What you see above is an earring. But not any earring. It’s probably the most famous earring on the whole South American continent. That’s because this earring –together with its counterpart– are nothing less than the most important archaeological findings in the Americas. Found in a tomb dating approximately 300 AD, they belonged to the highest-ranking Moche leader, the Lord of Sipán. Nowadays, a compelling museum in the charming town of Lambayeque showcases the extensive findings in the tomb. And there I was, marvelling at these truly stunning art pieces in the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán. But what was the Moche culture? Who was the Lord of Sipán? And what treasures did they find in the tombs?

The Moche culture

The Mochica or Moche civilisation flourished between 1-6th century along the coast of northern Peru, more than 10 centuries before the Inca empire and the celebrated Machu Picchu. Despite being such an early civilisation, one of their most celebrated achievements is an elaborate irrigation system by which they turned the desert area that spread between the Andes and the coast into a fertile land.

They were a people of the Early Intermediate period, at the same time of the Nazca culture in the south of Peru, and the Tiwanaku empire in Bolivia. You know the Nazca, they are the ones who drew those mysterious lines. The Mochica were later succeeded by the Chimú, who built Chan Chan, the world’s largest city entirely made of mud.

The Moche were polytheistic: they worshipped gods and demigods that they depicted half men-half animal, or entirely as an animal. For example a cross between a crab and a man was the representation of the god of the sea, while the owl was the god of the night.

Their society was organised in a hierarchical system where the Lord had the highest rank and was considered semi-divine. Right under him was the high priest, who was the only one who could understand the gods.

Hairless dog from northern Peru
These hairless Peruvian dogs were important in pre-Inca cultures. Today, they’re still kept on archaeological sites to bring luck.

Moche ceramics and jewellery

The most important cultural heritage of the Mochica is their ceramics. Not only they developed their pottery skills to very high level, but their ceramics depicted different aspects of life, like people, divinities, important animals and vegetables, as well as scenes of life & customs. 

The most famous pieces are sexual themed vessels, which are exhibited in the Larco museum in Lima. This rich iconography has revealed much about the Moche culture – making up for their lack of a writing system. That allows us today to understand their daily habits, their belief system and the organisation of their society.

Besides ceramics, they similarly mastered metallic jewellery. They invented a welding technique that enabled them to make really exquisite pieces. We’re introducing some of them in this post.

Ceramic of the Moche culture representing a woman giving birth
Moche vessel depicting a birth scene where two people are helping the mother. Source: CNN.com

Tombs of the Lord of Sipán

The Sipán sanctuary is a pyramid shaped tomb built to receive the important men of the society. The people were buried into several layers put on top of each other; each layer represents a different era, the oldest one being the deepest.

At the Sipán archaeological site, no less than 16 burial chambers have been uncovered. The most important finding is the tomb of the Lord of Sipán; the second tomb is one of a warrior priest; then the so-called Old Lord of Sipán whose tomb is 300 years older than –and 2 layers under– the Lord of Sipán’s.

Each of them was buried in an ample burial chamber, together with a number of “things” that he might need in the after life:

  • 212 pots with remainings of food
  • several layers of jewellery, textiles and tools,
  • a soldier with the feet cut, meaning he should stay on guard and not move away,
  • 3 women,
  • a child,
  • a dog and 2 llamas

Human sacrifices were rather common in pre-Columbian cultures, i.e. for the Chimú, the Wari, even the Incas. Most of the Moche elite men were buried together with three women. These sacrifices were supposed to either calm down the rage of the gods or attract their sympathy. But in this case, it was also an offering to the lord for his afterlife.

Representation of the tomb of the lord of Sipán with its offerings and human sacrifices
Tomb of the Lord of Sipan excavated (representation). Source: Hole in the Donut

Discover more: The Wari, the forgotten culture of Ancient Peru

Treasures found in the Lord of Sipán tombs

As the Lord of Sipán was the highest-ranking in the Mochica society, in his tomb they found the richest craftsmanship. I was really impressed by the treasures so I’d like to share my favourite pieces from the tomb.

Lord of Sipán’s earrings

All the high-ranked Moche must have had an incredibly large hole in their ears, reminding of some Indigenous peoples living nowadays. The stud of the round earrings, like the one below, is really wide.

This exquisite earring has a figure decoration on it that seems to be staring at the viewer. The figure represents the Sipán himself in his traditional costume, sided by two warriors.

This striking and refined ornament shows the royal rank of the wearer. The earring consists of different laminated pieces of gold and turquoise (which is not local but comes from Colombia). It’s considered one of the most important pieces of craftsmanship in the ancient Americas.

Two pairs of similar earrings were found in the Lord of Sipán tomb.

Famous earring representing the Lord of Sipán, ruler of the Moche culture
Source: Arte Iconografia

Peanut necklace

This necklace symbolises the duality that is always present in the Moche worldview. Half of the kernels are made of gold, the other half of silver.

The gold is the symbol of masculinity, the sun and the day; silver represents femininity, the moon and the night. The combination of these two metals on the same necklace illustrates the balance in the universe.

Peanuts were an important crop for the Moche; they symbolise the earth where men come from and return when they’re dead. Thus it’s an element of the cult of the dead and the cycle of life.

Peanut necklace half-gold half-silver
Who said ‘peanut butter’? Source: Maureen Shankey/Pinterest

Banner

This banner or flag is the emblem of the Sipán. The figure in the middle is a deity with open arms and closed fists. The small mosaic-style pieces were made of copper covered with a thin layer of gold.

It was probably used at religious ceremonies and during wars.

Banner of the lord made of gold mosaic
Source: Paleorama

Necklace of spondylus shell

Several chest ornaments were found in the tombs, and this one is my favourite because of its colours and pattern. Just look how beautiful it is! The Lord had several large and heavy items like this one in his outfit.

