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Best known for the over-the-top jewelry their rulers wore to their own funerals, the Moche of northern Peru (A.D. 100-800) are also the subject of intense debate over how they governed themselves. Were the Moche a collection of squabbling city-states, each in its own valley, or was there a central authority?


(Courtesy Steve Bourget)

A discovery in the village of Úcupe suggests the answer might be closer to the latter. Archaeologists found an array of gilded copper masks, shields, and diadems in the tomb of a local lord that strongly resemble those excavated in elite tombs up to 25 miles away. Since the tombs are all in different valleys, the discovery suggests a unified political order. "These guys were not independent," says dig director Steve Bourget of the University of Texas. "I'm totally convinced there was a Moche state that spread its ideology and culture from south to north." He notes there is a striking similarity between the discovery and the elaborate Moche burials 12 miles north of Úcupe known as the Tombs of Sipán. "You could take the whole tomb and put it in Sipán and no one would be able to tell the difference," says Bourget. He thinks Úcupe was a satellite of Sipán, where the first unlooted tombs of a Moche dynasty were discovered in 1987. Both tombs date to around A.D. 450.

The find also marks a victory of sorts against looters. Grave robbers in the 1950s seem to have struck a tomb nearby and eventually would have found the Lord of Úcupe too, if not for local residents that keep a close eye on the site ( "Guardians of the Dead," January/February 2003). "It's not an easy place to loot," says Bourget.

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