Sâm Ghavami and his team (all photos Sâm Ghavami)

A team of archaeologists has rediscovered a ninth-century mural on the northern coast of Peru that was ravaged by looters and largely forgotten for over 100 years. The work is within a larger temple called Huaca Pintada and is almost 100 feet long.

Huaca Pintada — which translates roughly to “painted shrine” — comprises a rare mixture of elements of two northern Peruvian civilizations, the Moche (approximately 100 CE to 700 CE) and the Lambayeque (approximately 700 CE to 1370 CE), which ruled the region before the rise of the Incan Empire in the 15th century. The newly unearthed painting depicts a bird-like deity surrounded by warriors, a motif researchers will work to decipher. “They show a transition, and maybe changes in the cosmologies,” Luis Jaime Castillo, an archaeology professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, told the Guardian.

The image may portray a “sacred hierarchy” that centered a cult of ancestors closely linked to the forces of nature, archaeologist Sâm Ghavami of Switzerland’s University of Fribourg told Agence France-Presse, adding that the painting might present a metaphor for the civilizations’ political and religious orders. Leading a team of 18 archaeology students, Ghavami began the project in 2019. The pandemic slowed Ghavami’s progress, as did the apprehensions of the private landowner. It took two years to convince the owner to allow the excavation.

The team uncovered an additional 40 feet of mural.

Ghavami’s work continues that of German ethnologist Enrique Brüning, who captured photographs of the expansive mural in 1916. Those images, however, went unrecognized in academia until 1978, when anthropologist Richard P. Schaedel rediscovered the photographs and published a paper about Brüning’s excavation. Schaedel reconstructed the mural based on Brüning’s negatives but did not conduct fieldwork himself, and Huaca Pintada was forgotten again for another 40 years.

In the century between Brüning’s study and Ghavami’s excavation, looters attempted to extract the work and partially destroyed the ancient temple, and brush grew over the site.

As well as uncovering the sections that Brüning documented in 1916, Ghavami and his team excavated an additional 40 feet of mural. “It’s the most exciting and important find of recent years,” said Castillo. “The long-lost murals of Huaca Pintada have been recuperated after more than 100 years.”

The Huaca Pintada archaeological site
The mural depicts warriors and a bird-like deity.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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