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Tomb find confirms women ruled ancient Peru

Tomb find confirms women ruled ancient Peru

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Archaeologists have discovered a tomb belonging to a powerful pre-Hispanic priestess in Peru, the eighth in more than two decades, confirming that women ruled the region approximately 1,200 years ago.

The burial chamber was found in the Cao religious compound belonging to the Moche civilisation, close to the city of Trujillo, Peru. The highly decorated tomb is made of clay and covered with copper plates in the form of waves and birds. Inside the tomb were the remains of the priestess surrounded by ceramic offerings, a mast and a knife, as well as the bodies of five children and two adults all of whom were sacrificed.

So far, the excavations within the cemetery of the Mochica elite have only turned up tombs with women, indicating the important role that women played in the Moche society. "This find makes it clear that women didn't just run rituals in this area but governed here and were queens of Mochica society," said project director Luis Jaime Castillo.

The Moche was a mysterious civilization who ruled the northern coast of Peru approximately two thousand years ago. They built huge pyramids made of millions of mud bricks and created an extensive network of aqueducts which enabled them to irrigate crops in their dry desert location. They were also pioneers of metal working techniques like gilding and soldering, which enabled them to created extraordinarily intricate jewellery and artefacts.

Little was known about the Moche civilization because they left no written texts to help explain their beliefs and customs. However, the discovery of detailed paintings and murals on pottery work and on temple walls has helped to provide insights into their culture and beliefs.

The artwork, as well as archaeological findings, has indicated that women were held with high esteem. It was the Moche priestesses who used to carry out the gruesome sacrifices. Adorned in gold, they would slit the throats of their victims and catch the blood in a golden goblet for the high priestess to drink. Excavated tombs revealing women buried with weapons and armour also indicate that they were fighting warriors. Still, much knowledge about the structure of Moche society remains to be discovered and understood.

    Ancient Tomb Of Wari Women Found In Peru

    Archaeologists have unearthed a massive royal tomb full of mummified women in Peru, providing clues about an enigmatic empire.

    Researchers say the discovery will help piece together life of the Wari, who were in the Andes centuries before the rise of the Incan empire.

    The Incans are much better known as they were written about in detail by the conquering Spaniards.

    "For the first time in the history of archeology in Peru we have found an imperial tomb that belongs to the Wari empire and culture," lead archeologist Milosz Giersz said.

    The mausoleum was unearthed a few months ago at a coastal pyramid site called El Castillo de Huarmey 185 miles (299km) north of Lima.

    It contains gold pieces, ceramics and 63 skeletons that are about 1,300 years old.

    Archaeologists told National Geographic that they kept their work quiet for fear grave robbers would pick the site clean.

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    Researchers said most of the bodies found in the burial chamber were mummified women sitting upright.

    The sitting position of the mummies indicates royalty and suggests Wari women held more power than previously thought.

    "The women were buried with finely engraved ear pieces made of precious metals that once were believed to be used only by men," archaeologist Patrycja Przadk said.

    Historians believe the Wari, who ruled between 600 and 1100 AD, were the first people to unite diverse tribes into a sophisticated network across most of today's Peruvian Andes.

    Bioarchaeologist Wieslaw Wieckowski said six skeletons were not wrapped in textiles and appear to have been human sacrifices for the mummified elite.

    "They were people thrown into the grave before the grave was sealed," he said.

    "They were lying on their bellies, in an extended position and their limbs went in different directions."

    Ancient Priestess Unearthed In Peru Tomb Suggests Women Ruled Mysterious, Brutal Culture (PHOTO)

    Archaeologists working in Peru have uncovered the skeleton of a woman believed to have been a high priestess of a mysterious culture that existed around 1,200 years ago. The pre-Hispanic remains were found in late July in an impressive burial chamber located in the country's northern Chepén province, according to the Agence France-Presse.

    (Story continues below.)

    The priestess seems to have been a leader of an ancient culture known as the Moche, or Mochia. Around 2,000 years ago, the Moche dominated the cultural landscape of what is now northern Peru, building large pyramids from mud bricks before disappearing without explanation. The name Moche comes from the site of Moche, an ancient capital city.

    Researchers have spent years attempting to unravel the riddles of a society which left no written record. According to the BBC, illustrations show the Moche engaged in brutal bouts of ritualized combat that ended with the losers being sacrificed.

    The priestess discovered in Chepén was buried with child and adult human sacrifices, AFP reports. She joins the list of several other priestesses who have been found in northern Peru in the past few years.

