September 28th, 2016
Like the Egyptian pyramids, huacas (monumental structures) in Peru have been plagued by looters for centuries, and the eroded adobe pyramid built by the Moche before 300 A.D. in Huaca Rajada, near the town of Sipan, was no exception. It was looters, in fact, who first broke into the pyramid and struck literal gold. The archaeological gods were on the job that day, thankfully, and when the thieves got into a dispute over their loot, one of them squealed to the police.
The police called in archaeologist and Moche expert Walter Alva who excavated the site and discovered an elaborate royal burial. In the center of the tomb was the skeleton of a man about 5’4″ tall and 35 to 45 years old at the time of his death. His body was bedecked in precious ornaments — headdresses, face masks, ear rings, nose rings, a large pectoral, necklaces — and all around him were rich grave goods of gold, jewelry, pottery and much more, a total of 451 artifacts. Buried in the tomb with him were three women, two men, a child around nine or 10 years old, a dog and two llamas. The skeletal remains of one more man were found perched in a niche over the chamber roof. It was then and remains today the richest intact pre-Hispanic tomb ever found.
The central figure became known as the Lord of Sipan. The contents of the tomb were removed for study and conservation. They are now on display at the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Lambayeque. At the site of the adobe temples in Huaca Rajada, replicas of the Lord’s tomb and others found in the pyramids have been installed so visitors can see them in the open air.
A reconstruction of what the Lord of Sipan might have looked like adorned in all his finery is on view at the museum, but recently a new project was launched to use the latest technology to reexamine the remains and create a digital reconstruction of the Lord of Sipan’s visage. It was a tough challenge. The skull was discovered in 96 pieces, and museum staff had glued the fragments together supported by a plastic frame.
The study’s osteological analysis advanced the Lord’s age a decade (he was 45-55 years old when he died) and increased his height (he was a quarter inch shy of 5’6″). He was not very well muscled, which fits with his high status as he would not have been doing much in the way of heavy lifting. He had a few cavities, but nothing to write home about; overall his dental health was excellent. There was no sign of violence or trauma on his bones, just the beginnings of osteoarthritis in the spine, likely at the site of a long-ago injury in his youth.
Inca Garcilaso de la Vega University commissioned the Brazilian Team of Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Odontology to see if they could virtually take the skull apart and put it back together more accurately. They performed a high resolution 3D scan of the skull by photographing it from a variety of angles (photogrammetry). Those images were then entered into a software program that could unglue all the pieces and start over from the beginning. Using an average male skull as a template and with the input of a forensic dentist, the team was able to put the skull puzzle back together. The areas with missing pieces were filled in gray. Then the musculature and facial features with digitally constructed from the skull.
Walter Alva, who is still very much on the job as director of the Sipan Archaeological Project and of the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum (whose construction he championed with unmatched zeal), says of the facial reconstruction of the Lord of Sipan:
“This brings us closer and connects us especially to the current indigenous population. We see that the face of the Lord of Sipan is very similar to the Moches of Lambayeque who still survive to this day. The faces of the fishermen, the farmers of the region are direct descendants of this creative race.”
The digital reconstruction process is captured in this video: