Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chiclayo’s Pyramid Heritage

Even though one of my passions here in the Lambayeque region is exploring the many historical sites, I haven’t written about any of them except in passing while talking about mountain climbing. I’ve avoided it because for many people history and archeology are subjects to snooze by. But the thing is, we’ve covered a lot of ground these past 4 months and it feels like it wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t at least touch on the literally hundreds of physical reminders of Chiclayo’s past, located within minutes of the city.

Almost all of the ‘reminders’ I’m referring to are the remains of adobe pyramids. It’s nearly impossible when riding on the outskirts of the city to view the horizon and not see 2 or 3 of them, once you know what you’re looking for. Most of them were built during the Moche culture generally dated from A.D. 100 to 800. Take a look at this photo. Would you recognize the formation as a pyramid? It is, and it’s part of the Tùcume complex of 26 major pyramids in the Lambayeque Valley. Centuries ago it would have been easily recognizable as an impressive step pyramid. Today it looks like a mud hill. It was probably given a cursory look-see by archeologists, but I’ll guarantee it has never been thoroughly explored except by looters. It’s entirely possible the adobe bricks used to construct the homes in the photo came from that pyramid. Peru does not have the money to excavate and protect all of these sites. There are so many of them I doubt if any country could do that. The policy is to excavate and protect the major sites, and let the others disintegrate. I’m not going to go into any detail about the site. If you’re interested in further reading, doing a Google on Tùcume will get you more than you want. The same holds true for the site names that follow.

Collud and Ventarròn are lesser known sites but each has a fairly recent claim to fame. A 1500 year old mummy of a young woman was found at Collud about 5 years ago. She was found in the pyramid in this photo. It saddens me to think that at the time she was buried there was probably an impressive ceremony and this pyramid was a shrine. Now it’s a garbage heap. In the distance to the left are more pyramids.

Less than 50 yards from the mummy pyramid is this temple excavation. Work was stopped last year due to lack of money. There is a security guard on site to protect it from looters. Whether work will resume some day, or the site will slowly fade away is anybody’s guess. The protective covering that covered the steps has already badly disintegrated.

What looks like a lunar landscape in this photo is actually the work of looters. Nearly every site we’ve seen has suffered this same desecration or worse. When I first learned of the extent of looting and resultant destruction to these sites my thought was to ‘shoot on sight’ but I’ve since tempered my view after meeting several of the people responsible. Most of them are just ordinary people trying to earn a few extra dollars. Looting is not their full time occupation. It’s not a large scale, organized operation, instead it’s something they occasionally do, hoping to find something a tourist will buy. I don’t condone it, but I understand it. The ‘mummy’ pyramid is center in the distance. The larger pyramid to its left has a small chapel on top.

Ventarròn is only a 10 minute moto ride from Collud, but is getting attention unlike anything since the discovery of Señor Sipan. During excavation in 2006 the oldest documented temple and mural in the Americas, estimated at 4000 years old, were discovered in an obscure pyramid. To put that time frame in perspective, Egypt’s Ramses the Great would not be born for another 700 years – Plato and Socrates 1600 years later. When we visited the site some months ago there was an American architect leading the effort to excavate, protect and eventually construct a museum on the site. Looters had visited this area many times over the centuries. It was pure luck they missed the mural.

It is only in the last two years that serious measures were and are now being taken to conserve the tomb of Señor Sipan. Everyone is familiar with the riches discovered in the tomb of Egypt’s King Tut. Almost no one has heard of Señor Sipan or is aware that, in terms of gold, it was the second richest discovery ever. The treasure and other artifacts are ’supposedly’ on display in a museum in the city of Lambayeque. I say supposedly because Peruvians tell a different story. According to them the treasure was on a world tour exhibition and when it reached the United States was kept by them in partial payment for the debt owed by Peru. I’ve heard this story repeatedly. It is never told with rancor or indignation, but instead with a resigned sadness. Though I don't believe the story, I do know that Peru has filed suit against Yale University for the return of artifacts, but the objects in question came from the Machu Picchu area far to the south and have nothing to do with the Señor Sipan treasure.

All of the above mentioned sites are less than 45 minutes from our apartment. One of my most enjoyable activities is to pick out a pyramid I haven’t been to and spend the day walking in the area trying to envision what it looked like. There’s never anybody else there. It’s a good place to sit down, pick up a pottery shard, and think about who these people were.


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