National Geographic News
Peru Tomb - Gold and silver ear ornaments found by archaeologists.

Images of winged, supernatural beings adorn a pair of heavy gold-and-silver ear ornaments that one high-ranking Wari woman wore to her grave in the imperial tomb at El Castillo de Huarmey.  In all, the archaeological team found the remains of 63 individuals, including three Wari queens. (See more pictures)

Photograph by Daniel Giannoni

Heather Pringle

for National Geographic

Published June 27, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo It was a stunning discovery: the first unlooted imperial tomb of the Wari, the ancient civilization that built South America's earliest empire between 700 and 1000 A.D. Yet it wasn't happiness that Milosz Giersz felt when he first glimpsed gold in the dim recesses of the burial chamber in northern Peru.

Giersz, an archaeologist at the University of Warsaw in Poland, realized at once that if word leaked out that his Polish-Peruvian team had discovered a 1,200-year-old "temple of the dead" filled with precious gold and silver artifacts, looters would descend on the site in droves. "I had a nightmare about the possibility," says Giersz.

So Giersz and project co-director Roberto Pimentel Nita kept their discovery secret. Digging quietly for months in one of the burial chambers, the archaeologists collected more than a thousand artifacts, including sophisticated gold and silver jewelry, bronze axes, and gold tools, along with the bodies of three Wari queens and 60 other individuals, some of whom were probably human sacrifices. (See more: "First Pictures: Peru's Rare, Unlooted Royal Tomb")

 

Archaeologists discovered a massive carved wooden mace (foreground) protruding from stone fill. “It was a tomb marker,” says University of Warsaw archaeologist Milosz Giersz, who heads the team. “We knew then that we had the main mausoleum.” (See more pictures)

Photograph by Milosz Giersz

 

Peru's Minister of Culture and other dignitaries will officially announce the discovery today at a press conference at the site. Krzysztof Makowski Hanula, an archaeologist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima and the project's scientific adviser, said the newly unearthed temple of the dead "is like a pantheon, like a mausoleum of all the Wari nobility in the region."

Overlooked Empire

The Wari lords have long been overshadowed by the later Inca, whose achievements were extensively documented by their Spanish conquerors. But in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D., the Wari built an empire that spanned much of present-day Peru. Their Andean capital, Huari, became one of the world's great cities. At its zenith, Huari boasted a population conservatively estimated at about 40,000 people. Paris, by comparison, had just 25,000 residents at the time.

Just how the Wari forged this empire, whether by conquest or persuasion, is a long-standing archaeological mystery. The sheer sophistication of Wari artwork has long attracted looters, who have ransacked the remains of imperial palaces and shrines. Unable to stop the destruction of vital archaeological information, researchers were left with many more questions than answers. (Read: "Brewery Was Burned After Ancient Peru Drinking Ritual.")

 

 

The spectacular new finds at El Castillo de Huarmey, a four-hour drive north of Lima, will go a long way toward answering some of those questions. Although grave robbers have been digging at the 110-acre site off and on for decades, Giersz suspected that a mausoleum remained hidden deep underground. In January 2010, he and a small team scrutinized the area using aerial photography and geophysical imaging equipment. On a ridge between two large adobe-brick pyramids, they spotted the faint outline of what appeared to be a subterranean mausoleum.

The research at El Castillo de Huarmey is supported by National Geographic's Global Exploration Fund and Expeditions Council.

Tomb robbers had long dumped rubble on the ridge. Digging through the rubble last September, Giersz and his team uncovered an ancient ceremonial room with a stone throne. Below this lay a large mysterious chamber sealed with 30 tons of loose stone fill. Giersz decided to keep digging. Inside the fill was a huge carved wooden mace. "It was a tomb marker," says Giersz, "and we knew then that we had the main mausoleum."

Buried Treasure

As the archaeologists carefully removed the fill, they discovered rows of human bodies buried in a seated position and wrapped in poorly preserved textiles. Nearby, in three small side chambers, were the remains of three Wari queens and many of their prized possessions, including weaving tools made of gold. "So what were these first ladies doing at the imperial court? They were weaving cloth with gold instruments," says Makowski.

Mourners had also interred many other treasures in the room: inlaid gold and silver ear-ornaments, silver bowls, bronze ritual axes, a rare alabaster drinking cup, knives, coca leaf containers, brilliantly painted ceramics from many parts of the Andean world, and other precious objects. Giersz and his colleagues had never seen anything like it before. "We are talking about the first unearthed royal imperial tomb," says Giersz.

