When she died in about 750 BC, the ‘Lady of Pacopampa’ was buried with great pomp and ritual in a tomb given pride of place at the centre of a great ceremonial complex. Her presence served as a constant reminder to present and future generations of her high status in life and her residual importance in death.
However, she also epitomises the result of a long, slow process of social change that began about half a millennium earlier.
First occupation at the Pacopampa Archaeological Complex dates to the beginning of the Middle Formative Period, around 1200 BC, and witnessed a continual process of construction until about 500 BC.
The site is a major ceremonial centre that belongs to a wider settlement spread across a series of interconnected hills running from east to west: El Mirador, La Capilla, La Laguna, and Pacopampa itself. It lies near the village of San Pedro de Pacopampa, on the Chotano River, in the Cajamarca region. Here, on the eastern slopes of the western cordillera of the Andes about 2,500m above sea level, the temperate climate and fertile soils create ideal growing conditions for crops such as parsnips, corn, beans, squash, and yacón.
The Pacopampa ceremonial complex comprises three major platforms that ascend a rocky hill, linked by stairways. On each is a sunken stone courtyard and further platforms, again with a sunken patio. It is interesting to note that the entrances to all these areas are aligned along the axis of the stairways. When the structures were built, this axis corresponded with the rising of the Pleiades, a star cluster that played a significant role in the agricultural calendar in early Andean societies.
The main structures, which are also the best preserved, are at the top, on the Third Platform, and date to between 800-500 BC. Three low platforms surround the west, south, and north sides of the huge main Sunken Court, which measures 900m2, to create a U-shaped effect with access to stairs at the centre. To the west of the Sunken Court is the Main Temple building, with rooms to the east and west.
A second, even larger, square sunken court was uncovered on the Second Platform. The monumental staircases ascend both platforms on a north-east to south-west axis, connected by an avenue lined with large cylindrical stone columns that lead to the Sunken Court of the Third Platform.
The temple here is adorned with a series of large three-dimensional sculptures carved with zoomorphic – felines and snakes – and anthropomorphic designs.
The development of architectural styles and the way in which the space was used reflect changing social dynamics during this crucial period when power began to shift from pre-state communities to complex hierarchical organisations dominated by a powerful elite.
During this time, we see constant remodelling of architectural features, and changing styles of ceramic ware and other artefacts. These different fashions, both in design and use of material, enable us to divide the history of Pacopampa into two distinct phases: Pacopampa Phase I, 1200-800 BC; and Pacopampa Phase II, 800-500 BC. Both phases are characterised by the presence of temples designed to accommodate large congregations during major religious ceremonies.
The period of occupation at Pacopampa overlaps with other important temple complexes such as Chavín de Huántar, a World Heritage Site, and Kuntur Wasi, which is currently being investigated by the Japanese Archaeological Mission led by Dr Yoshio Onuki of the University of Tokyo. Kuntur Wasi and Pacopampa have the largest temples of this period in the northern highlands of Peru, and luxury gold grave goods have been recovered at both.
Lady of Pacopampa
One of our most spectacular finds at Pacopampa was discovered in September 2009 on the Third Platform. The tomb of the Lady of Pacopampa lies at the centre of the forecourt to the Main Temple building, which is located to the west of the Sunken Court. She was between 20 and 40 years old when she died. Radiocarbon dates obtained from her skeletal remains and from the charred remnants of her ceremonial offerings show she died in about 750 BC, which belongs to the beginning of Pacopampa Phase II. She was placed in a flexed position on her left side, with her right hand holding her left forearm, at the bottom of an angled shaft, 0.90m in diameter and 2.10m deep.
The prestigious location of her grave suggests she belonged to a member of the ruling elite who lived in the temple: it lies exactly at the centre of the forecourt to the Main Temple enclosure, and aligned with the stairs and entrances leading to the temples on all three platforms.
The Lady would have cut a striking figure during life, for, standing to a height of about 1.62m, she would have been considerably taller than her contemporaries. Moreover, we can see from her skull that her head had been artificially altered to broaden her face. This was a deliberate practice of cranial deformation applied from birth, and signals high social status.
Though neither her clothes nor any other organic material have survived, her nobility is further inferred from her luxury grave goods, including some fine gold jewellery that she probably wore during life.
We recovered two large gold cylindrical earplugs weighing 18g, which she would have worn through dilated holes in her earlobes; and two triangular earrings, or pendants, that would have hung from the earplugs. These huge pendants are gold sheets embossed with a design of ribbons, shaped like inverted ‘U’s and resembling feathers on a bird’s wing. Each is 26cm long, 11cm at the base and 3.5cm at the apex, and weighs 50g. A necklace had been placed round her throat, while on her right foot was an anklet made of small, square mother-of-pearl beads (from feather oysters, Pteriidae) between 1cm and 1.8cm in width.