    "This find makes it clear that women didn't just run rituals in this area but governed here and were queens of Mochica society," project director Luis Jaime Castillo told AFP. "It is the eighth priestess to be discovered. Our excavations have only turned up tombs with women, never men."

    Arguably the most important of these was an elaborately-tattooed female mummy discovered in a burial chamber filled with treasure and weapons. Announced to the public in 2006, the Moche mummy was later dubbed the "Lady of Cao" and is believed to have been a leader of the civilization between 1,700 and 1,600 years ago before dying in childbirth, according to the site Living in Peru. At the time, archaeologists said the discovery of the Lady of Cao was similar in significance to the discovery of King Tut's tomb in Egypt, according to National Geographic.

    Archaeology student makes an unusual find at a Peruvian dig

    Credit: Harvard Gazette

    Caroline Coolidge was stunned.

    The rising second-year was digging at the archaeology field school in San José de Moro, Peru, and there in the dusty dirt a small face stared up at her. She thought her eyes were playing tricks on her.

    "I honestly at first just thought I was imagining it because I just wanted to find something so bad," said Coolidge, a Leverett House resident who is taking part in the summer archaeology program run by Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Perú in collaboration with the Harvard Summer School Study Abroad Program. "I thought, "This can't be this intact piece of pottery." But I just kept brushing away. I was honestly speechless when I saw what it was."

    It turned out to be truly special.

    Earlier in the week students had unearthed fragments of ceramic vessels, a typical find at one of the oldest ceremonial burial grounds for the Moche, a pre-Columbian civilization that flourished along Peru's northern coast between the first and eighth century A.D. But Coolidge had come up empty. "I hadn't really found anything where I had been working," she said. "I was excited but feeling a little bit discouraged because I wondered if I was doing this wrong."

    Caroline Coolidge displays the figurine she unearthed at the archeology site in Peru. Credit: Harvard Gazette

    Determined, she kept at it, using her trowel to methodically clear away dirt in the site's northwest corner. Then, as she brushed the dried soil from what she thought was a rock, she slowly uncovered a fully intact figurine, likely from the transitional period between the Moche and Lambayeque cultures and approximately 1,000 years old. In addition to its pristine condition, what made Coolidge's discovery so unusual was the absence of other objects nearby. "Typically, this type of artifact would be included in a burial," she said, "but there were no burials found near it."

    Studying the cultural heritage of some of Peru's earliest civilizations is at the heart of the field school run by Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, a visiting professor at Harvard in 2016 and professor of archaeology at Pontifícia Universidad Católica, who was recently named Peru's minister of culture, and by Gary Urton, Harvard's Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies. During the five-week program participants visit Peruvian archaeological sites and museums and learn the fundamentals of archaeological documentation and analysis. They also learn how to excavate, uncovering funerary relics and other items that point to how groups such as the Moche celebrated life and death, and how and why they flourished or failed.

    "We are trying to understand another culture by looking at their material remains," said Urton, whose research focuses on pre-Columbian and early colonial Andean cultural and intellectual history. "All of these Peruvian civilizations did not have writing so we don't have their own words … what we do have is what they lived with, what they made, what they used in their day-to-day lives. So what we try to do then with the students is have this balance between the real physical excitement of working in the field and the intellectual challenge of thinking about what it all means."

    Coolidge is eager to find out more about what her figurine might mean—archaeologists at the site suspect it may have been used as a fertility offering. Urton called it "an extraordinary piece" and "one of the most complete and beautiful figurines we have brought up from here in several years." Coolidge plans to write about the artifact for her final class project and will study its composition and compare it with similar finds at the site in recent years, she said, to determine "its cultural significance and where it fits within the region's chronology."

    On a Skype call after a long day of digging, Coolidge said the experience had helped her hone her academic focus. She said she intends to either concentrate in archaeology or make it a secondary field of study during her time at Harvard.

    "I knew it was going to be amazing," she said. "But I didn't realize it was going to be this amazing."

    Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt

    Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh, tried to keep her kingdom independent of Rome. After the death of Julius Caesar, she teamed up with Marc Antony (who was also her lover and father of three of her children) to keep Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and heir, from expanding his rule into Egypt. Quite the soap opera, yes? In the end, she was unsuccessful. When Octavian prevailed, Antony committed suicide. Shortly after, whether in grief over the loss of her lover (the more romantic version) or to avoid the humiliation of defeat and the ensuing slavery (the more likely version) Cleopatra killed herself — by the bite of an asp, according to Plutarch.

    Roman historian Cassius Dio tells us that Octavian (who would soon become Augustus Caesar), with the graciousness of a victor, ordered Cleopatra buried beside her lover. But where? Alexandria, presumably, but therein lies a problem of which you are already aware. A tsunami, earthquakes and rising sea levels have devastated the Alexandrian coastline over the years. The area where the queen and her consort were most likely buried is now under water.

