A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How one family nearly destroyed the remnants of one of Peru's most opulent civilizations, and how archaeologists are saving it.
A mask and headdress covered the head of the Lord of Sicán, whom Shimada believes was the earthly incarnation of the culture's deity. (Y. Yoshii/PAS)
In its day, the pyramid now known as Waka Loro must have been a mighty sight. The mud-brick monument towered 90 feet over a broad plaza that served as the religious and political nerve-center of a civilization known as Sicán that lasted from A.D. 800 to 1375 in northern Peru. The elite gathered here for feasts and ceremonies, and were buried with golden treasures and retinues of attendants in tombs beneath the pyramid.
By 1991, when archaeologist Izumi Shimada excavated at the base of Waka Loro, the capital of Sicán was not exactly a pristine archaeological site. Bulldozers, rolled in by the Aurich family—wealthy ranchers who had owned the complex and looted it pitilessly—had stripped away the lower levels of the pyramid years before. A series of El Niño rains in the early 1980s had eroded it almost beyond recognition. It was in this condition that Shimada and his team found the site when they came to recover the remains.
Their findings confirmed Sicán as one of the glitziest cultures of ancient Peru. Sicán, with its capital near the modern village of Batán Grande, was thought to be a centralized, relatively short-lived theocratic society with a fixation on precious metals. At the civilization's height, from A.D. 900 to 1100, its artisans produced gold and silver artifacts by the thousands and packed them into the tombs of their rulers.
Roger Atwood is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and author of Stealing History.