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Summer 2001
The Digger
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"I dug around very carefully with a trowel, and what I found was a little compartment, about two-by-three feet, within which was a small copper figure, about nine inches long, of a man lying on his back," he recalls. "There were 10 little ceramic containers along one side of the figurine, and five along the other. And there was a lovely blackware ceramic bottle with a sea lion on it, a bottle that whistles when you blow into its spout."

Adjacent to the compartment was what appeared to be a full-sized funerary chamber. It took another two days to excavate the area above it. Only then could they be sure that it had never before been opened. "It was almost precisely where I had imagined it would be in terms of its north-south and east-west location, but it was much higher than I had imagined," Donnan says. "Finding it on the first morning of the field season was a wonderful surprise, an exhilarating moment."

It took six weeks to excavate the tomb; six weeks working every day, nine hours a day. Difficult, painstaking work, but worth every blister and ache. What Donnan and the team unearthed was remarkable. Inside was the skeleton of a member of the Moche elite -- the first ever found from the early Moche period. He wore a cylindrical metal headdress and a gold nose ornament. The body of a sacrificed female was stretched crosswise at his feet, and he was surrounded by exquisite pottery and metalwork. There were three beautiful ceramic vessels -- a white seabird, a red falcon and a serpent deity.

Excavating a tomb is both figuratively and literally a journey into the unknown. "You have no idea what you will find," Donnan says. "You begin at the upper level, but you don't know where the floor might be or precisely where the body is located. You are constantly wondering -- where is the south corner of the chamber? Where is the person's head going to be? You are removing dirt, troweling, brushing, progressing inch-by-inch because you never know, a fabulous but very delicate object could be just one brushstroke away. This continues day after day, and each increment reveals a little bit more. The unknown becomes known before your eyes."

At the same time, the work must progress as quickly as possible to protect the tomb's metal objects as they are uncovered. Although the gold is so pure that it shines like newly minted coins, the silver and copper are often corroded, and the corrosion accelerates as soon as they are exposed to the air. That's especially true at this site next to the ocean, with its salt and fluctuating temperature and humidity. One can watch the process as it happens; a greenish-white powder forms over the copper and the silver begins to decompose.

And then there are looters. They are always a problem. Which is why Donnan has adopted a habit that many may find bizarre. "I sleep on the tomb every night," he says, "from the time we begin excavating the burial chamber until it is finished." At the end of each day's dig, Donnan places two long eucalyptus beams lengthwise over the top of the grave, a piece of plywood over the beams and his sleeping bag on top.

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