    A team of archaeologists working in Taposiris Magna, a city about 30 miles west of Alexandria, have suggested that the queen’s mausoleum might be found there. But there’s little evidence to support the claim. Glenn Godenho, an egyptologist at the University of Liverpool, says the evidence linking Cleopatra to the site is limited to coins imprinted with her image. This only confirms that the place was used during her reign, not that she had any personal connection with the location. The tomb of Egypt’s tragic queen is likely to remain a mystery.

    Inside the untouched tomb of Peru’s ancient Wari royals

    For archeologists, the unlooted Wari tomb at El Castillo de Huarmey in Peru was truly full of buried treasure.

    The untouched mausoleum contained not only gold jewelry and copper-alloy axes, but also mummified women believed to have been queens and a painted flask that tells of a Wari lord traveling by raft.

    The June issue of National Geographic offers a peek into the chambers and artifacts that are helping scholars and archeologists pieces together the history of the mysterious people who established an empire in the Andes centuries before the Incas.

    A team of Polish and Peruvian archeologists lead by Milosz Giersz announced the discovery of the royal tomb in June 2013.

    They had actually found it a few months earlier but kept their revolutionary find under wraps out of fear that modern day looters would descend upon the at-least-1,000-year-old temple.

    El Castillo de Huarmey, which is located about 185 miles north of Lima, had already been hit by grave robbers who tunneled into the hillside.

    However, they missed the regal burial chambers that were filled with the remains of well-to-do Wari women and their attendants, as well as those of human sacrifices.

    Little is known about the ancient Wari civilization. Archeologists believe they started their rise to power in the seventh century A.D., and built the first Andean empire between 700 and 1000 A.D.

    They had no known writing system and left no records, so the discoveries at El Castillo are helping paint a clearer picture of the way the Wari expanded and ruled their empire.

    Giersz told National Geographic that he believes the Wari built the temple and tombs at El Castillo because they had conquered this northern region — which was about 500 miles away from the empire's capital city of Huari — and were planning on staying.


    'Women were categorised as priestesses to lower their status - not as a person who had power to participate in their people's political, economic and social activities, able to decide and make alliances with Moche rulers,' she told AFP.

    'There is a discriminatory interpretation by researchers regarding women in ancient Peru which obscures the power of these women.

    'Women were invisible in history, and what my book does is propose restoring the memory of the real life of these women. That's why this is more than just a claim.'

    The book, published by San Martin de Porres University in Lima, is the result of 10 years of research into the clothing, body art and burial rituals of ancient Peruvians.

    The Lady of Cao (pictured) who governed a part of northern Peru in the 4th century during the Moche culture, was originally labelled a priestess despite being buried with a sceptre similar to that found at the tomb of Peru's best known male leader the Lord of Sipan

    Traditional books of Peruvian history have said that women were absent when governing decisions were made, but her research shows the opposite, she said.

    Ms Villavicencio said lineage was a principal criterion for assuming power.

    There were also four areas in which power was attributed to individuals: Miracle-working, reproduction, textile-making, and supplying food.


    The Moche Civilisation lived on the Northern coast of what is now Peru between 50 AD and 700 AD.

    The name comes from a site in a valley of the same name which was the central city for the Moche people.

    The Moche are known for their elaborate pottery and jewellery as well as for pioneering early metal working skills.

    Until the discovery of the Lord of Sipán's tomb in 1979, the best known remains of the Moche civilisation were two large structures - the Temple of the Sun (pictured) and the Temple of the Moon - near Trujillo

    What's more, they built numerous large pyramids, some of which still dominate Peru's landscape.

    Evidence suggests that the Moche people engaged in a form of ritual combat, followed by human sacrifice.

    Until the discovery of the Lord of Sipán's tomb in 1979, the best known remains of the civilisation were two large structures - the Temple of the Sun (Huaca del Sol) and the Temple of the Moon (Huaca de la Luna) - near Trujillo.

    The reasons for the collapse of the Moche culture are unknown, but experts have suggested prolonged drought, earthquakes, or extreme flooding from the El Niño phenomenon may have been to blame.

    Some experts suggest a civil war may have been the cause of their downfall.

    Women's 'power to heal, to summon the weather through knowledge, to show the path of life and death made them leaders,' she said.

    An important symbol was the tattoo.

    'For example, the Lady of Cao had serpents tattooed on her arm, which signified she able to summon water from the rivers and possibly predict the weather,' she said.