During preparations for the funerary ceremony, the Lady’s thighs were bound with string threaded with small, fragile tubular beads made of shell, again Pteriidae, about 2.7-6mm long and about 2.5-3.5mm in diameter. Her head was covered with cinnabar and azurite, discolouring her cranium, which is covered by red and blue pigmentation.
A round object, 3cm in diameter and 7mm thick, made of chrysocolla – a highly prized green mineral with white veins running through it – was placed inside her mouth, on the right side of her lower jaw.
After the body was laid at the bottom of the shaft, four ceramic pots were placed as grave offerings on either side of the hole. To the north was a single small, black, long-necked bottle with a thickened outer edge. To the south were a cup with bevelled edge, pouring lip, and cylindrical handle, decorated with incised concentric horizontal lines; a dish on a pedestal base with holes to allow in air to feed a fire; and a flat-based bowl with splayed walls that was placed on top of the dish with the pedestal. Ash and charcoal were found in these three vessels, including the pedestal base, suggesting a substance was burned in them as part of a funeral ritual.
A large stone slab was placed at an oblique angle over the burial pit, and more, smaller stone blocks were arranged across the whole plot, which was then covered with earth and finally capped by large stones.
Three years after the Lady’s discovery, in September 2012, we uncovered two more funerary contexts: one a single burial, the other a double. They were discovered on the low north platform, one of the three structures that form the ‘U’ shape around the Sunken Court on the Third Platform. All three of the interred were adult women and, as with the Lady of Pacopampa, their burials were probably associated with commemorative ceremonies during the construction of the buildings.
Radiocarbon dates obtained from the human remains date both burials to 600 BC, which falls within the Pacopampa II phase – though later than that of the Lady of Pacopampa.
The woman in the single grave was buried with a necklace made of tubular beads of chrysocolla with a thin circular gold pendant, 2cm in diameter. Two Black Polished-style ceramic pots were placed beside her: one a stirrup-handle bottle, the other a bowl decorated with incised circular designs.
From the double burial, we recovered a silver pin about 6.5cm long, a chrysocolla-bead necklace, and two Black Polished ware ceramic pots: one a shallow dish, the other a deeper bowl decorated with incised circles and with an embossed depiction of the San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) on each side. The extract from the bark of this cactus is a powerful psychotropic substance, still used in shamanic rituals, and it is interesting to note that bone artefacts such as spoons and inhalers used for such practices have been found in other areas of the site.
These high-status grave goods show that differentiation and ancestor worship begins to develop during the Late Formative Period. The peculiar shape of the Lady of Pacopampa’s tomb, for example, differs from the traditional ‘boot’-shaped graves that we see at other contemporary ceremonial centres, such as at Kuntur Wasi.
The precise siting of the tombs in key locations suggests they were deliberately placed there during construction of the buildings. And the prime position enjoyed by the Lady of Pacopampa suggests her presence bestowed some kind of spiritual power to the structures.
The later tombs, with their high-status gold and silver grave goods, may have fulfilled a similar function. Further study of the differences between them all will contribute to our better understanding of how power and religion was developing at Pacopampa.
The traditional view of society during the Formative Period is that it was egalitarian. But these latest discoveries raise doubts: the luxury grave goods and the evidence of deliberate cranial deformation as a sign of social differentiation attest to the presence of a hierarchical society by the middle of this era. At this point, some members of the community, probably associated with religious roles, were emerging as leaders over the general populace.
In 2013, we discovered a carved limestone monolith, 1.6m tall, with an anthropomorphic design depicting a human body with the head of a jaguar, its hands clasped in front of its chest and wearing a loincloth – suggesting this is a male figure. The monolith was found at the base of the staircase between the First Platform and Second Platform, and dates to the Pacopampa II phase. A similar monolith was discovered the following year, next to the same staircase. This one is more damaged, and thus harder to identify, but it is depicted with long hair, which leads us to believe it represents a female figure. It may be that the two were a pair, set on either side of the stairway.
Before the creation of such carved monoliths, figurative representations appeared on murals, painted ceramics, or ornamentally carved bone. However, most depict simple animals rather than human-animal hybrids. The first appearance of the anthropomorphic figures coincides with the emergence of a ruling elite, so it appears that such anthropomorphic figures represent the ability of a leader to control the animal’s spiritual power.
