Announced last week, a 1,200 year old Sican tomb has been discovered in the Lambayaque region of Peru. This region is found along the North coast. The excavation is part of a longer on-going Las Ventanas dig led by Carlos Elera to salvage the site from impeding flooding due to the building of a dam. Las Ventanas is a monumental mound site built by the Sican culture and represents an important religious and burial site. The team had earlier in the year found skeletal remains at the site. Now the entire burial context has been revealed. The human remains belong to a single individual who was seated on a litter. Elera noted that the litter in ancient Peruvian culture was a status symbol and sign of power for elites. Associated with this was a funerary bundle consisting of a copper crown with jaguar motifs, a mask with wing shaped eyes and other grave goods including pendants traditionally worn by the elite in that region, spearpoints and arrowheads. This is the second type of funeral bundle like this to be found in the area. The first was found in 1992 at the Oro site, and consisted of similar materials.
The Sican culture was found in Northwest Peru from 750 to 1375 CE. Little is known about the beginnings of the culture due to a lack of artifacts, and it is debated as to whether they replaced the Moche or are their descendants. They are most well known for their highly polished black finish ceramics and metalworking (primarily arsenical copper). Stylistically, there art and designs are an amalgamation of Moche and Wari: highly anthropomorphic, primarily avian or cosmological. Based on mortuary sites, it is inferred that they were a highly stratified society, with a number of levels of nobility.
A number of funerary sites have been found for the Sican culture, with diverse types of funerary practices likely representative of social differentiation.There are two primary indicators as discussed by Shimada et al. 2004 including the depth and location of burial, and the position of the body. Commoners had simple, shallow graves found at the periphery of mounds, and were not specially positioned, found either seated, extended, or flexed position. The elite were always found in deep shaft tombs beneath the mounds and were always buried in the seated position. Elite graves are also found with a high number of grave goods including copper, gold, ornaments, exotic pottery or bronze, whereas common graves usually only contained a single domestic grave good such as utilitarian pottery. Based on this information we can conclude that there is a marked difference in energy expenditure between elite and common graves supporting there difference. In distinguishing royalty, Shimada et al. 2004 note that they were often given a mask which related them to the Sican Deity, an avian god.
Using this information we have about the nature of Sican funerary rites, we can see that Elera’s conclusions about the Las Ventanas burial are fairly accurate. The depth of the tomb, evidenced from the excavation photos, the seated position, the number of burials, and the presence of an avian like mask support that the individual found last week was likely a royal, or at least an elite. It is always a good idea to check what the news says against the actual cultural data. Often the news can get carried away: terms like “probable elite” can turn into exaggerated statements about royalty, or jumping to conclusions about the meaning of artifacts (such as the recent Caligula tomb debacle). The majority of information on the Sican culture comes from 900 to 1100 CE, so if this site indeed dates to 800 CE, we may be able to learn more about earlier traditions and potential how the culture arose. Luckily for us, Elera has saved the site from flooding due to the construction of a new dam- so more information will likely be released in the future.
Shimada et al. 2004. “An Integrated Analysis of Pre-Hispanic Moruary Practices: A Middle Sican Case Study.” Current Archaeology, June 2004: p. 369-402.
Fox News. 2010. Royal tomb in Peru is 1,200 years old. http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/lifestyle/2011/01/20/royal-tomb-peru-years-old/