But for archaeologists, the greatest treasure will be the tomb's wealth of new information on the Wari Empire. The construction of an imperial mausoleum at El Castillo shows that Wari lords conquered and politically controlled this part of the northern coast, and likely played a key role in the downfall of the northern Moche kingdom. Intriguingly, one vessel from the mausoleum depicts coastal warriors battling axe-wielding Wari invaders.

The Wari also waged a battle for the hearts and minds of their new vassals. In addition to military might, they fostered a cult of royal ancestor worship. The bodies of the entombed queens bore traces of insect pupae, revealing that attendants had taken them out of the funerary chamber and exposed them to the air. This strongly suggests that the Wari displayed the mummies of their queens on the throne of the ceremonial room, allowing the living to venerate the royal dead. (Related: "Mummy Bundles, Child Sacrifices Found on Pyramid.")

Analysis of the mausoleum-and other chambers that may still be buried-is only beginning. Giersz predicts that his team has another eight to ten years of work there. But already the finds at El Castillo promise to cast the Wari civilization in a brilliant new light. "The Wari phenomenon can be compared to the empire of Alexander the Great," says Makowski. "It's a brief historical phenomenon, but with great consequence."

27 comments
Greg Langley
Greg Langley

I visited Peru in 2005. Long ago and far away. Great people and what history!!  Would love to return and help dig. 

David Braun
David Braun

Peru is amazing, and this is an amazing discovery.  But when I read about foreign archaelologists "leading teams", I wonder why the excellent Peruvian archaeologists are not involved or mentioned.  Are they stealing the work of others like Jonathan Haas and Winifred Creamer tried to do with Dra. Ruth Shady?  Is it a matter of money.  Why can't foreign universities give financial help to the peruvian archaeologists, and help in the background?  Well anyway,  let us hope their intentions are honest.

Karthik Chandran
Karthik Chandran

Is there any assurance that all those precious gold, silver, gems and all 

other precious items recovered till now from different parts of the world remain 

in safe hands or under the rightful custody. Well tons of those precious items 

might have been recovered till now. Is there a record of those, is there any 

register regarding their whereabouts . Can anyone guarantee that each time a 

discovery is made that the reward ends up in just hands. We were digging up 

treasures for decades, are those treasures remaining in the same places as they 

were kept after recovery. Can anyone answer my doubts.

M. Waters
M. Waters

Yeah, the amateur looters didn't get there before the professional ones did!. Make no mistake, archaeologists are looters!  I beg of them to leave everything (and everyone) in situ and give our ancient ancestors the dignity they deserve.  I am so disgusted by science (in the name of discovery) digging up the ancient's and putting them on display.  A thousand years from now it may be us or our children whose graves they defile and desecrate.  Nat Geo et al have thousands of bones thrown in boxes that they haven't even examined, so why keep digging up more? In the future humanity will look back these actions as a shameful part of human history.

srishti  sharma
srishti sharma

unlooted,,,/?//??????  but rather it is a great discovery. a royal tomb, fascinating

john matacola
john matacola

dang there goes my chance to drink Budweiser out of that alabaster cup

Michael Laudij
Michael Laudij

Unlooted till now? You're all correct... it would be much MUCH better if the archeologists would just quit their day jobs. Let the poor and opportunistic descend on mass, destroy the sites, carrying away the valuables for resale to private collectors or melting down the treasures.


Conservation efforts and the accumulation of Knowledge, should, out of Respect to the very long dead, take a backseat, and be trumped by needs of the Poor and the ambition of the Greedy. Idiots.

