery.
Once there he stared in amazement as the police showed him a golden mask, with glowing blue eyes. This was more than just an abject of amazing vale or beauty.
It also showed that the site where the tomb was not – as had been believed – dating from the Chimu period, but from the much older Mochica civilisation.
The mask had been found by a tomb-raider named Emil Bernal. In a scene which could have come from an Indiana Jones movie, Bernal had tunnelled into an ancient pyramid site late one night, looking for things that he could sell. Suddenly he noticed that the ceiling had been patched. He took a long stick and poked the ceiling - bringing a shower of rocks, dust, gold and jewels onto his head.
The find was more than the thieves had dared to hope for, and caused an immediate quarrel. One was shot dead. Another, cut out of his share of the spoils, went to the police. They raided Emil’s house. He had already sold some of the treasures - but the mask that they showed Dr Alva was still there.
Dr Alva headed straight for the pyramid.
Once there he found it swarming with people who had heard the rumour that gold and jewels were to be found there. Should he seal up the site to keep it safe?
Or start digging? Tensions were high locally, especially as Emil Bernal had been killed in a shoot-out with the police. Local people did not want archaeologists taking the treasures they regarded as theirs by right.
Dr Alva was taking his life in his hands when he chose to excavate the site.
With a police guard outside, holding an angry crowd at bay Dr Alva and some local men dug into the site and found the main tomb.
It belonged to a nobleman whom they named Lord of Sipan. In his tomb were two other human skeletons - a woman and a guard, as well as a dog and two llamas. The Lord himself was covered with precious metals - gold, silver and copper. He wore a chest protector, jewels and necklaces. His head rested on a big golden plate.
The crowd grew more and more restless, and the police had to use tear gas to stop them storming the pyramid. Dr Alva challenged them, thrusting a spade into the hand of one protester and demanding that he should come and steal from his ancestors’ king. The startled man stood still. The Dr Alva addressed the crowd. He told them that the tomb held the king of their ancestors, and should be honoured as such. It brought calm, and the excavations continued. But locals still resent Dr Alva, and see him as the thief, who has taken a good source of income from them. Slogans attacking him still appear in the town, and the local football team is named in honour of Emil Bernal.
Since then, several Mochica tombs have been discovered. They are the best preserved of all pre-Columbian tombs discovered to date. Their treasures have toured the world, winning international awe.
Near the Lord of Sipan lies the tomb known as “Sacerdote.” This ‘prize’ tomb was discovered at a depth of seven metres.
It was immediately apparent that this tomb was of a very important figure indeed, judging from the jewels and objects with which he is covered: a golden headdress 60 centimetres wide, a pure gold back ornament weighing one kilo, a necklace of gold and lapis lazuli, bracelets made of hundreds of turquoise and gold ‘pearls’, sixteen discs of gold forming a necklace, a pair of gold earrings, round in form, with upon each one, a little warrior modelled with mastery and finally, a golden mask.
In his right hand, the dead man holds a sort of golden rattle, a ritual instrument used during battles and ceremonies. In the grave were also a thousand figurines decorated with lapis lazuli, and many terra cotta receptacles.
The value of the objects and the presence of that rattle in the Sacerdote tomb made researchers conclude that the dead man was a warrior-priest. The beauty and the style of gold and ceramics illustrate the magnificent craftsmanship and artistry of the Mochica culture. The Mochicas are considered to have brought the goldsmith’s art to its highest level. Among the treasures found are a necklace made in the shape of spiders, another of peanuts and a third of grimacing cats’ heads.
Apart from the literal wealth, archaeologists can unearth a wealth of cultural-historical knowledge about the little-known Mochica culture from studying the graves. They have found that like the Incas after them, the Mochicas always buried their dead in a foetal position. Like the Lord of Sipan, the priest was accompanied by two women (wives, concubines or servants?), two men (servants?) and by a guard whose two feet had been amputated, perhaps to make sure that he would remain at his post. A child, a dog and a llama were also found in the tomb.
Red clay pottery figurines in the tombs represent a cross-section of Mochica society: warriors, prisoners, drummers. On one Mochica dress accessory a God holds a dagger in one hand and a freshly chopped off head in the other. This implies that like the Incas, the Mochica also engaged in human sacrifice.
The objects found are mostly made of gold and are decorated with turquoise, lapis lazuli and seashells. The materials show the Mochicas were a culture with an impressive network of international commerce: the lapis lazuli comes from Chile, the turquoise from northern Argentina and the seashells from Ecuador.
Since 2003 the treasures of Sipan have been on display at a stunning new modern museum built in the shape of a pyramid, inspired by the Mochica’s own sanctuaries. The museum’s directors say the building brings together the regions past, present and future. As it draws tourists in it should boost the local economy and bring to an end the need to plunder and sell their own heritage.