‘On behalf of the Pacopampa Archaeological Project, I ask your permission to open this tomb where you have been laid to rest. We pledge to analyse the tomb with diligence in order to study the formation of Andean civilisation.’ On 26 August 2022, I and Daniel Morales Chocano, Peruvian co-director of the project, made this vow at the Pacopampa archaeological complex in Peru, in front of a large stone that had appeared at a depth of 80cm in a shaft. We expected a burial to lie beyond it, although finding out whether we were right proved to be anything but easy. Not only did the stone weigh several tons, but it also fitted snugly into the roughly 1m diameter of the shaft, blocking it without leaving any gaps. Even if heavy machinery had been available, there was no obvious way to secure this formidable obstacle with rope or chains. After consulting the villagers, who were experienced stone-workers, we hatched a plan to create room for lifting-gear by cutting into the side of the shaft. This work took a full day.
Finally, with the help of pulleys, one end of the large stone was lifted clear, and a cheer from our team rose with it. I was filming the moment, and froze as a piece of human bone and a white, round object suddenly appeared in shot beneath the stone. For the first time, we could be certain that the stone did indeed seal a tomb. What is more, a red pigment, thought to be cinnabar – which is only found in the tombs of nobles – was visible on the back of the stone. Excited, Juan Pablo Villanueva, head of excavation, and I flashed an instruction to the workers to be careful. Peering into the dimly lit space, I saw that the white, round object was not a skull, but a shell: specifically, a Strombus shell (Strombus galeatus). These shellfish do not live in Peru, as the coastal currents are too cold. Instead, their shells are usually found off the coast of Ecuador, where the sea is rather warmer. As such, finds of Strombus shells are rare in Peru, although they are known from various ancient archaeological sites, including Chavín de Huántar and Kuntur Wasi. Both of these sites are roughly contemporary with Pacopampa, with all three belonging to an era that Andean archaeologists call the Formative Period (c.3000 BC-AD 1). I can still remember feeling goosebumps as I recognised the shell – it looked as though we stood on the threshold of unearthing something amazing.
Our discovery is the latest major find from a long-running project examining Pacopampa. This large ceremonial centre is located 2,500m above sea level in the Chota Province of the Cajamarca Region, in the northern highlands of Peru. Such ancient gathering places are a signature feature of the Formative Period, when the construction of monumental centres and the group rituals conducted at them are credited with creating the social conditions that allowed the earliest Andean civilisations to rise. Pacopampa is prominent among these centres, as it is the largest in the Andean highlands. The site spans about 4ha and comprises a three-tiered platform supported by masonry walls, rising from a natural mountain ridge. The most important buildings were placed on the uppermost platform.
Excavations conducted since 2005 by the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos of Peru and the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan, to which I belong, have confirmed that activity at Pacopampa can be divided into two phases: Phase I (1200-700 BC) and Phase II (700-400 BC). Various features have been investigated during our project, including a circular structure with a diameter of 28m, a Sunken Square Plaza with sides 30m in length, and the low platforms that border it on three sides. Of these, the western platform is believed to have played the most important role, leading to it becoming known as the Main Platform. An axis running through its centre was instrumental for laying out the surrounding architecture, as this line passes through the heart of the Sunken Square Plaza, while also defining the midpoint of the staircases connecting the platforms. Our dating evidence shows that most of the Pacopampa buildings were built in Phase I, before being reused in Phase II, albeit with some modifications.
Lady of Pacopampa and Serpent-Jaguar
Pacopampa was not just a place for the living, and it is tombs that have made the site famous. Chief among these burials are the ‘Tomb of the Lady of Pacopampa’, discovered on the main platform in 2009, and the ‘Tomb of the Serpent-Jaguar Priests’, found within the northern platform in 2015. Both were special interments dating from 700-600 BC – placing them in Phase II – and present rare examples of shaft tombs at the Pacopampa site. To consider them in turn, the ‘Tomb of the Lady of Pacopampa’ contained gold earplugs and earrings, as well as a wealth of shell beads, while four pots – a bowl, a dish on a pedestal base, a jug, and a small bottle – were placed over the area where her body lay. The head of the deceased was sprinkled with red cinnabar and dark blue azurite powder, and also displayed evidence of cranial deformation, something that had not been observed in other burials at Pacopampa. Given that such manipulation of the skull bones is only possible when performed on newborn babies, this is an important indicator of how differentiation worked within this society. After all, if this physical trait from a high-status burial can be linked to the emergence of leaders, it suggests that babies born into certain families were believed to have predetermined futures.
