Weapons found with female mummy Mummy was member of royalty

May 19, 2006|By THOMAS H. MAUGH II | THOMAS H. MAUGH II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Archaeologists in Peru have discovered a 15-century-old mummy of a tattooed Moche woman entombed with a dazzling collection of weapons and jewelry.

The woman, clearly a member of royalty, was buried with a sacrificed teenage slave at her feet and surrounded by multiple signs of femininity, including precious jewelry, golden needles and bejeweled spindles and spindle whorls for spinning cotton.

But her burial bundle also contained gilded copper-clad war clubs and finely crafted spear throwers -- objects never before seen in a Moche woman's tomb.

"Why would a woman be accompanied by weapons?" asked archaeologist John Verano of Tulane University, who reported the find in the June issue of National Geographic magazine. "It's somewhat of a mystery who she is."

Given the quantity and unusual preservation of the artifacts, he added, "It is going to take archaeologists years of work to try and unravel the mystery."

University of California, Los Angeles archaeologist Christopher B. Donnan, who has been working for years in the nearby Jequetepeque Valley, said that many of the burial goods are identical to royal artifacts he has discovered there.

"There are implications of contact between royalty in two different valleys," he said. "We've never been able to recognize something like that before."

The find suggests that the Moche, like other South American cultures, cemented alliances between cities through intermarriage.

The mummy was discovered by Verano and Peruvian archaeologists from the National Institute of Culture at a site called El Brujo, or "The Wizard," on the Peruvian coast about an hour's drive north of Trujillo and 300 miles north of Lima. The site was occupied by a variety of groups from about 2500 B.C. through the Spanish Colonial period, when it was abandoned.

The Moche flourished there from about A.D. 100 to 700. They primarily were farmers who diverted rivers into a network of irrigation canals.

A sophisticated culture, the Moche raised huge pyramids of sun-dried adobe bricks, laying their noblest dead inside. Although they had no written language, their artifacts document their lives with detailed scenes of hunting, fishing, combat, punishment, sexual encounters and elaborate ceremonies.

The mummy was discovered in a pyramid called Huaca Cao Viejo, a large structure 100 feet tall and 150 feet on a side. It was built in several phases, with successive generations enlarging it. The mummy, which dates to about the year A.D. 450, was placed on a covered patio that was subsequently buried under 15 feet or so of adobe bricks, which protected it from the weather and looters.

The mummy bundle "was huge, obviously symbolic of her status," Verano said. But to remove it, the team had to take out a skeleton lying alongside it.

"It was a well-preserved sacrifice, with a rope around its neck -- the girl had been strangled," he said. Some servants were sacrificed at funerals, while others volunteered to accompany their masters into the afterlife.

It took eight men to lift the bundle from the grave and carry it to a nearby lab for inspection. The team then carefully removed the hundreds of yards of cotton cloth that encased the body, revealing a woman who was about 5 feet tall -- average for the time -- and in her mid- to late 20s.

She was apparently in good health with no signs of nutritional deficiencies, although she had one tooth that would have become abscessed if she had lived longer. Her abdominal skin was wrinkled and collapsed, and bone scarring indicated the woman had given birth at least once.

With no obvious cause of death, Verano speculated that it was "most likely some sudden infectious disease, like pneumonia or bronchitis, that wouldn't leave a mark on the skeleton."

She was heavily tattooed on her forearms, upper arms, the back of her hands and on her ankles and feet.

The woman was adorned in multiple necklaces, some of gold and others of turquoise and quartz. She had multiple nose ornaments, earrings in the form of gold crosses and four tiaras or crowns, each with a different design of a fanged face.

Two tall, cylindrical headdresses and several ceramics in the tomb clearly were from Jequetepeque, Donnan said. For the headdresses, in particular, "We know of no other place where they were made and used," he said.

Because the headdresses generally were only worn by men, he added, their presence suggests that a prince from Jequetepeque may have come to El Brujo to woo or wed the woman or, at the very least, to honor her after her death.

Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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