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Thirty years after they were first glimpsed, murals reveal a vibrant life in ancient Peru

Paintings of the semi-mythical ruler Naymlap

Paintings of the semi-mythical ruler Naymlap emerge from behind an adobe brick wall at the site of Úcupe in northern Peru. Other paintings show scenes from a celebration. The murals are providing surprising insights about royal life in northern Peru 1,100 years ago. The depictions of elaborately costumed nobles, musicians, and acrobats are a wild departure from the usually staid artwork of the Lambayeque culture.
(Courtesy Bruno Alva Meneses)

In 1983, husband and wife archaeology team Walter Alva and Susana Meneses led a research team to a small town in northern Peru called Úcupe. There they excavated an ancient mound that contained the remains of a building that may have been an elite residence or a ceremonial center. Sealed within the building's crumbling adobe brick walls were partially exposed murals that seemed to be made by the Lambeyeque culture, which lasted from the ninth to the eleventh century A.D. With their field season ending, Alva and Meneses reburied the paintings to protect them from the weather and potential looters. The archaeologists intended to return and finish the excavations, but severe El Niños, the discovery of the now-famous royal tombs of Sipán, and Meneses' unfortunate death in 2002 delayed fieldwork until this year. A team led by Alva and the couple's son Bruno has now exposed about 400 square feet of murals. The paintings' vibrant colors suggest that they were covered by the adobe brick wall shortly after they were completed around A.D. 900.

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Roger Atwood is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.