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Field Notes Close to home or in a far away jungle, there is always something marvelous to see.

Chiclayo and the Sican Culture

PERU | Saturday, 29 May 2010 | Views [754]

Sipan, a recent discovery

Sipan, a recent discovery

Another bus ride yesterday brought us to Chiclayo, three hours from Trujillo.  For a city of 600,000 there isn’t much to do if you aren’t interested in brujos, the witches and shamans that the city is known for.  But it is a good base for exploring the Sican and Chimu cultural sites.  We checked into a hotel and after lunch we took a collectivo to the Museo Tumas Reales de Sipan (Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan) in nearby Lambayeque.  It is brand new and houses the gold and jewelery removed from the tombs and reassembled just as they were when found.  Photos aren't permitted but trust us, this place is so great it should be a model for other cultural and archeological museums.  I especially liked the photos, mostly from National Geographic who sponsored the dig, showing the stages of the discoveries and other photos detailing the cleaning and restoration techniques.  

On Saturday we hired a taxi to visit the surrounding sites, including Sipan.  Here it gets a little confusing, at least for me.  The Sican, who built Sipan, were probably descendants of the Moche and were contemporaries of the Chimu but the culture is also referred to as Lambayeque for the region.  Because the goodies from Sipan are in the museum replicas are displayed in the actual tombs but the digging continues nearby.  The story of the discovery is interesting.  It begins in 1987 when a local archeologist noticed a number of intricate objects for sale on the black market which he traced back to the site.  What were generally considered earthen hills were in fact adobe brick pyramids dating from 300 AD.

Dr. Alva got the police to protect the site from looters, sometimes violently, and hired locals, themselves former tomb raiders, to help with the excavation.  This is all documented in two NatGeo articles from 1988 and 1990, which Connie read from our digital NG archives.  Despite the immense wealth of the Lord of Sipan, it was dangerous to be a close family member or even a pet.  Wives, children and even llamas were buried alongside the boss.

At Ferrenafe we visited only the small museum because the actual site, which existed from 750 until 1375 is difficult to reach and the museum has good replicas of the tombs.  Again the tombs contain multiple bodies, some in strange positions.  One lord had his head removed and is buried upside down.  Another tomb contains one man and 22 women.

Tucume, the last site we visited, is over 20 hectares in size.  Little has been excavated and it shows the damage from many el Ninos.  There are 26 separate pyramids built by the Sicans and later by the Chimu people.  Archeologists believe that each pyramid was abandoned after a cataclysmic el Nino event which the people interpreted as the wrath of their gods.  They then constructed a newer more elaborate one in an attempt at appeasement.

None of these civilizations, including the Inca, had a written language so most of what is known comes from murals, carvings and ceramics found at the sites.  More is known of the Incas because Spanish historians observed their lifestyles and customs.  Many of their stone buildings and temples still stand but the mud brick of the Chimu and Moche aren’t nearly as durable.  Even those that have been covered by sand for centuries begin to disintegrate as soon as they are excavated.


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