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more than three decades, Christopher Donnan has dug into Peru's
past to unlock the secrets of the Moche civilization. His most-recent
findings are electrifying the archaeological world
Photography by Christopher Donnan, Kenneth Garrett and Arwin Keawgumnurdpong
Summer for 35 years, Christopher Donnan M.A. ’65
has tossed some clothes and a few pieces of gear into a suitcase
and trekked 4,100 miles from his office in the basement of UCLA’s
Fowler Museum of Cultural History to Peru in his quest to unravel
the mysteries of the ancient Moche culture. He has dug into its
past, studied its art and amassed an archive of nearly 165,000 photographs.
The exquisite riches he’s discovered have opened new windows
onto the way of life of this fascinating people. Yet nothing prepared
him for what he found at Dos Cabezas.
in an ancient settlement of temples, palaces, pyramids and domestic
quarters that sprawls across a square kilometer of the Jequetepeque
Valley beside the Pacific Ocean, about 300 miles northwest of Lima,
Donnan and his team discovered three immensely rich tombs buried
within a massive, terraced pyramid that juts 105 feet from the valley
floor. Inside the tombs, among the stunning ceramics and beautifully
crafted metalwork of gold, silver and copper, were the remains of
three members of the Moche elite -- the first ever found from the
earliest period of Moche civilization. In symbolic arrangements
near their skeletons were the bodies of sacrificed humans and animals.
And adjacent to each tomb, they came upon something they had never
seen before: a mysterious compartment, a miniature version of the
contents of each tomb.
400 years, from 150 to 550 A.D., the Moche inhabited Dos Cabezas
-- "two heads," named for the twin pinnacles of its central
pyramid, which is among the largest in South America. Bounded by
the ocean to the west, an agricultural plain to the east and south
and the delta of the powerful Jequetepeque River to the north --
with the jagged outline of the Andes beyond -- it is a desert-like
but beautiful place. Archaeologists are not clear why the Moche
occupation of Dos Cabezas ended, but houses filled to the roofs
with windblown sand suggest that the site was buried, possibly during
a period of drought. What the Moche left behind are the clues to
a culture that otherwise would have been lost forever.
archaeological team is small. Besides himself, there are Professor
Alana Cordy-Collins '70, M.A. '72, Ph.D. '76 of the University of
San Diego and Peruvian archaeologist Guillermo Cock M.A. '85, who
is working toward his Ph.D. in archaeology at UCLA. The local men
who help with the work live in the village of Jequetepeque, about
minutes down a dirt road from Dos Cabezas. Donnan owns a house in
the village, where he keeps just about everything he'll need during
the June-to-September digging season: a truck, a four-wheel-drive
vehicle, 13 wheelbarrows, eight sifting screens, 32 shovels, 15 picks
and a large inventory of trowels, brushes, tape measures and cotton
cord. There's also clothing hanging in the closet -- his work shirts,
jeans, boots and hat. He keeps a blazer, a pair of slacks and a tie
there, but has worn them once in 10 years, to the funeral of a friend.
arrives in the village at the beginning of each season, the men
greet him enthusiastically. "Doctor, how are you? Hay chamba
para mí?" they ask, using a slang word for work, chamba.
"Is there work for me?" These men are experts when it
comes to Dos Cabezas. They grew up around the pyramids, playing
on the crumbling slopes as children. For them, being involved in
the exploration, in the uncovering of their cultural past, is a
source of great pride and joy.