Dr. Walter Alva puts his life on the line
to protect the lost treasures of the Moche.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
to Virtual Exploration Society
Copyright Lee Krystek
1997, 1999. All Rights Reserved.