The second special burial also took the form of a shaft tomb, although in this case there were two bodies, positioned one on top of the other. The upper individual was an adult female, who was buried holding an effigy bottle in the shape of a serpent-jaguar over her torso. Beneath her lay a youthful male, who is thought to be the main interment, because he wore a gold necklace and the powdered pigments of various minerals were placed near his head. On the strength of this evidence, high-status individuals – presumably social leaders – were present at Pacopampa, in Phase II at least. This is consistent with findings at the Kuntur Wasi site, where several deep shaft tombs have also been located. These contained even more ornate gold objects than the Pacopampa burials, while the deceased once again display cranial deformation. Given this overlap, it is easy to see why it has been assumed that the emergence of societies dominated by powerful leaders occurred in the northern highlands of Peru around 800-700 BC.
There are grounds, though, to wonder whether this tells the whole story. It is known that during Phase I the Pacopampa site was only one part of a larger archaeological complex, which covered about 16ha and included various structures that lay to the east of the monumental centre. These structures take the form of artificial mounds, such as La Laguna, La Capilla, and El Mirador. Despite the existence of multiple sites within the complex, it has been inferred that they were all the product of a carefully composed masterplan, as the eastern mounds were arranged symmetrically along the central axis extending from the Pacopampa site. Although only Pacopampa has received extensive excavations, small-scale work at the other sites making up the complex has shown that their origins lie in Phase I. Given, then, that the creation of Pacopampa involved both altering the natural landscape and creating carefully ordered structures over a wide area, it would not seem that surprising if a complex society already existed in the background.
Demonstrating the existence of such a community is a different matter. Few tombs dating to Phase I – when these major projects were carried out – have been found at the Pacopampa site, leaving little in the way of hard evidence for leaders like those buried during Phase II. That said, while investigating the ‘Tomb of the Lady of Pacopampa’ we found some tantalising indications that high-status individuals might have been present at an earlier date. Back before this Phase II burial chamber was created, a pit about 1m in diameter and 1m deep had been dug during Phase I. This cavity contained in its fill a fragment of a very rare anthracite vessel, suggesting that the pit could once have been a tomb. If so, the tomb of Phase II may well have been deliberately sited so as to destroy those belonging to Phase I. While this invites suspicions of a shift in power, it can hardly be considered concrete evidence for the existence of leaders in Phase I.
It was against this backdrop that we discovered the new tomb in 2022. Crucially, it lay in a part of the complex that belongs to Phase I. As such, the contents of the tomb held the promise of clarifying whether leaders existed at such an early date. If so, it would open up new horizons for the study of Andean civilisation.
Inside the tomb
The tomb was discovered at the artificial mound known as La Capilla, which lies at the eastern end of the Pacopampa complex. Previous excavations at La Capilla had uncovered a structure that belonged to Phase I. Our work in 2022 revealed the masonry retaining-wall for a platform, as well as a small, adjacent room. A staircase in the northern corner of the room allowed access to and from the platform. It was underneath part of this staircase that we found the shaft leading down to the tomb. On that basis, the tomb shaft must have been sunk before the small room and its staircase were built. As Phase I pottery was found on the room floor, the tomb can be assigned to a slightly earlier date in that era.
Successfully removing the large stone sealing the shaft revealed a separate shallow pit, 1m in diameter and 30cm deep. This contained not just a burial, but one with features that have never previously been reported in the annals of Andean archaeology. At the very bottom of the pit lay 20 Strombus shells, which – along with their surroundings – had been covered with a red pigment, probably cinnabar. The shells were accompanied by square beads made from white shells, and a selection of blue-green stones.
It was only after the shells and associated offerings were in place that a body had been placed on top. The deceased was arranged in a flexed position and lay on his left side, in the western part of the tomb, facing towards the Pacopampa site. Our anthropologist, Dr Tomohito Nagaoka, was able to analyse the body remotely, and determined that the individual was a male aged between 25 and 35 years.
Discs made from shells and a blue-green stone were found on and near the head of the deceased. These objects were about 4cm in diameter, with a few of the stone examples worked into a flower shape. A curious detail is that some of the stone discs had a small, circular portion of shell at their centre, while the shell discs could, in turn, be fitted with a stone core. It is possible that these objects once formed part of a headband. More artefacts lay in the vicinity of the deceased’s neck, including two rectangular blue-green stone tablets measuring 5cm by 8cm, two step-shaped tablets in a form known as the Andean cross (chakana), a small figure fashioned from shells, small human faces – also made from shells – and two cup-shaped vessels formed from the spiral head of a Strombus shell. These last have never before been reported from a Formative Period site in the Andes. Necklaces consisting of several hundred blue-purple stone beads and tubular shell beads were found on or near the man’s neck, as well as tens of thousands of blue-green stone microbeads. These tiny artefacts are often found arranged in strands and may have formed some kind of pectoral ornament.
