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Summer 2001
The Digger
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"I have worked with these men for many years; they and their families are some of the finest people I know. I love getting up at first light and heading out to the site with the men," Donnan says. "As the work gets under way, the strike of the picks and shovels, the squeak of the wheelbarrows, the scraping of midden refuse as it is being troweled through screens, the rush of the ocean and the wind mix with the rhythms of cumbia" -- a spicy, syncopated dance music that blends Andean, Indian, African and European sounds -- "that drift over the site from the small hut where our guard stays. I love these sounds, and I've often wondered if it was possible to record them all together so I could hear them when I am back on campus. It's a magical kind of symphony that has become part of my love for fieldwork. I always long to hear it."

For centuries, the massive pyramid at Dos Cabezas has been plagued by huaqueros, grave robbers, but no archaeologist had touched it until Donnan's team began its exploration of its southwest corner in 1994. Human bones, bits of metal, textile and pottery fragments were strewn everywhere, the clumsy handiwork of looters. As the archaeologists and workers sifted and catalogued the wreckage, they found remnants of tomb walls and even one burial chamber, but it was empty.

Over the next two years, they found distinct barrios in areas north and south of the pyramid that had been inhabited exclusively by farmers or fishermen. They also uncovered more evidence of burial ceremonies, but no intact tombs.

Moche society was a highly stratified world of royalty, warrior priests, artisans, farmers and fishermen. Their settlements extended along the hot, arid coast of northern Peru from the Piura River valley south for more than 215 miles to the Nepeña River valley. They had no written language. Most of what is known about them comes from their artwork, the quality and beauty of which is astonishing. Archaeologists used to believe that the complex decorations known as fineline paintings depicting figures and scenes on Moche ceramic vessels were symbolic, but they have come to realize -- largely as a result of Donnan's work -- that these images are realistic representations of the Moche people and their ceremonial life.

But of the thousands of pieces of pottery and metalwork that are preserved in private collections and museums around the world, only a small portion came from intact tombs. Donnan, director emeritus of UCLA's Fowler Museum and one of the world's leading authorities on the Moche, can't help but marvel at the secrets each object guards so jealously. "When I look at a piece of Moche art," he says, "I wonder about its original context and about what else might have been in the tomb where it was found."

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