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Life death and meaning in the Jequetepeque Valley of northern Peru

edward swenson

Edward Swenson uncovering one of the sacrificial victims at the Moche pyramid.

Archaeology is about more than filling in the blanks of human history. It is fundamentally a philosophical pursuit with questions about life and death at the very core of all that digging. This is particularly evident in Edward Swenson’s research at Huaca Colorada, a 1,400-year-old pre-Inca pyramid in northern Peru.

Rising from the sand dunes of the Jequetepeque Valley at the foot of the Andes Mountains, the mud-brick structure is a remnant of the Moche culture, which thrived from 100-800 AD, long before Spanish conquistadors ravaged the continent.

The Moche were the region’s most advanced pre-modern society, consisting of independently governed agricultural communities with a shared religion and a penchant for complex irrigation systems, intricate ceramics, metallurgy and ritual human sacrifice. In addition to copper production areas, tools, pottery and ornaments, Swenson has uncovered the skeletal remains of several sacrificial victims, including two young women with traces of rope used in their garroting still around their necks.

But Swenson isn’t so much interested in the grisly details of how Moche sacrifices died — which is to say violently — but  in how such rituals defined and politicized the experience of life. “The pyramid is steeped in ritual understanding,” he says. “What does ritual achieve? It cures, it empowers, it hexes, it changes or maintains the status quo.”

And no ritual was of greater significance to the Moche than human sacrifice. It was intertwined with their religious-political ideology and informed their everyday life. “The pyramid, with its ceremonial architecture, appears to have been perceived as a living, breathing being,” Swenson says. “We may never grasp the true cosmological significance of the place, but sacrifices were a means of transferring vitality and life force, a way of feeding the monument and nourishing the gods.”

Human sacrifice also gave a sense of control over death as a way to exercise some control over the vicissitudes of life. “For the Moche, death was essential for rebirth and rejuvenation; growth, creation, beauty could only be achieved through rituals of socially encapsulated destruction and death,” Swenson says.

This idea of rejuvenation is evident in how the Moche periodically buried their ceremonial altar-like platforms only to build new ones atop the old. Seven platforms have been discovered thus far in a chamber with graffiti on the walls depicting serpents and warriors. But unlike Moche high art, the graffiti is crude.

“It’s unusual because the Moche were known for the realistic detail in their pottery and ceramics — graphic images of war and sex and human sacrifice that told their stories — yet this graffiti is more like stick figures,” says Swenson. “So it’s entirely possible that it was done by visitors and pilgrims to the site, not artisans.”

The graffiti is one of Swenson’s most exciting discoveries. “It reveals that the site evoked deep emotions and heightened consciousness of the religious power of the huaca,” he says. “The etchings provide a rare source of information on the experience and sentiments of the Moche, and they remind us that we should always strive to humanize our subjects of study.”

The main pyramid of Huaca Colorada served as an important temple complex and possible oracle in the Jequetepeque Region. The site did not have a large permanent population but did accommodate congregants who resided there episodically to fulfill tribute obligations and partake in great religious festivals. “The consumption of corn beer (chicha), the production of copper ornaments, and rituals of architectural and human sacrifice were part of complex religious celebrations at Huaca Colorada,” Swenson says. These rituals were associated with a powerful priestess cult. “We have found painted representations of the priestess on fine-line ceramics, and it is possible that the priestess travelled to Huaca Colorada to preside over important feasts and religious celebrations.”

Huaca Colorada and the questions it raises are all very wonderful and frustrating, says Swenson. “We are presented with important philosophical questions about the fundamental politicization of life and death. Being human is a very messy thing and archaeology reminds us of that.”

Learn more about the U of T Archaeology Centre.