Archaeologists race tomb-raiders in Peru

The tranquil fishing town of Huarmey on Peru's coast, in Áncash region north of Lima, burst into the headlines this week with the discovery by an archaeological team of a burial chamber in a ruined temple, which yielded 60 sets of human remains, including three queens of the ancient Wari culture, interred along with a trove of gold, silver and brilliantly-painted ceramics. The site, known to locals as El Castillo de Huarmey, has been dubbed the "Temple of the Dead" by the research team, led by Milosz Giersz of Poland's University of Warsaw and Krzysztof Makowski of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. The Wari (Huari) empire ruled the central Andes between 700 and 1000 CE, centuries before the rise of the Incas. (RPP, El Comercio, BBC News, June 28; Peru21, USA Today, June 27) But a close reading of the coverage in Peru's press reveals that the excavations were conducted in secret to keep the site from being looted by huaqueros—the Peruvian word for tomb-raiders who engage in an illegal traffic in pre-Columbian relics. Huaqueros had even dug pozos, or shafts into the structure; the archaeologists were apparently in a race with the tomb-raiders to find the riches-filled chamber. (El Comercio, June 28)

It often falls to the peasant self-defense patrols (rondas campesinas) rather than the "official" authorities to intercept these outlaws in remote parts of the country. A week before the dramatic discovery at Huarmey, the local ronda at Chipe pueblo, Locumba district, Jorge Basadre province, in the southern region of Tacna, apprehended a band of men attempting to break in to a huaco, or ancient ceremonial site. The men were turned over to the area's National Police commissariat. (Correo, June 19)

But Huarmey is not remote—it is just a couple of hours straight up the Pan-American Highway from Lima. And the huaqueros were active there too, it seems. The Wikipedia page for El Castillo de Huarmey is already saying that the pyramidal site (not just the burial chamber) was "discovered in 2013 by a Peruvian-Polish research team, which was led by Milosz Giersz of Poland's University of Warsaw and funded by the National Geographic Society." This is assuredly not the case. The inhabitants of Huarmey have long known of the existence of the crumbling pyramid—presumably since the time of the Wari. This blogger visited Huarmey in 2009, and was taken to the Castillo by a local photographer. Artifacts literally littered the ground—scraps of cloth, shards of pottery, even human bones and part of a skull. (See photos below.) I was appalled that the authorities were evidently making no effort to secure the site, which is on the outskirts of town, surrounded by agricultural plots, and not even fenced off.

We recently noted the alarming case of a Maya pyramid bulldozed to make rubble for road-fill in the jungle of Belize—on the edge of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a so-called "protected area" in fact threatened by criminal gangs who deal in illegal timber. We may assume that archaeological relics are a significant sideline in their contraband commerce.

We salute Professor Giersz on his find, and hope that it will lead to El Castillo de Huarmey being preserved with the dignity it demands. But please spare us claims that he "discovered" the site. And how many other such huacos throughout Peru now remain unsecured, their priceless patrimony plundered by pirates for profit in a climate of impunity?

See our last post on the politics of archaeology.

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