Ancient Wari tombs revealed in Peru

Beneath a corridor in the mausoleum, they found a burial structure, a mortuary gallery dubbed the ‘Gallery of Elite Craftsmen’.

Excavations at a royal Wari necropolis in Peru are shedding light on the importance of the production of crafts at the site. A team led by Miłosz Giersz and Patrycja Prządka-Giersz from the University of Warsaw has been investigating the burial complex at Castillo de Huarmey since 2010. The site was active for around 200 years (with dating evidence covering the period AD 770-970), part of the Wari civilisation that flourished c.AD 650-1050.

The Gallery of Elite Craftsmen was found in 2022 beneath the royal mausoleum of Castillo de Huarmey.
Image: Miłosz Giersz

In 2012-2013, the team uncovered a large intact burial chamber with the remains of 58 noblewomen, six human sacrifices, and two guardians (their feet amputated to ensure they stayed at their post), as well as more than 1,300 artefacts in gold, silver, and bronze, precious gems, wood, bone, and shells.

A gold decoration from a headdress discovered in one of the burials in the Gallery of Elite Craftsmen.
Image: Miłosz Giersz

With these numerous riches, it seemed that the elites of Castillo de Huarmey interred in this royal mausoleum were involved in some way in the crafting of finery. The evidence for this has been strengthened with the discoveries made in 2022, according to Giersz. Beneath a corridor in the mausoleum, they found a different burial structure, a mortuary gallery dubbed the ‘Gallery of Elite Craftsmen’. Within the chambers of the gallery were the remains of seven individuals – four adults (two male and two female) and three adolescents. They were buried in typical Wari fashion, seated and wrapped in cloths, provided with food and drink. As well as impressive jewellery like earspools and a gold headdress, among their grave goods were tools, including axes, knives, and saws. Materials used in basketry and textiles were also buried with these individuals, as were pieces of painted leather at different stages of production. These point to the crafting activities of the deceased, and suggest Castillo de Huarmey was an important place for producing high-end goods.

The burials of the royal mausoleum hint that the high-ranking figures of Castillo de Huarney were also professional craftspeople. Study of their bones suggests they were engaging in craft activities, and the queen – the most prominent of the interred noblewomen – was found with gold and silver spindle whorls for spinning. Giersz says that it was not unusual for the upper classes to be accomplished manufacturers in the ancient Americas, but Castillo de Huarmey is the only ancient Andean site where we see this happening.

Some of the bones and grave goods in the Gallery of Elite Craftsmen appear to have been moved to a new location, a sign of ancestor worship. Giersz said, ‘We do not know if, in the case of Wari, ancestor worship also included the public display of the mummies of deceased rulers, as Incas did, but traces in both Wari and Tiwanaku centres, as well as Castillo de Huarmey and other archaeological sites on the Peruvian coast from this period, indicate that Wari moved their ancestors and manipulated their remains after death.’