Moreover, stone art survives well beyond that made of clay, and can be used to create larger and more imposing figures than those, for example, created from metal. As such, stone carvings convey a permanent reminder of the ruling authority to both the inhabitants and to visitors.
In September 2015, we uncovered yet another stunning tomb. It was found on the east side of the low northern platform that lies adjacent to the large Sunken Court of the Third Platform (see the site plan on p.17). The grave, about 0.96m deep and about 0.85m wide at the base, dates to about 700 BC, slightly later than that of the Lady of Pacopampa, but like hers, it was sealed by large stones more than half a metre long, placed at an oblique angle and then covered by earth and rocks.
The tomb contained the remains of two individuals, placed on their sides in a flexed position with their heads together, face to face, and accompanied by luxury grave goods. The first, who faced south, wore a gold necklace – one of the oldest finds of worked gold yet recovered in the Americas. It is made up of 31 hollow ovoid gold beads just under 2cm in diameter, carved with the design of four figure-of-eights. At the centre of the chain is a single gold elongated oval pendant, 4.5cm long and weighing about 7.4g.
Powdered mineral pigments – red cinnabar, green malachite, dark brown haematite, glossy black magnetite, white calcite white, and blue azurite – were spread across the skull. Both the colour and the nature of these minerals probably conveyed some ritualistic meaning during the funeral ceremony – we know, for example, that cinnabar was used in the funerary rituals of early Peruvian societies for the burial of rulers and powerful elite.
The second individual, facing north, lay slightly over the body of the first. A thin stirrup-handle bottle, about 20cm long, had been placed on the body. This extraordinarily shaped vessel is in the form of a jaguar-faced snake, with fearsome fangs and an incised diamond pattern covering its body. It gives the grave its nickname: ‘Tomb of the Serpent-Jaguar Priests’.
The vessel and the gold necklace are in good condition, but, sadly, the human remains, crushed by the weight of the rocks and earth, have not fared so well. So, despite the nickname of the tomb, and though we can confirm that both are adults and that one is probably male, further tests are required to ascertain more about the second individual.
However, the manner of their burial and their high-status grave goods clearly show that both were members of the ruling elite, and probably held positions of high rank within the ceremonial centre at Pacopampa about 2,700 years ago.
The location of the Tomb of the Serpent-Jaguar Priests may hold a clue to the role these two people played in society. It lies close to the north platform’s sunken patio, where we have found evidence of feasting. We know that public religious ceremonies were held here during the Pacopampa II period, and that food and drink were consumed during these activities. It is plausible, then, that the individuals buried so close to where such ceremonial feasting took place, participated in – and even led – the rituals. Indeed, it is not unusual to find tombs within existing buildings, and similar evidence has been found at the contemporary major Peruvian site Kuntur Wasi.
As has been mentioned, it was generally believed that the first societies of Andean civilisation, preceding the emergence of kingdoms and states, were essentially egalitarian. Archaeological research at Kuntur Wasi has since forced a revision of such theories. It now appears that by the second half of the Formative Period, power was beginning to be concentrated within an elite group who led the ceremonial activities in the temples. These ‘priests’ and ‘priestesses’ eventually emerged as rulers.
This is certainly what we see happening at Pacopampa during the Pacopampa II period. This phase witnessed increasing social inequality, as we can see from the discovery of the high-status burials, culminating in our latest find of the Tomb of the Serpent-Jaguar Priests.
Finds as dramatic as these wonderful tombs are rare. So we continue with our methodical investigations, now carried out by the Japanese Archaeological Mission for more than 50 years. Future discoveries and further analysis of samples from the remains of all 50 funerary contexts uncovered so far at the site will give us more information about the health, diet, kinship, and lifestyles of these individuals who played such an important part in the society who built and developed the temple complex at Pacopampa. In time, we will be able to build a detailed picture of life in this early Andean society of northern Peru.
SOURCE: Professor Yuji Seki, National Museum of Ethnology of Japan, is Director of the Pacopampa Archaeological Project.
FURTHER INFORMATION: The excavation team of the joint expedition by Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and the National Museum of Ethnology of Japan comprised Prof. Daniel Morales Chocano (Peruvian director), Juan Pablo Villanueva, Diana Alemán, Mauro Ordoñez, Percy Santiago Andía, Dr Kazuhiro Uzawa, Dr Tomohito Nagaoka, Dr Mai Takigami, Dr Masaaki Shimizu, Dr Marina Shimizu, Megumi Arata, Prof. Masato Sakai, and Nagisa Nakagawa.
ALL IMAGES: © Pacopampa Archaeological Project, unless otherwise stated.