WASHINGTON–The best-preserved mummy ever known from the ancient Moche culture, parts of it covered with tattoos, has been discovered by Peruvian archaeologists at a ceremonial site called El Brujo — “the Wizard” — on the north coast of Peru near Trujillo. The mummy is dated to around A.D. 450.
Reported in the June issue of National Geographic magazine, the elaborately wrapped mummy is a woman who died in her late 20s. The woman, buried with a teen-aged girl as a sacrifice and surrounded by adornments and exquisite gold jewelry, is believed to have been a member of the Moche elite — possibly a ruler. Objects buried with her, including two ceremonial war clubs and 23 spear throwers, have left archaeologists puzzled: Such symbolic items previously have only been found in the graves of Moche men.
Archaeologists first spotted the war clubs in X-rays made before the enormous mummy bundle was unwrapped. “I could see from the X-ray a bit of the pelvis — it clearly was a female,” said physical anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University, who has been working with Peru’s El Brujo Archaeological Project since 1995 in collaboration with the Wiese Foundation. “But why would a woman be accompanied by weapons?” Verano’s work is funded by National Geographic.
The Moche culture thrived from A.D. 1 to A.D. 700 in the coastal river valleys of northern Peru. The Moche excelled at art, creating splendid ceramics and elaborate objects of gold and other metals. They also constructed huge pyramids; the Moche Pyramid of the Sun is the largest adobe pyramid in the New World.
The young woman lay near the summit of a ruined pyramid called Huaca Cao Viejo, a Pacific Ocean site known since the Spanish conquest but abandoned for centuries until recent excavations. A covered patio where her grave lay was a sacred space, where fellow Moche would honor her with burned offerings and by pouring libations into a vessel set above her tomb. The grave was discovered last year and excavated by the El Brujo Project, managed and funded by the Wiese Foundation with co-direction from Peru’s National Institute of Culture.
“The Huaca Cao Viejo complex has multicolored reliefs that reveal aspects of the Moche religious world only seen previously in their ceramics,” said archaeological director Regulo Franco of the Wiese Foundation. “This extraordinary monument will help enrich our knowledge of Moche religious life.”
Wrapped in hundreds of yards of cotton cloth, the mummy bundle was unusual.
“I’ve seen many mummy bundles, but this one was huge, obviously symbolic of her status,” Verano said. The bundle was decorated with a large embroidered face, something never before seen in a Moche burial. The bundle was covered by a cane mat, possibly the one she slept on in life, and a pillow lay underneath.
To remove the bundle for study, archaeologists first had to take out a skeleton lying alongside it. “It was a well-preserved sacrifice, with a rope still around its neck — the girl had been strangled,” Verano said. Such sacrifices were common throughout Andean cultures, he said, some of them people who volunteered to accompany a loved one to the afterlife.
It took eight men to lift the mummy bundle from its grave and take it to the nearby lab, where it was photographed, cleaned and studied. Careful unwrapping and documentation, by a team led by textile specialist Arabel Fernández of the Wiese Foundation, took months.
When the body was finally exposed, the archaeologists found that the skin was largely intact. The body had mummified quickly, partly because the young woman had been placed in a rain-sheltered patio. Complex tattoos, distinct from others of the Moche, covered both arms and other areas.
The woman’s abdominal skin was wrinkled and collapsed, and bone scarring indicated the woman had given birth at least once. The cause of her death was not apparent. Verano said she would have been considered an adult in her prime. Some Moche people reached their 60s and 70s.
Along with headdresses and exquisite pieces of jewelry made of gold and semi-precious stones was a contradictory mix of objects: war clubs and spear throwers — tools traditionally used by Moche males to propel spears — as well as traditional female items such as gold sewing needles, weaving tools and raw cotton.
“Perhaps she was a female warrior, or maybe the war clubs and spear throwers were symbols of power that were funeral gifts from men,” Verano said. In the thousands of Moche tombs previously exposed, no female warrior has been identified.
Moche art tells bloody tales of what once took place at Huaca Cao Viejo, a grand cathedral of the Moche era. Their prisoners were brought into the pyramid’s ceremonial plaza naked, bleeding and bound with nooses. Once inside, they witnessed a Moche priest adorned in gold slit their throats one by one. Those in line who didn’t turn away or faint saw a priestess catch the blood in a golden goblet for the priest to drink.
Huaca Cao Viejo also was the final resting place of some of the Moche elite. The tattooed woman was accompanied by three other burials, one of which also contained a teen-aged sacrifice. The bundles have been excavated and X-rayed and are to be unwrapped over the next few months. The archaeologists hope to extract mitochondrial DNA from them to determine if they were related and do isotopic work to track the elite woman’s lineage and life history.