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Finding an intact tomb at Dos Cabezas was Donnan's grail. Throughout the 1996 season, he kept returning to the area of the pyramid that had been plundered, walking around it and asking himself where the tomb might be hidden. "To dig blindly would simply destroy the pyramid -- we would be no better than the grave robbers," he says. "But I also knew that if we could find one intact tomb, it would be of great importance to our understanding of the Moche civilization."
At the end of that season, Donnan decided that the next year his team would concentrate on the area of its original dig in 1994. "It would be a gamble," he says. "There was no certainty that a tomb would be there, but all of the evidence suggested that the odds were in our favor, and excavating in that small area would cause little damage to the pyramid. The decision was clearly justifiable, but I knew that if we did not find a tomb that season, we would look no further."
Donnan cheerfully refers to himself as a "dirt archaeologist," happiest when he is in his field boots and Levi's grubbing in the dust. "If I'm not digging, I'm usually thinking about digging. It's something that is always in the back of my mind throughout the academic year on campus," he says. "I know exactly what we're going to do on the first day of each season. I rehearse the plan endlessly in my head, mentally walking the area, looking at photographs, figuring out exactly what I'm going to do and how I'm going to do it."
For the 1997 season, Donnan had everything planned out. "I knew precisely where I thought a tomb could be found, exact north-south and east-west axis and its level -- the height from the ground -- within the pyramid. I told the men that we were going to look for a tomb at this exact place and that this would be our last shot."
The digging began early in the morning of their first day back at the site. The central pyramid at Dos Cabezas is solid masonry -- hundreds of thousands of sun-dried mud bricks set in mud mortar. To construct a tomb, the Moche would break out some of the already laid bricks to create a rectangular burial chamber. Donnan's plan was to begin about 25 feet above where he thought the tomb would be and to carefully excavate downward in an eight-by-10-foot area.
After Donnan laid out the string lines along which the men would cut a vertical sidewall, they began the digging. "It is precise work," he says. "They know I want it to be plomito, vertical." Using a barreta, which is a heavy cutting bar, the men started to shave the vertical walls.
Donnan figured it would take at least four weeks -- maybe even six or seven -- to reach the tomb. But just four hours into it, they hit an area where the bricks dipped down, an indication of decomposing organic material underneath.