At midnight, on February 25th, 1987, Dr. Walter Alva, Director of the Bruning Museum, in Peru, was awakened by a phone call. On the other end of the line was the Peruvian Investigative Police (PIP) from the city of Chiclayo. The chief of police wanted Alva to come and examine a sack full of what they believed to be artifacts stolen from a local archaeological site: the smallest of an eroded and ancient set of three pyramids called Huaca Rajada.
Alva, sick with bronchitis for three days, was at first reluctant to make the drive to the station. The Police often detained suspected antiquities thieves, or huaqueros as they were called, with little reason. Undoubtedly, Alva thought, the items the police had seized were of minor importance and not worth a midnight ride. Still, the chief was insistent and Alva finally agreed to go.
By the time he arrived at the PIP station the archaeologist was sure the whole thing was a hoax. The police had been told that the artifacts came from an ancient tomb of a mysterious people known as the Moche that lived on was is now the north coast of Peru between 100 BC and 700 AD. Alva knew that the Huaca Rajada pyramids were of Chimu origin. The Chimu civilizaion came after the Moche.
The police chief handed Alva a package which he opened. The archaeologist was shocked. He had expected a piece of pottery. Inside was a human mask made of hammered gold. The eyes were of silver and had pupils made of rare cobalt blue stones. Even more surprising than the object itself was its origin. The style was definitely Moche. Alva and many other archaeologists had been wrong about the pyramids.
The raiding of the site at Huaca Rajada had started several weeks before. A local 36 year-old huaqueros named Ernil Bernal had led a small group of looters to the pyramids. Jobs in the village of Sipan, near the pyramids were scarce and the poverty oppressive. For generations the huaqueros had been looting archaeological locations hoping to find a few gold beads or rare ceramics to sell. That night at Huaca Rajada Ernil and his crew hit the jackpot.
They had tunneled into the pyramid for some distance, but not found anything of value. Then Ernil noticed that the tunnel roof looked strange, as if it had been patched. Taking a long rod he jammed it into the patch to find out what was behind it. Unexpectedly the ceiling collapsed and Ernil was buried in a cave-in. When his brother came to his rescue he found Ernil up to his neck in material from a hidden chamber above: the looter was covered with a king's ransom of gold, silver and precious stones. They had found the crypt of an ancient Moche Lord.
The raiders packed up the treasure-trove in sacks. Before they even left the tunnels, though, the thieves turned against each other and one was shot dead. Another, deprived of his share of the loot, ran to the police. Several days later the police raided Ernil's house finding the death mask and several other smaller items. Most of the treasure was already on its way through the underground market to illegal private collections and museums in the United States and around the world. It was the leftovers found at the house that had been shown to Dr. Alva.
The police drove Dr. Alva out to Huaca Rajada. The pyramids were now swarming with huaqueros drawn by the stories of treasure. It took bursts of automatic gunfire in the air to scare them off.
Dr. Alva now had a choice to make. Common sense argued that he should just fill up the tunnels and hope no more damage would be done to the pyramid until a full excavation could be organized and funded someday in some distant future. Or, Alva could start excavation immediately. If he made the second choice he would have to proceed with no money, little police support and no official permission.
The archaeologist knew the pyramid might contain more Moche burial chambers. If it did they were probably filled with artifacts that would finally unlock the mystery of the ancient Moche people. If the looters came back and raided the tombs, the secrets only a careful scientific excavation would yield would be gone forever. Alva decided to start digging.
Tensions were high at Huaca Rajada when the excavation began. The original looter, Ernil Bernal, had been killed in a confrontation with police. The villagers from Sipan grew increasingly hostile toward Alva. Many of them viewed the artifacts as an inheritance from their ancestors that belonged to them, not the archaeologist or his museum.
Alva managed to get some money together and hire a few of the villagers to help in the excavation, but the police could only spare two men to stand guard. The archaeologist proceeded carefully with the dig, slowly peeling off layer after layer of brick, soil and sand. Then they found a body. From the trappings buried with the man, he appeared to be a Moche warrior. Alva wondered if he had been interned there to "guard" something further down.
After removing the body they continued digging and soon came to the rotting roof of what had been a chamber. Sand and soil sifting through the ceiling had long ago filled the room. Alva's crew dug slowly through the chamber until they found a box with copper straps: a lord's coffin. They had found a royal Moche tomb that had never been opened.
The coffin contained the body of a Moche Lord (depicted in Moche art, left) along with his burial treasures which included a one-pound crescent-shaped headdress of hammered gold, a gold death mask, and a necklace composed of sixteen gold discs. The find was of incalculable importance.
Outside the site, which now looked like a armed camp, the villagers gathered and shouted that they wanted their "ancestor's inheritance." The police, in fear, launched tear gas. Tension mounted even more. No help was coming and it seemed as if Alva's men could hold out only one more night before those gathered around the pyramid would overrun it, assaulting the digging crew, and plundering the royal tomb.
The next morning Dr. Alva went to the edge of the dig and confronted one of the leaders of those gathered outside, a man named Alberto Jaime. He told Jaime that his "inheritance" was waiting on the top of the pyramid and he should go and get it before anybody stole it from him. Then Alva clipped the barb wire fence around the dig, grabbed Jaime by the collar and dragged him to the excavated tomb. In astonishment the rest of the villagers followed. Alva thrust a shovel into Jaime's hands and dared him to steal from his ancestors and sack "his father's sacred tomb." Jaime, speechless, did nothing.
Dr. Alva then turned to the villagers and told them that once a great King of the Moche civilization had made his headquarters in their village. When the king died his people dressed him in gold. "Nothing less was good enough for the exalted Lord of Sipan," Alva explained.
The villagers suddenly saw the tomb not as a vault of gold, but the shrine of an esteemed ancestor. From that point on the tomb was secure. Not just a few archaeologists experienced the wonder of the discovery, but thousands of visitors made the pilgrimage to see the "magic" of the Moche Lord who had been entombed in a golden uniform.
Before the excavation of Huaca Rajada was over, the tomb of another Lord of Sipan, and a tomb of a High Priest were discovered in the pyramid. Much was learned about these mysterious ancient people who were capable of creating beautiful ceramic and gold artwork, but also were capable of harsh, ritualized violence. Much of the artwork found depicted the Moche human sacrifice ceremony.
The pyramid is now a tourist attraction that has boosted the economy of Sipan. As for Alberto Jaime, the leader of the mob that almost plundered the tomb, he now works as a tour guide.