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July 5, 2018

Report from the First Week of Excavation at the UNC Archaeology and Bioarcheology Field School in Peru

Aidan Paul

 This summer marks the 20th annual UNC Chapel Hill archaeological field school in Peru’s Moche valley, the birthplace of the famous Moche civilization, the heartland of the Chimu Empire, and the focus of a great many impassioned debates between archaeologists. Three Andean archaeologists presently direct the field school: Gabriel Prieto from Peru’s National University of Trujillo, Celeste Gagnon from Wagner College, and Brian Billman from UNC. All three specialize in North Coast archaeology from different perspectives. Gabriel Prieto is a native of the coastal town of Huanchaco, and is directing a long-term project to better understand the history of the area from the genesis of civilization to the early modern era. Celeste Gagnon is a bioarchaeologist who investigates sociopolitical change from the viewpoint of human remains, and Brian Billman is a settlement pattern archaeologist specializing in the Moche who is primarily interested in the formation and evolution of polities on the North Coast.

Under the direction of these three very knowledgeable professors and staying in the fishing town of Huanchaco (close to Trujillo), myself and over a dozen other students are being instructed in the practice of archaeological excavation, the analysis of human remains, and the prehistory and history of the area. We spend Monday through Friday either excavating or working in the lab, and on Saturdays we tour archaeological sites. Sunday is a free day where we can explore the surrounding Trujillo as we wish. The field school has been an exceptionally entertaining and informative experience so far and I would recommend it to any students interested in archaeology.

We spent the last week of June 25th to July 1st working at a fairly large site called Pampa la Cruz. The site is located in middle of Huanchaco and is almost right next to the ocean. Much of the settlement is covered by a modern squatter community, which complicates the excavation process above and below ground. It makes for an odd sight, with deep pits down the middle of streets lined with poorly constructed buildings exposing ancient walls and houses, as well as modern water pipes that go right through ancient architecture and are often damaged and have to be replaced during the excavations. Fortunately, the most important part of the site – a Moche and later Chimu “Huaca” (sacred place/object/temple in Quechua), is not covered by anything modern. The area on and around the Huaca is what excavations are currently focusing on. Similar to the nearby site of Huanchaquito-Las Llamas detailed by a National Geographic article earlier this year (, the Huaca seems to have been subject to the large-scale sacrifice of children and llamas by the Chimu, as Gabriel has previously found the remains of dozens of Chimu era children and llamas with cut marks on their sternums around the Huaca.

To make things more interesting, Pampa la Cruz is not limited to just Chimu or Moche artifacts. The site has been continually occupied by the successive Salinar, Gallinazo, Moche, and Chimu cultures from about 400 BC to the 1500s, and the area around it is still occupied today. Previous finds at the site include utilitarian and decorated pottery from every phase in the site’s history, spindle whorls, atlatls, figurines, textiles, spondylus shells, metal artifacts such as ear spools, and weapons such as mace heads. Mummy bundles with intact pieces of regalia have also been found, along with various other human burials. The site is extremely rich and every single day so far somebody has found something remarkable, and almost nobody has been reduced to digging up nothing but potsherds and dirt. Unfortunately, I cannot provide any pictures of what has been found until the research is published. Still, anyone interested should keep an eye out because when the research does come out the pictures are going to be remarkable.

On my first day I was assigned with a few other students to clear out and deepen a trench in the middle of a street. Within the first 30 minutes we had found two large utilitarian pots that were both in excellent condition. Both were large enough that we could not remove them safely with the few hours we had before lunch, and in the afternoon I was assigned to a different area, but it was still a very motivational first experience with field archaeology (I did not at all expect to find something like that in the first hour). After being moved, I spent the next two days at a nearby location where one other student and I were assigned to clear rocks out of the bottom of a room and see what was under them. After shoveling dirt and moving rocks for quite some time, we found several llama bones protruding from the dirt. It turned out that there were two complete sacrificed juvenile llamas located under the rocks, which tallied to be the 94th set of sacrificed llamas found at the Huaca. The pair had exceptional preservation, with much of the ancient rope holding them in place still intact (seeing an ancient knot still in position was especially cool) and even much of the skin remaining on the bone in the case of the second llama. The rope was taken for radiocarbon dating after Gabriel took a picture of the fully excavated skeletons.

At the end of the week I worked on the Huaca itself. Four of us were assigned to clear a room with a plaster floor and then break through the floor to see if anything was under it. After smashing through the plaster for several hours we found a single human femur bone resting on a slab-like rock surrounded by a circle of smaller rocks that was clearly not natural. We were extremely excited to see what was under the rocks, as Gabriel had informed us that this sort of rock “seal” often marked a burial, and that he had never seen one with a femur bone on top of it. We were then rather disappointed when we lifted up the rocks to find another layer of rocks. Below those rocks was yet another layer of rocks, although these rocks seemed to have a cavity under them. We have yet to uncover what was at the very bottom because we did not work on Friday, which was Saint Peter’s day. As Saint Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, and Huanchaco is a fishing town, Saint Peter’s day is a major holiday and the local workers had the day off, so we did not excavate either (instead, we toured the former Chimu capital of Chan Chan). Next week we will be moving to a different site in Huanchaco, but hopefully somebody will be able to tell me what is found at the very bottom of that hole once it is fully excavated.

At other parts of the site, students and local workers excavated complete human skeletons, cloth bundles full of metal objects, spondylus shells, mummies, pottery, and dirt.

On Saturday, we toured the largest and probably the most important site of the Moche civilization: Huacas de Moche. The site is truly imposing – it consists of two enormous temples, Huaca del Sol, and Huaca de la Luna, and the remnants of a city in between them. Huaca del Sol,
the larger of the two, is in very poor condition thanks to the Spanish diverting a river to loot the gold and silver out of it and exposure to centuries of the elements. Still, it is a manmade mountain.

People for scale near the bottom left corner of the Huaca

The other Huaca, de la Luna, is in better condition. The inside of it has absolutely spectacular friezes and mural paintings, which unlike some other sites are not the products of somewhat imaginative reconstructions. Tourist-focused reconstruction that is inaccurate or produces little to no sound archaeological research (or both) is a problem at several important archaeological sites in the Andes, with notable cases including, but not limited to, Chan Chan, which we visited, and the Nazca site of Cahuachi. Chan Chan is a fascinating site, but virtually all work currently being done at the site is reconstruction to draw foreigners with only some actual archaeology involved. That the archaeological project at Huacas de Moche is so different from this approach is part of what makes it stand out. All the decorations and buildings are original, with no work done on them except for meticulous conservation to ensure they last as long as possible. This lends the Huacas a sense of authenticity that some other sites lack. The quality and scale of the friezes and murals here can only be described by pictures.

Friezes depicting a Moche deity


This is all original


















Friezes on the outside of Huaca de la Luna



As Dr. Billman pointed out, seeing something like this in its prime as a rural farmer living in a small village in ancient Peru must have been an unparalleled spectacle that would impress itself upon you for life and remind you just how powerful the Moche rulers were. Even the remnants of the temple are capable of inspiring such feelings in 21st century college students.

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