Guillermo Arias Barreto
Guillermo Arias Barreto

Since the times of Caral (4500 years ago), peruvians have been more or less stable in their ideas about a God. The first recognizable God is one named KON, identified as that, at least 4500 years ago, but OBVIOUSLY much much older (older than the idea of Yahve or Jeova). It was a coast god, but when the inkas ruled, 4000 years after, they still believed in him! They called him/her, Apu Kon Tiki Wiracocha Pacha yachachiq (and is the same god Kon Tiki of polinesians!) The translation of the name is: Apu (lord) Kon Tiki (the name) Wiracocha (walks on the waters) Pacha (the time/space reality) Yachachik (master) that is Lord Kon Tiki, Who walks the waters, Master (in the sense of creator/ruker) of Time and Space... That god received several different names, but they were always talking about the same God. One of the names was PachaCamac (again, lord of time/space). When spaniards ruled in Lima, there was a sanctuary of this god, named Pachacamilla (little pachacamac and it exists nowadays as a catholic sanctuary) and black slaves begin to adore this indian god, and even spaniards! The church didn't liked it, and ordered to paint an image of christ in the place of the cult... and even today, the cult continues, with the name of Lord of the Miracles (señor de los milagros) or lord of pachacamilla. Very interesting that maybe 6,000 years after, that "god" is still in the mind of people. Another interesting thing is that the representation of this god was ... a piece of wood! When spaniards destroyed tha wood, the pachacamac priests begin to laugh... cause they say that they didn't venerated a piece of wood! they adored a lord with no fisical form and that as master of time/space as he was, he had no beggining and no end and that the diverse representations where just ways of representing god to their imperfect brains uncapable of imaging that no time/space reality. And that they could venerate that god in anything, because it was true that all matter was part of him...

Dudley Philp
Dudley Philp

i never mentioned God,or anybody else's god..but i believe people during those times did have a spiritual belief based on the fact that they built tombs to bury their dead as so with many other cultures around the world during that time. 

Michael Fuchs
Michael Fuchs

Isn't it amazing that all the great empires of History for the most part left us with only rubble and rubbish to decipher their legacy!  Humanists today want us to believe there is no God and man is able to control an perfect our existence!  If the world continues, what will our legacy of Godlessness be for our Great ( to the 10th power ) Grandchildren ?

Dudley Philp
Dudley Philp

its funny how people of that time thought they could take all thier wordly possessions with them...but alas everything of this world remains in this world,gold,silver,decomposed bodies..the only thing free to traverse is the spirit..and yes it would be looting if treasures were kept and sold for ones own personal gain

Len Adams
Len Adams

What has happened to the various treasures, and unless they're placed back in to the tomb how is this different than looting?

John Johnson
John Johnson

Doing that time there was no such thing as human sacrifices. There bodies was only a  vehicle for transporting your soul (entity) The entity never die. the entity can travel to other planets or back to the source.

o

David McKay
David McKay

@M. Waters I suspect you may also think the achievements of NASA is tax money one could have better used to develop a better world right!?!

Leon Harte
Leon Harte

@M. WatersI suspect you are right, M.  I mean, why don't archaeologists drive to their neighborhood cemetery and dig there?  There are plenty of bones, and some have even been buried with a gold ring or two.  


So it sort of begs the question of "after how long exactly does it become OK to dig up someone's grave?"


Leon

Leon Harte
Leon Harte

@M. WatersI suspect you are right, M.  I mean, why don't archaeologists drive to their neighborhood cemetery and dig there?  There are plenty of bones, and some have even been buried with a gold ring or two.  


So it sort of begs the question of "after how long exactly does it become OK to dig up someone's grave?" 

Leon 

paul patton
paul patton

@M. Waters First off, looting and archaeology and not the same.  Looting is done for financial gain pure and simple.  Archaeology is done to satisfy curiosity and to gain knowledge.  Second to claim them as your ancestors, is to take the broadest notion of how we are related, we are all human, but we are not culturally or racially the same.  The idea of desecration is religious in nature and if your are not part of the religion you don't really know what would constitute desecration.  It is also quite absurd to think that you can in any reality know what humanity will think about in the future a thousand years from now. Also if these mummies were displayed to their people on a regular basis as part of their religion, it might not be considered a desecration at all to be in a museum.

Glen Card
Glen Card

@Michael Fuchs You do know that this civilization never believed in your god right?  The arrival of the persons of faith under christian beliefs also caused untold death and suffering to the region via plague and forceful conversion.  It gets mildly disturbing seeing a form of preaching and saber rattling on an article in relation to this topic from a member who's faith in the past brought naught but harm to this region.

Mark Covert
Mark Covert

@Len Adams  It is different in many ways. Simply looting is for personal gain and serves no historical or educational purpose. In this method all items found are documented the site is studied and history is recorded and researched. Then the items are displayed to educate the rest of the people.

Dawn Wille
Dawn Wille

@Len Adams: Yes, the artifacts are still taken from their intended location, but I doubt there is the funding to keep it protected with armed security so that others don't loot them and take them away. At least if archaeologists carefully remove the artifacts, they can be properly recorded, retain information more than just the object itself (depth buried, placement in relation to other artifacts, etc), and go to a museum where the artifacts can be used to further knowledge and research, plus the artifacts are available to help educate the public and tourists in a place where everyone can view them

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