National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

"Unexpected" Man Found Amid Ancient Priestesses' Tombs

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 18, 2009
 
In an "unexpected" discovery, a rattle-wielding elite male has been found buried among powerful priestesses of the pre-Inca Moche society in Peru, archaeologists announced Monday. (See pictures of Moche treasures from the tomb.)

Surrounded by early "smoke machines" as well as human and llama bones, the body was among several buried inside a unique double-chambered tomb that dates back to A.D. 850, said archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, of the Catholic University of Peru in Lima.

The tomb contained a wooden coffin decorated with a copper lattice and a gilded mask, sitting on a raised platform. Inside the coffin "is where we find the main object of the burial, and that fellow is a male," Castillo said.

"After 18 years of excavation in San José de Moro, we were expecting another female," he added. "But this tends to happen [in archaeology]—expect the unexpected."

(See related pictures of masks and other treasures from the tomb of the Moche "king of bling.")

"Smoke Machines," Llama Sacrifice?

The Moche people were a fragmented society of farmers who occupied the arid coasts of Peru from about A.D. 100 to 1000. (See a Peru map.)

Since 1991 Castillo has led excavations at San José de Moro, a regional ceremonial center and cemetery for elite Moche in the northern coast's Jequetepeque Valley.

The site has so far yielded seven royal priestess burials, an indication of the powerful role of women in Moche society, Castillo said.

This year Castillo's team started excavations on the first known double-chambered Moche tomb. The work was partially funded by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Artwork painted on known Moche pottery often depicts a ritual ceremony where a coffin is lowered into a tomb like the one that held the rattle-wielding male.

The funerals, Castillo noted, were cause for celebration and allowed for the seamless transition of power from one ruler to the next. Living priestesses probably performed such burials at annual festivals held at San José de Moro.

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.

(Related: "Mummy of Tattooed Woman Discovered in Peru Pyramid.")

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."
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.