The red pieces are made of a venerated seashell called spondylus that is naturally red. The Mochica were great seamen who braved the waves on their reed canoes to collect those shells from the shores of current-day Ecuador, hundreds of kilometres away.

Spondylus necklace worn by the lord of Sipán of the Moche culture
Source: Embassy of Peru/Pinterest

Discover the romantic ruins of yet another pre-Inca civilisation: Kuélap, near Chachapoyas

Royal headpiece

This piece is another emblem of the Lord of Sipán and consists of 2 characters. The one in the background without a head has open arms and legs; the one in the foreground is a god, his head is crowned with a snake, dear to the Moche mythology.

It’s interesting that all the pre-Colombian cultures personified the snake as a symbol of the gods, without influencing each other. On the other hand, Christianity makes it a messenger of the devil. In those civilisations, there was no devil and no hell. There was just life, with its ups and its downs, its happy gods and its upset gods.

Gold headpiece of the lord of Sipán representing two characters
This one looks upset. Source: Tree in the door

The museum exhibits many more treasures from the Lord of Sipán tomb, for instance a funky octopus necklace. It’s really a beautiful and fascinating visit that took us almost a day to fully enjoy and understand.

Sipán archeological site

There is also a Sipán archeological site –called Huaca Rajada– 40 km (25 mi) away from Lambayeque. It’s open to visitors, but most of the treasures are now in the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum anyway.

Are you more of an Inca fan? Learn about the sites in the Sacred Valley around Cuzco


Museum of the Royal Tombs of the Lord of Sipán

Opened in 2002, the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán is a museum in the Lambayeque valley, in northern Peru. It exhibits most of the treasures and artefacts that Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva found in 1987.

Address: Juan Pablo Vizcardo Y Guzman 895, Lambayeque (near Chiclayo)

Entry: 10 soles ($2.90 USD / 2.50€)

Important note: taking photos is not allowed in the museum; that’s why we needed to steal borrow all those present on this post. You will have to leave your camera and your phone (!) at the cloakroom.

Tip!

Visiting the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum is well worth a pit stop en route along the coast. Although Chiclayo is the nearest big town (with very visible waste management issues), we recommend to avoid it and stay in the more picturesque Lambayeque.

Had you heard about the Moches before? What is your favourite piece from this collection?
Share with us in the comments!


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Who am I?

Anna is a world citizen, an avid traveller, a passionate environmentalist. Writing about her year backpacking through South America, she tries to encourage everyone to discover this beautiful continent and pass on her love for responsible travel.

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13 Comments

  1. Merci pour cet article qui me rappelle mon voyage de 2008 au Musée des Tombes royales de Sipán, ainsi que le complexe archéologique de Chotuna Chornancap tout prés de Chiclayo .
    Il y a un TRES IMPORTANT animal dont tu ne parles pas c’est le chien nu du Pérou. Appelé aussi le chien INCA, le Chien Orchidée des Incas et de Fleur de Lune. Ce chien était aussi présent dans la culture Mochica. Il était alors un animal qui servait à la fois de chien de garde et d’animal de compagnie. Ce rôle a d’ailleurs été confirmé lors de l’exhumation de la tombe du Seigneur de Sipàn en 1987. À l’intérieur de cette dernière, les archéologues ont trouvé à côté du corps du Seigneur de Sipàn, des squelettes de huit servants, de deux femmes, et de deux chiens péruviens. Il s’agit donc d’un chien fidèle, jusqu’à la mort…
    Pour sauver la race qui faillie être exterminée, les Péruviens, aujourd’hui encore, élèvent un ou plusieurs représentants de cette race devant tous les Musées et sites Archéologiques, en particulier ds cette région de Lambayeque.
    https://www.voyageperou.info/le-chien-inca-patrimoine-peruvien/
    Tu te souviendras sans doute Anthony de BAMBI une chiennne “nu du Perou” que j’avais adoptè, sauvée d’un élevage français…
    Il me semblait important de parler de ce merveilleux animal qui fait partie intégrante des sites de Lambayeque. Celui du gardien Musée des Tombes royales de Sipán, est toujours habillé d’un tee-shirt ou d’un pull car ce sont des chiens extrêmement sensibles au rayons du soleil et au froid !
    Vous ne l’avez pas vu ??

    1. Voilà une histoire bien intéressante! Je la traduirait et l’ajouterai pour nos lecteurs anglophones. Merci!

  2. Such an informative post about the treasures of the Lora of Sipán Tomb, and so lucky you got to see quite a few of these historic pieces preserved through time. These treasures come across as quite vivid and bright in colour, and gold seems to be a common material 🙂

    1. I was really surprised how intact the pieces remain! Of course there’s an amount of conservation work behind them, but still, judging from the photos how they were found, it’s pretty amazing!

  3. What an interesting story! I was taken aback about the sacrifices esp the 3 women and a child. The royal chambers wow! So luxurious! Would love to visit the museum.

    1. Women had an even harder life back then. Having said that, another tomb has been found nearby, which belonged to a rich woman, the so-called Lady of Cao, also of the Moche culture. She was probably a high priestess or maybe even a ruler(ess). With her in the tomb, they found… the body of another woman. Doh!

  4. This is awesome. I’m always astounded by this kind of art. I wouldn’t like to wear the head piece of the chief, but it’s my favourite of the lot. I always find South American art angry but perhaps like it more for it. One more thing to see in Peru. I may never leave it when I get there.

    1. “Angry art”? That’s interesting. I was just mildly interested in archaeology before my Peru travel, but places like the Royal Tomb of Sipán museum definitely won me over. Thanks for dropping a word!

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