    The village of San Jose de Moro, where the female remains pictured were found, is a cemetery of the Mochica elite, with the most impressive tombs belonging to women. Historian Maritza Villavicencio suggests sexist attitudes mean female rulers don't get the credit they deserve

    There are also sanctuaries in which the remains of elite women have been discovered, such as at a site in the Lima neighborhood of Miraflores called Pucllana, or a nearby site in San Isidro.

    The San Isidro site, Huallamarca, in 1958 yielded funeral remains of around 100 people, 73 of whom were elite-level women, among the Lady of the Long Hair - or la Dama de los Cabellos Largos.

    The buried remains of men were also found, but they were of lower rank.

    Archaeologists have also dug up much evidence of textile making. Ms Villavicencio said that cloth mantles were believed to confer power to women in ancient Peru.

    In 1987, archaeologists discovered what came to be known as the Lord of Sipan (pictured), near the modern day city of Trujillo. The man was buried with golden eye and teeth coverings

    Peru's powerful female monarchs have largely been written off by historians as minor players within their tribal hierarchy despite evidence to the contrary, she said.

    The first Peruvian mummy of a high-status woman was discovered in 1992 at an archaeological site in San Jose del Moro, home to the people of the Late Sican period who lived there between the 12th and 14th centuries.

    The figure had long been considered a high priestess, though she was buried wearing the clothes of a ruler.

    From 2013, experts began to call the woman - who was buried alongside eight other elite noblewomen - the 'Senora (Lady) of Chornancap', Ms Villavicencio said.

    According to Ms Villavicencio, nobody called the Lord of Sipan (reconstruction pictured) a 'priest' when he was discovered. She said: 'Everybody called him a great lord, the Moche monarch, and a museum was built for him'

    In 1987, archaeologists discovered what came to be known as the Lord of Sipan, near the modern day city of Trujillo.

    'Nobody called him a "priest." Everybody called him a great lord, the Moche monarch, and a museum was built for him,' Ms Villavicencio said.

    A separate Peruvian find, a woman known as the Lady of Cao who governed in the 4th century during the Moche culture, was also originally labelled a priestess despite being buried with a sceptre similar to that found at the Lord of Sipan's tomb.

    After further study, the Lady of Cao was considered a ruler, and today she has a museum in her honour.

    'There is a biased view when it comes to women, a male-centric vision that puts men at the center of everything in Peru's history,' Ms Villavicencio said.

    Tomb of Maya Queen Found—"Lady Snake Lord" Ruled Centipede Kingdom

    Body buried with offerings that point to powerful seventh-century ruler.

    The suspected tomb and remains of a great Maya warrior queen have been discovered in Guatemala, archaeologists say.

    Uncovered at the site of the ancient city of El Perú-Waka', the tomb has been identified as likely belonging to Lady K'abel, military ruler of the Wak, or "Centipede," kingdom between A.D. 672 and 692.

    The tomb was found this year in the ruins of the city's main pyramid temple during excavations led by archaeologist David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis.

    The body inside was buried with various offerings, including ceramic vessels, jade jewelry, stone figurines, and, crucially, a small alabaster jar carved in the shape of a conch shell, out of which the carved head and arms of an old woman emerge.

    Maya hieroglyphs on the back of the jar include the names "Lady Water Lily Hand" and "Lady Snake Lord," according to the study team.

    Both names are thought to refer to Lady K'abel, who governed the Wak kingdom for her family, the empire-building Kan, or "Snake," dynasty, based in the Maya capital Calakmul in what's now Mexico.

    While Lady K'abel ruled with her husband, K'inich Bahlam, her title of Kaloomte, or "supreme warrior," gave her higher authority than the king.

    "Fair Chance" It's Maya Queen

    Though the skeleton's poor condition has made the individual's age and gender difficult to determine, the skull's robust facial features fit with ancient carved portraits of the stern-looking Maya queen, the study team said.

    A red spiny oyster shell placed on the body's lower torso also points to the tomb being hers: The queens of El Perú-Waka' typically wore such shells as girdle ornaments, the team noted.

    David Stuart, a professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, said it's difficult to identify "who's who in royal tombs, unless they literally write it on the wall or something."

    Nevertheless, "for this find, I think there's a fair chance it's her," added Stuart, who wasn't involved in the study.

    While it's possible that the alabaster jar was a gift from Lady K'abel that ended up in another's tomb, the interpretation of its hieroglyphs are "spot on," Stuart said.

    Matching the names given to the queen in other Maya inscriptions, the hieroglyphs leave "no question it's the same woman" being referred to, he said.

