Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Museum of the Royal Tomb of Sipan. (Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipan), Peru

The final stop on our pursuit of the ancient history of Peru is not ruins but a museum, the Royal Tombs of Sipan to be exact. Designed by architect Celso Prado, the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan was inaugurated in 2002 and is considered to be one of the most sophisticated in Latin America. The museum itself resembles a truncated pyramid made up of five prisms with replicas of the Royal emblems of the Lord of Sipan embedded along the roof line. The red and yellow colors which decorate the building are similar to the ochre colors the Mochicas used in their artwork. The purpose of the museum’s architectural design was to mirror the Mochica huacas (temples) and in addition to being a fully functional museum, it also serves as a mausoleum for the Lord of Sipan and his companions. It represents possibly one of the most important archaeological findings of recent times. The artifacts and mummies in the museum are from the wealthiest rulers of the Mochica culture including the Lord of Sipan, the old lord of Sipan and priests as well as many of their servants and guards. Everything in here came from the Huaca Rajada ruins, also known simply as Sipan, which consisted of two small adobe pyramids plus a low platform. The platform and one of the pyramids were built before 300 AD by the Moche; the second pyramid was built about 700 AD. The discovery of the site was a fluke really, a falling out among thieves and reads like something from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In early 1987, looters digging at the ruins found tombs with many objects made of gold. A fairly violent disagreement among the robbers prompted the find to be reported to the local police. After the police raided the site and arrested the looters, they recovered a number of items and the area was sealed for further excavation. Enter Indiana Jones in the guise of archaeologist Walter Alva who directed the dig with the help of the Peruvian government and given the enormity of the work, hundreds of willing hands. The reason the site is considered to be one of the most important archaeological finds in the last 30 years is mainly because many of the tombs including the main tomb of “the Lord of Sipan” were found intact and undisturbed by the thieves. The modern and majestic museum is a full dramatization of the life of the lord and his royal court. All the exhibits are original pieces and each has been carefully cleaned and restored to the minutest detail. The tomb of this demagogue, considered to be the most important governor of ancient Peru some 1700 years ago, is elaborately reconstructed. This “Lord of Sipan” was 5’4” tall and died of an undetermined illness at 35-45 years of age, which was considered to be within the average life expectancy of the Moche population. He was buried in a wooden coffin with full regalia, including pectoral shields made of shell, bone and stone, several blankets adorned with ornate, gilded, copper platelets, two necklaces of very fine metalwork, feather ornaments, headdresses and three sets of earrings inlaid with turquoise amongst other finery. Most of the ornaments and jewelry were made of gold, silver, copper and semi-precious stones. Also discovered were hundreds of small clay pots with individual faces, understood to be offerings made by the lord's subjects. Buried with him were six other people: three young women, possibly wives or concubines, dressed in ceremonial clothes, two males (probably warriors), and a child of about nine or ten years of age. The remains of a third male (also possibly a warrior) were found on the roof of the burial chamber sitting in a niche overlooking the chamber. These warriors had amputated feet, as if to prevent them from leaving the tomb. In 1988, a second tomb was found and excavated near that of the Lord of Sipán. Artifacts in this second tomb are believed to be related to religion: a cup or bowl for the sacrifices, a metal crown adorned with an owl with its wings extended, and other items associated with worship of the moon. Alva concluded that the individual buried in this tomb was probably a Moche priest. Carbon dating established that the mummy in this second tomb was a contemporary of the Lord of Sipan. The third tomb found at Huaca Rajada was slightly older than the first two, but ornaments and other items found in the tomb indicated that the person buried there was of the same high rank as the first Lord of Sipán mummy. DNA analysis of the remains in this third tomb established that the individual buried was related to the Lord of Sipán via the maternal line. As a result, the archeologists named this third mummy The Old Lord of Sipán. This third tomb also contained the remains of two other people: a young woman, a likely sacrifice to accompany him to the next life; and a man with amputated feet, possibly sacrificed to be the Old Lord's guardian in the afterlife. In all, fourteen tombs have been found at Sipán. The quality and quantity of the artifacts found is amazing and as we wander from the first and most recent level, down into the pyramid and to the tombs we find ourselves simply submerged in the story that is woven throughout. With soft Peruvian music which relies heavily on the pan flute and cymbals hauntingly played, it is easy to feel the centuries being stripped away and we feel we are living “history”. We whisper as though we are nervous at disturbing the dead who lay here, we are in awe of the treasures that have been discovered and we are humbled that a culture dating back over 1700 years achieved so much. The experience far surpasses any of our previous and enjoyable visits to museums dedicated to various ruins and leaves us with a surreal sense of reality when we exit the museum and emerge into the brilliant sunlight. We have spent a little more than three hours inside this wondrous tomb and it was worthy of every second. Winston, of course, feels distinctly left out and under the watchful eye of the numerous guards patrolling the complex; we let him run on the grass to let off some steam. It is time to head north to find a place for the night but we just can’t stop talking about this totally “cool” museum.

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