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Summer 2001
The Digger
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For 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
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By Judy Lin-Eftekhar
Photography by Christopher Donnan, Kenneth Garrett and Arwin Keawgumnurdpong

Every 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.

There, 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.

For about 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.

Donnan's 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 10
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.

When Donnan 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.

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