    Warrior Queen's Tomb Revered by Maya

    The Snake dynasty had a policy of marrying off its princesses and noblewomen to kings of vassal states like the Wak kingdom, Stuart explained.

    Women such as Lady K'abel were "the family connection to the great city to the north"—Calakmul, he added. (Explore an interactive map of key Maya sites.)

    "They would show them on the monuments, and it would be part of the political symbolism of these local subject states."

    El Perú-Waka', which covered about 1 square kilometer (0.4 square mile), was made up of temple pyramids, public plazas, palaces, and homes.

    Hidden today beneath tropical rain forest, the once impressive buildings have been reduced to rubble mounds over the centuries. (Read about another Maya royal tomb found in Guatemala in 2006.)

    The newfound royal tomb could explain why the Maya city remained a focus of reverence and ritual attention long after the collapse of the Wak kingdom.

    The study team writes: "It is now clear to us that the golden age of the city, and the great queen and her husband who presided over it, were remembered and celebrated by ordinary people with their humble offerings and hopes for renewal of the future."

    Archaeologists Discover Mummified Women, Human Sacrifices In Peruvian Royal Tomb

    In this undated photo released by the National Geographic Society, remains of those interred in a mausoleum at El Castillo funerary complex lay exactly where Wari attendants left them some 1,200 years ago, in Huarmey, Peru. Archaeologist Krzysztof Makowski Hanula, the projectâs scientific adviser, believes the newly discovered imperial tomb is where all the Wari nobles of the region were buried. The Wari forged South Americaâs earliest empire between A.D. 700 and 1000. (AP Photo/National Geographic Society, Milosz Giersz, ) (AP2012)

    This undated photo released by the National Geographic Society shows a pair of gold-and-silver ear ornaments that archaeologists believe a high-ranking Wari woman wore to her grave, the imperial tomb at El Castillo funerary complex, where they also discovered the remains of 63 individuals, including three Wari queens in Huarmey, Peru. A team of Polish and Peruvian archaeologists lifted more than 30 tons of crushed stone to find a pre-Inca royal tomb containing 63 mummies belonging to the ancient Wari culture, accompanied by an impressive wardrobe of 1,200 gold ornamental pieces, silver and ceramics. The Wari forged South Americas earliest empire between A.D. 700 and 1000. (AP Photo/National Geographic Society, Daniel Giannoni) (AP2013)

    In this undated photo released by the National Geographic Society, a Wari lord painted with eyes wide open, stares out from the side of a 1,200-year-old ceramic flask found in a newly discovered tomb at El Castillo funerary complex, Huarmey, Peru. A team of Polish and Peruvian archaeologists lifted more than 30 tons of crushed stone to find a pre-Inca royal tomb containing 63 mummies belonging to the ancient Wari culture, accompanied by an impressive wardrobe of 1,200 gold ornamental pieces, silver and ceramics. The Wari forged South Americas earliest empire between A.D. 700 and 1000. (AP Photo/National Geographic Society, Daniel Giannoni)

    Archaeologists digging in Peru unearthed a royal tomb containing an impressive treasure trove and mummified women dating back to about 1,200 years ago.

    The discovery was made at a dig site north of Lima and is believed to be the location of what was once part of the Wari empire, the society that ruled the Andes before the eventual rise of the better known Inca civilization.

    “We have found for the first time in Peruvian archaeological history, an imperial tomb of the Wari culture," co-director of the project Milosz Giersz said, according to the BBC. "The contents of the chamber consisted of 63 human bodies, most of them women, wrapped in funerary bundles buried in the typical seated position, a native Wari pattern."

    The Wari ruled much of what is today Peru’s central highlands from around 600AD to 1100AD. Not much is known about the society that was eventually taken over by the Incan empire and there is heated debate over whether or not the Wari actually can be considered an empire.

    Some scholars claim that the people were just a loose economic network of Wari centers, while others claim the Wari had a complex empire, noting its construction of an extensive network of roadways linking provincial cities and the construction of complex, characteristic architecture in its major centers as proof.

    Archaeologists at the site in Peru found more than 60 skeletons inside the royal chamber, including three purported Wari queens bedecked in gold and silver jewelry and surrounded by ceramics. Some of the mummies were discovered sitting upright, which indicates royalty.

    Six other bodies were found in odd positions that scientists said indicate that they were human sacrifices.

    "They were people thrown into the grave before the grave was sealed," bioarchaeologist Wieslaw Wieckowski said, according to Reuters. "They were lying on their bellies, in an extended position and their limbs went in different directions."

    The archaeologists also indicated that they had kept their work quiet because they feared theft or damage of the site from grave robbers and treasure hunters.