Priest of Pututus
Among this wealth of artefacts, there is no doubt that the most interesting offerings associated with the burial are the Strombus shells. It has long been known that these could be adapted to act as musical instruments, by drilling through the spiral head of a shell to create a mouthpiece. Indeed, a stone slab in bas-relief from Chavín de Huántar, a site from the same Formative Period, depicts a composite monkey-human being sounding a Strombus trumpet. And a 17th-century illustrated chronicle describing Inca customs depicts a man playing a Strombus shell. Such musical instruments were not just a way to entertain listeners, though: they are thought to have been used in religious rituals by Andean civilisations. Flutes, pan pipes, and drums appear on pots and textiles that have been discovered in ritual contexts from various periods, while bone and clay instruments have also been found. All of the Strombus shells excavated at the La Capilla site have perforations on their spiral head segments, indicating that they were modified to produce sound.
Some of the Strombus shells are also exceptional for having polished surfaces, achieved by carefully smoothing away the rough spiral ribs. Indeed, at least three of the shells carried incised designs on the resulting surfaces. Such craftsmanship reinforces the suspicion that the Strombus shells had a religious dimension and acted as ritual tools. If so, it seems just as likely that the individual buried on top of these religious-ritual shells had some kind of priest-like role. Because of this, we have called the burial the ‘Tomb of the Priest of Pututus’, after the Peruvian name for shells that have been transformed into trumpets.
The ceremonial significance of the instruments is indicated, too, by the large number of white shell and blue-green stone beads that were deliberately placed on both the Strombus shells and the body of the individual. Although the shell for the beads has been scientifically identified, the stone has so far only been examined by eye. It looks most likely to be chrysocolla, although malachite is another possibility. As a source of chrysocolla can be found relatively close to the Pacopampa site, acquiring it may not have been too taxing. Even so, the size of some of the stone ornaments is simply astonishing. So far as I am aware, the two large rectangular tablets are the biggest ever recorded in the history of Andean archaeology. At the other end of the scale, the microbeads are only about 1mm in diameter, making it impossible to even guess how the holes running through them were made. Intriguingly, the shape of the flower petals on some of the possible headband discs is similar to the incised design on the surface of a ceramic bottle found at Chavín de Huántar. There, the image has been identified as a cross-section through the San Pedro cactus, which was used by some Andean groups to create hallucinogenic drugs. Could it be that our apparent priest used hallucinogens to communicate with what were believed to be supernatural beings?
The red pigment unearthed with the shells is noteworthy. Judging from its colour and dense texture, there can be little doubt that it is cinnabar. Previous work on the presence of cinnabar in elite tombs at Pacopampa was undertaken by Dr Richard Burger from Yale University and his team. They showed that this material originated from Huancavelica in the central highlands of Peru. If the red pigment in the ‘Tomb of the Priest of Pututus’ came from the same source, it means that it was transported over a considerable distance.
It is likely that the blue-purple stones tell a similar story. From visual inspection, this rock is highly likely to be a sodalite. This is known from the tombs at Kuntur Wasi, where the stone has been traced to Cerro Sapo, Bolivia. If the excavated beads from the ‘Tomb of the Priest of Pututus’ arrived from the same locality, it would show that our priest was able to acquire rare goods sourced from a distant and remote area.
Given that the Strombus shells are likely to have come from Ecuador, there are clear signs that the Pututus priest was able to obtain ritual tools or materials from all across the Andes. Indeed, it is possible to go a step further and argue that the priest was able to secure his status precisely because he had gathered such an impressive range of tools with which to perform rituals. Until this discovery, it was thought that the emergence of such trappings of status and connectivity were a product of a later era, be it first accomplished at Pacopampa or the contemporaneous Kuntur Wasi site.
Emergence of power
Although scientific dating is yet to be done, there can be no doubt that the ‘Tomb of the Priest of Pututus’ pushes the appearance in Andean civilisations of social hierarchies and individual power further back in time by a century or two. Inevitably, however, the discovery of such a rich early tomb raises new questions. Why, for example, was this magnificent burial undertaken at the remote La Capilla site, rather than the ceremonial core at Pacopampa? And how do we explain the absence in our Phase I burial of the pottery and gold objects found in the elite tombs from Phase II? Was the priest a local figure or a migrant from another place? Seeking out answers to these questions will be the task of the coming year.
All Images: courtesy of Yuji Seki
Excavation team of the joint expedition between the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and the National Museum of Ethnology of Japan:
Prof. Daniel Morales Chocano (Peruvian co-director), Prof. Juan Pablo Villanueva, Prof. Nelson Tapia, Lic. Diana Alemán, Lic. Mauro Ordoñez, Lic. Percy Santiago Andía, Dr Kazuhiro Uzawa, Dr Tomohito Nagaoka, Dr Mai Takigami, Prof. Masato Sakai, Dr Masaaki Shimizu and Dr Marina Shimizu, Mg. Nagisa Nakagawa, Mg. Megumi Arata