A Site to Die For
Found in Peru within a chamber used for an ancient human-sacrifice rite called the presentation, this woman was likely an offering to the site, archaelogists say.
Announced last week, the 197-foot-long (60-meter-long) sacrificial chamber or passageway at the Huaca Bandera archaeological site belonged to the Moche culture, a pre-Columbian agricultural civilization that flourished on the north coast of Peru from about 100 B.C. to AD 800.
The several burials found in the sacrifice chamber “are from a time apparently after the site had been abandoned but nevertheless continued to receive offerings to maintain the status of the elite sanctuary,” archaeologist Carlos Wester La Torre, leader of the excavation, said in an email translated from Spanish.
This particular skeleton was found adorned with copper ornaments on her head and ceramics and seashells alongside. Inside the vessels are seeds of the Nectandra plant, a psychoactive often used in ritual ceremonies.
Faint remains of a mural linger above the main altar in the newfound chamber, where the sacrificial rite is believed to have been carried out near the present-day town of Illimo, Peru (map).
“The ceremony, known as the presentation, was a ritual where naked and rope-bound prisoners were subjected to a ritual sacrifice,” said Wester, who is also director of the Heinrich Brüning National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in the nearby city of Lambayeque (map).
As the prisoners—most likely apprehended during battle—were cut, priests and priestesses caught the spilling blood in cups, which were offered to the gods, he said.
“The prisoners of war were sacrificed to please the gods as a way to maintain social, political, and economic stability in the village,” Wester said.
Sacrificed But Not “Presented”
Facing eternity with a ceramic vase and bundled offerings, a woman’s remains lie crumpled within the Moche sacrificial chamber revealed last week.
The woman was an offering to the site, not part of a “presentation” sacrifice ceremony, Wester said.
“We have not yet found any sacrificed individuals, because we have not yet excavated the cemeteries,” he said. “Obviously, in due course, we will.”
Chamber of Horrors
More than a thousand years ago, prisoners of war, naked and bound, were marched down this ceremonial passage to their deaths at the Moche site of Huaca Bandera in Peru, archaeologists announced last week.
Lined with altars, the corridor leads to a ramp that accesses a pyramid in the distance.
Fragments from a mural recently found at Huaca Bandera depict el sacerdote—the priest—from a “presentation” sacrifice ceremony.
“The priest officiates the ceremony and sacrifices the prisoners at the side of the priestess and other partners,” Wester said, “and then reaches out to the lord with the cup [of blood] to be drunk.”
No Place for a Child?
Dating to the late Moche period, between the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., a ceramic vase found during the recent Huaca Bandera excavation represents a female with a child in her left arm.
Archaeologists who worked at the site are uncertain if the vessel was an offering or was part of the “presentation” human-sacrifice ceremony.
A character known as the healer, carrying a San Pedro cactus—a staple of Andean traditional medicine—is depicted on this bottle from the eighth century A.D. found at the Huaca Bandera site.
“The healer is very common in the Moche era, where he is frequently depicted assisting sick people or attending the deliveries of babies,” Wester said.
This smiling pitcher dates to the late Moche period, when many ceremonies were held at Huaca Bandera, according to Wester.
Pitchers with faces on their necks are common among Moche artifacts, he said, and “must have been connected with the preparation of ceremonial drinks.”
Photograph courtesy National Archaeological Museum of Brüning, Peru