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Raiders of the Lost Sandcastles

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Look, it's a huge sandcastle falling apart! Wait, no, it's the largest precolombian structure in North and South America!
The sand tickled my skin as it blew across the desert on the cool breeze. I stood alone, dropped at the end of the line by the "combi" minivan that serves as a bus for the people who live outside of Trujillo, Peru. In front of me loomed what appeared to be a huge sandcastle that was slowly being washed away by wind and rain. Instead, as I looked closer, I realized that it was made of millions, (around 140 million, to be slightly more exact) of adobe bricks.

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he Pyramid of the Sun
I have found my way to Huaca del Sol, which is the largest structure in South America built before Columbus set foot in the Americas. One side is flat, open desert, while the other is blooming in green. The pyramid is built next to the Moche River, which flows down from the Andes and makes this valley fertile.

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Chiclayo, Sipan, Lambayeque and Trujiullo Peru
After visiting the highly touristed Aztec and Mayan sites of Mexico and Guatemala, I was slightly confused. The only indication that this was a notable landmark was simply a sign marking the site as "Huaca del Sol y Huaca de la Luna." There was no marked entrance, so I walked, past the huaca, towards a huge whitish sand and rock mountain in the distance.

Hey, Those Aren't Arabs!

This is what old Moche houses look like from the hill above
As I got closer to the mountain, the Cerro Blanco, I noticed another massive "sandcastle" at its base, the Huaca de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon). I also noticed a few dozen people out in the middle of the flat desert, digging, measuring, and talking. Workers labored away in this desolate desert, hiding from the blowing sand beneath white scarves. It resembled a scene from "Raiders of the Lost Arc." The only difference is that instead of mistreated Arabs, this work was being done by archeology students from the University of La Libertad, in Trujillo (their professors didn't seem much like Nazi soldiers, either.) Hey! I think I chose the wrong major! I never had classes like this!

The Pyramid of the Moon was in better condition than that of the Sun. There was much excavation at this site. Anamaria, a graduate student in Archeology acted as my guide, and as we climbed up the pyramid, she told many tales of shamans, lines of energy, and human sacrifice! One such tale was about a local Shaman who years before excavations began, dreamt in quite accurate detail about the tombs, artwork, and artifacts that would be found. Another described how men, women, and young children were thrown off the steep, lifeless Cerro Blanco in an effort to appease the gods and bring fertility and prosperity.

The pyramids of the Sun and Moon began construction in the first century A.D. by people that archeologists call the "Moches." (Check out Kevin's article about them last week: "Graverobbers and Life After Death - My Visit to a Moche Lord's Tomb".) The Huaca del Sol has eight levels, whereas the Huaca de la Luna only has six. Each pyramid took over several hundred years to build, with a new level being added by each new dynasty. In between the two, on the plain where the students were excavating, lie what were the homes of the high level administrators and religious figures (or so they think).

Making Sense of Pots and Sacrifices

Archeology is really just like a giant brainteaser. Ancient cultures leave clues, like old buildings, graves, pottery, and trash piles, that modern day archeologists dig through and try to figure out how they lived, what they ate, and what their religions and governments were like. As far as we know, the Moche didn't have a written language. Instead, they left detailed paintings on fancy pottery that were used in rituals. One such painting depicted a woman in the fancy clothes who drank the blood of sacrifice victims from an ornate goblet (maybe she was a queen or a priestess?). Later, they actually found a tomb of a woman dressed like the painting and holding a goblet! Cool, eh?

Two of 42 sacrificed men
On the top layer of the temple, Anamaria pointed out where the sacrificed bodies of forty-two healthy young men had been found. Either the Moche women were really mad, or they had a big request for the god Aicpaec, the decapitator, whose picture is painted all over the walls inside the pyramid. Sacrifices in the pyramid were thought to serve the purpose of appeasing this mighty god who controlled the fertility of the surrounding lands. The archeologists knew that these men had been killed during a very rainy time due to the way the mud formed around them (geez, they figure out everything!).

El Nino

But wait! This is the desert, what rain? Well, remember "El Nino," that weird weather pattern that happens every seven years or so? The coast of Northern Peru has been gravely affected by "El Nino" throughout history. In 1982-83, it created such horrible flooding in this normally dry area that the damage is still visible. It wiped out roads and bridges and destroyed the crops. So, even though it rains very rarely here, when it does rain, it REALLY RAINS.

You can imagine how frightening it must have been for the Moches, living in this desert, when rains came so hard that their homes and fields were flooding. Their temple, which is made of adobe bricks, probably started melting, too. Clearly the horrible god Aicpaec was really angry. I wonder if the sacrifice of forty-two men was enough to calm him down?
The kind of frieze you can't find at Dairy Queen, only at the "Huanaco de la Luna"
The students were also excavating the top two inside layers of the temple. The walls had ornate carvings painted red, gold, white, and black. These carvings are called "friezes" (pronounced like "freezes," but it's not what you buy at Dairy Queen). They had stylized fishes, sea birds, and manta rays. The most prominent depiction, though, was the repeated face of Aicpaec, the decapitator god - some smiling, some grimacing fiercely, and some broken off. Perhaps they were broken by the Moches, who were angry with a god who let the rains continue, even after they sacrificed forty-two of their finest men to him.

Let's Put the River Over There...

Unfortunately, like many of the more remote sites here in Peru, much damage was caused by hauceros, or looters. They discovered the site before the archeologists, and stole the artifacts to sell illegally. But noe of that compares with what the Spanish did around 400 years ago. At the Huaca del Sol, Spanish colonists caused massive damage when they actually DIVERTED the Moche River to melt away the temple and wash out the treasure inside. The Spaniards destroyed two-thirds of the temple. What artifacts they found, they melted down for gold. We will never know what they were. These colonists must have been quite determined to get inside the huge pyramid.

Palm roofs made by the archeologists protect parts of the Huaca de la Luna, but much of it remains out in the open. Ironically, the very act of uncovering them for studying exposes them to elements that contribute to their destruction. Some friezes have actually been re-buried in the sand to protect them. Still, these mud buildings cannot last forever. Every time it rains (even if it is only every seven years) much of the history will be washed away. I feel really lucky that I got to see this spectacular site now.


Team - Why in the World Should We Go to Peru?
Abeja - An Offering to the Odyssey Reading Gods and Goddesses
Kevin - Ancient Peruvian Fashion 101: Gold T-Shirts, and Three-Inch Earlobes
Monica - Inspector Monica Cracks the Case
Making a Difference - Violence in 'Peaceful Communities'
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