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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Discover the romantic ruins of yet another pre-Inca civilisation: Kuélap, near Chachapoyas
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.
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.
Had you heard about the Moches before? What is your favourite piece from this collection?
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