Wari Mortuary Practices in Peru: New and Old

Nine tombs from Peru were recently discovered, and have been heralded as being as important to archaeology as the discovery of Machu Picchu. The tombs are part of the Wari culture, a pre-Incan civilization, found in the highlands of the Cuzco region of Peru. The Wari inhabited Peru from 700 to 1200 CE throughout the coast and highlands of Peru. There is very little information being released about the actual details of the excavation. We know that there were around 362 artefacts already found, including a large silver breastplate that may signify nobility. Other artifacts include a silver mask, gold bracelets, silver-coated walking sticks and feline figurines.

Prior to this, Wari mortuary practices had been extensively studied by Isbell in 2004. In order to understand their mortuary preferences, he studied the burials of 200 individuals from the city of Conchopata. The city was primarily occupied by the upper class, evidenced by a high presence of palatial structures, and their lower class servants. The mortuary sample includes a range of social classes, sexes, ages, and were in varying states of disturbance due to looting.

Isbell identified seven types of burials that occurred during Wari civilization. The first types consisted of individual internment within a small unmarked pit grave. The individual may have a stone slab or two placed over their body. The position of the body varies, but was tightly flexed in most cases. The only artifacts within the graves found were rope and textile, probably used to bind the body. These are found primarily within domestic residences. The second type of burial is similar to the first, but includes multiple individuals.

Isbell 2004 Burials 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7

Isbell 2004 Burials 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7

The third type of burial consisted of internment in a cist, a stone lined circular pit capped with clay. These are rarely found, and have been subject to a high frequency of looting. Notches were found in some of the lids suggesting a way for living descendants to continue to make offerings to the dead. Isbell interpreted this type as being a slightly more lavish type of burial than the first two. These cists have been found within domestic structures, open areas, and cemeteries.

The fourth type of burial consists of a large cavity dug out of the bedrock which was marked on the surface by a stone bench like structure. The shape of the actual tomb is highly variable, determined more by the bedrock than personal preference. These types of burials include multiple individuals, and usually contain a number of offerings found in jars. Other artifacts such as wooden bows and luxury objects like turquoise have been found. These are found in large residential areas.

Isbell 2004 Burial 5

The fifth burial type is a combination of all prior types, but found all within one mortuary room. These rooms can contain a combination of pit burials, cists and bedrock tombs. They are sealed with notched lids, and some of these mortuary rooms contain the remains of altars for offerings to the ancestors. The sixth type is similar to the pit grave, except that the tomb is within of the large walls of the structure. The seventh type of burial is a communal or sacrificial mass grave. Only one of these was found, and consisted of a mound over the remains of five young females. Isbell identifies a final eighth type of burial, the royal internments. These were complex subterranean burials that had a number of stone lined rooms and floors to them. Little is known about this type of structure since the only ones found have been severely looted.

Based on this overview of different burial types, Isbell argues that the Wari had a deep respect for the dead, and practiced a prolonged form of ancestor worship. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of burial types were the fifth type, a mortuary room, and had altars and lids with holes for continued offerings. The linking of the living landscape with the dead landscape may show a correlation of the social status of the living as dependent their ancestral line. Isbell notes that this is only a preliminary study of the dead, and that future analysis will benefit greatly from the finding of more tombs that are undisturbed.

As more information about the new tombs is released, it will be interesting to see how they fit into Isbell’s analysis of mortuary structures. If the archaeologists are correct in their assertion that royals have been found, this new information may be able to give us information on the eighth burial type for which Isbell lacked undisturbed information.

Works Cited

Clark. 2011. Peruvian tomb discovery deemed ‘as important as Machu Picchu’. In Wired UK. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-02/28/wari-tombs-peru-machu-picchu

Isbell. 2004. Mortuary Preferences: A Wari Culture Case Study from Middle Horizon Peru. In Latin American Antiquity 15(1): 3-32.

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