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Peru’s Lost Temple

March/April 2023

MA23 Peru Moche MuralWhile working toward a degree in Andean studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, archaeologist Sâm Ghavami took a bus every day from the city of Lambayeque to the town of Pacora along a stretch of the twisty Pan-American Highway. During each trip, in the tiny hamlet of Illimo, the bus passed a blue sign next to the road indicating a historical or archaeological site that read Huaca Pintada, or Painted Temple. When Ghavami finally had a chance to get off the bus and visit the site, he didn’t see much resembling an ancient temple, but instead came upon an abandoned mound covered by trees, weeds, and garbage. “It was in really bad shape,” he says. “If I hadn’t known it was a huaca, it would have been difficult to tell that it was an archaeological site.”


Yet Ghavami did know about the Huaca Pintada and had been intrigued by the very few published articles to mention the temple, which was built by members of the Moche culture that thrived in this part of Peru from the first to ninth century A.D. One of these sources was a 1917 paper in which the German ethnologist Hans Heinrich Brüning wrote a single paragraph about the site. The other was a 1978 article by University of Texas at Austin anthropologist Richard Schaedel in ARCHAEOLOGY magazine that featured photographs Brüning had taken before looters ransacked the site, which had not been previously published. By 2018, when Ghavami decided that he wanted to excavate Huaca Pintada, Brüning’s original photos had been lost, nothing had been written about the site in 40 years, and the murals were believed to have been completely destroyed. Over the last four years, Ghavami, now at the University of Fribourg, and his codirector, archaeologist Christian Cancho Ruiz of the University of Virginia, have found this belief to be mistaken. They have discovered that beneath the overgrown vegetation and abandoned objects are sections of the mural that even Brüning had not seen and that will add to archaeologists’ understanding of the complexity of the culture that created the vibrant paintings more than 1,000 years ago.


Like the highway itself, Ghavami’s path to discovery was far from straight. “The huaca is on private land which has been in the Granados family for at least 150 years, and I had a hard time convincing the current owner, Don Augusto Granados, to let us excavate the site,” Ghavami says. “Although he had turned others down before, he agreed at first, but changed his mind, so we excavated a part of the site owned by other families. We didn’t really find much that could have related to the paintings, so I went looking for help.” It came in the form of a local shaman who University at Buffalo anthropologist Ana Mariella Bacigalupo had worked with during her research in the region. The shaman led an eight-hour ritual in his own home to communicate with the huaca and encourage it to accept Ghavami so the Granados family would accept him as well. “He was kind of a diplomat,” Ghavami says. “In the following days, he went to see Don Augusto several times and talked about me to make sure his ritual would work.”


Ghavami and his team returned to Illimo in 2021 only for Granados to turn him down again. “We couldn’t excavate the huaca,” Ghavami recalls, “so we dug a bit in the Picantería la Huaca restaurant just a few feet away, but there wasn’t much there either.” Ghavami got to know one of the Granados sons, who was supportive of the project, and they worked together to ensure that the excavation would benefit the family and the village. Ghavami also spoke often with local residents, many of whom shared traditional stories about the painted temple that had been passed down for centuries.

 MA23 Peru Moche Mural Aerial

After a month, Granados finally allowed the team to begin excavating the huaca. During three weeks of digging, Ghavami’s team unearthed a few fragments of painted wall plaster. “We were so close, but so far because it seemed that the fragments belonged to a painted wall from another period,” he says. “And I didn’t know if we would be allowed to come back.”


In the fall of 2022, Granados finally gave the project the full go-ahead, and little by little, the team started to find more traces of the mural. Brüning’s photos show six helmeted warriors in profile carrying weapons on the left side and five additional warriors, many wearing highly decorative headdresses with trailing black feathers, on the right. Each of the 11 warriors is surrounded by dozens of geometric shapes. The warriors all walk toward a large central deity who stands on a platform, has sharp-clawed feet, and wears an elaborately patterned garment. All the warriors documented by Brüning, along with most of the central figure, were subsequently lost. However, Ghavami discovered depictions of an additional four warriors on the left and five on the right, all of which are well preserved.


Using Brüning’s photos, Schaedel had calculated that the entire mural measured almost 51 feet long, but Ghavami’s team has revealed that it is actually nearly 100 feet long and once stood about 10 feet high. The mural’s upper panel is now destroyed but is known from Brüning’s photos to have contained images of rivers, fish, birds, and small human figures. “The scene represented on the mural seems to be inspired by a strong idea of sacred hierarchy built around a cult to the ancestors and their intimate relation with the forces of nature,” says Ghavami. “The warriors may represent a special status, like caciques, or chiefs of a sociopolitical group, who all seem to recognize the greater authority of this central deity.”


MA23 Peru Moche Mural ExcavationThe Huaca Pintada mural was created during a period of change, when the people of the Moche culture began to transition into the Lambayeque culture that would dominate the region for nearly the next five centuries. “We want to understand how you get from one culture to a new one, how collective identity is created,” Ghavami says. The mural is a powerful new piece of evidence because it combines elements of Moche iconography and style with later Lambayeque motifs. “One example,” says Ghavami, “is that there is only a single main deity represented facing forward, which is very unusual for Moche art, but quite common for the Lambayeque.”


For now, Ghavami’s explorations of the Huaca Pintada are complete and the mural has been covered while he investigates the best way to conserve it and restore the damaged sections. “In Peru before we excavate a site,” he says, “we conduct a ceremony called the ‘pago a tierra’ to give offerings of chicha, corn, or candy—or in my case chocolate because I’m Swiss—to the earth or the huaca in hopes that the huaca will receive us and to ensure a good field season. I think the huaca knows me now and I feel more welcomed every time I go there.”



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