At the newly explored tomb, the team found a ramp that led into the first chamber, which contained the bones of a young human male on one side and those of a llama in a corner.
The human and the llamas "could have been sacrificed for the purpose of the burial," Castillo said.
Ceramic bowls about 20 inches (38 centimeters) wide crowded the floor along the walls and filled overlying niches. The large bowls were overflowing with smaller, thick-walled ceramic bottles.
These bottles may have been heated up and dropped into liquid-filled bowls to create a steamy, misty effect as bodies were lowered into the tomb during the funeral, Castillo said.
A sealed door closed off the entrance to the second chamber. Inside that second room, painted red and yellow, the archaeologists found the remains of two females and a male in simple burials.
The trio may have been sacrifices, but for now the team is unsure of their exact roles.
Another unidentified young male sat cross-legged in the room, and a lone mask lay out in the open.
The mask is similar to the one found on the elite male's coffin, making Castillo suspect the mask might have been left behind from another coffin that had been mysteriously removed.
Inside the elite male's coffin, his bones, a mask, a long stick with hanging bells, and other metal objects were in disarray. The jumble suggests the coffin had endured a long, bumpy journey before arriving at the tomb complex, Castillo added.
Wrinkle Face's Rattle
The surprise discovery of an elite male burial among the priestesses sent Castillo and his colleagues searching through Moche artwork for an explanation.
For starters, the long stick with bells looked remarkably similar to a rattle held by a well-known archetype in Moche art.
"I think that the guy with the rattle is the guy that we have here," Castillo said.
The archetype is known as Aia Paec, or "Wrinkle Face," a central figure in burial scenes. He's often depicted lowering a coffin into a tomb alongside another human-like character named Iguana.
Alongside Iguana and a female, probably one of the priestesses, Aia Paec is also depicted in some scenes presenting a decorative shell to a leader. According to Castillo, Aia Paec and Iguana were roles that living people would have inherited. When the person who had played a role died, he or she would be buried and a new person in the living world would take on the part.
"It seems then that all of these figures are related and connected," Castillo said.
Transition of Power?
So many of the known Moche elite burials are female that some archaeologists believe women dominated the Moche power structure.
But because both men and women rulers are represented in Moche artwork, it's hard to believe that the civilization was "strictly ruled by women," Castillo said.
"I think it would be more possible to have societies where women power is allowed alongside male power," he added.
"So finding a male elite burial probably goes in that direction."
But anthropologist Steve Bourget, an expert in Moche art at the University of Texas at Austin, suspects the male in the coffin was not the tomb's primary resident.
He cites the fact that the male's coffin was found against one wall of what could be seen as an unusually empty chamber. According to Bourget, it's possible some of the tomb's inhabitants were taken away in Moche times.
"Maybe what you had in there was one of these so-called priestesses along with other people, and then they didn't remove that guy," he said.
The idea of the newfound male as a supporting figure in an important female's burial would better fit Bourget's notion that late Moche society was transitioning to a power structure ruled by kings surrounded by influential women.
"I see that in the iconography, but I also see that in the site of San José de Moro," he said.
The tomb complex's layout, he said, suggests a king's, or kings', tomb surrounded by satellite tombs for priestesses.
Such a power structure was prevalent in coastal Peru's succeeding cultures, the Chimú and later the Lambayeque, he noted.
Excavation leader Castillo, however, said that the newfound male could instead be part of a more complex burial layout that would put the Moche man on equal footing with the priestesses.
The new discovery, he added, may not be the first to support his view of male-female power sharing.
In 2008 his team excavated a priestess from a tomb alongside the one containing the elite male. "They seem to be like a mirror image, [with] the male on one side [and] the female on the other one."
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