A Guide To Sipan

The archaeological site of Sipan lies next to the modern village of the same name, 28 km (17 miles) east of Chiclayo. The road passes through lush sugarcane fields and the village of Pomalca, home to a popular brand of Peruvian rum.

Of the two pyramids (better called 'funerary platform mounds') at the site, the smaller one, Huaca Rajada (Cracked Pyramid) is so-called on account of the deep gullies eroded into its flanks, and has yielded fabulous treasures from a series of deeply-buried tombs of the pre-Inca Moche culture, who lived in the valleys of Peru's northern coast some 1,500 years ago.

Archaeologists believed that upper-class homes topped the larger pyramid, although none have yet been found. You can climb a short way up the larger pyramid to a viewing platform overlooking Huaca Rajada.

Excavated in 1987-88, the main tomb of the Lord of Sipan dates to about A.D. 350. In late 1988, another royal tomb was unearthed at a much deeper level in the funerary mound. The man within this tomb—buried about 300 years before the Lord of Sipan—is known as the Old Lord of Sipan. What happened with this burial mound during the intervening centuries still puzzles archaeologists, but they do know that at least one other royal tomb was ransacked by huaqueros (grave robbers)

A fourth tomb was found in 2007, and it is likely that others are waiting to be discovered.

Although the excavations now contain only reproductions of items discovered by archaeologists, they are well done, and give a good impression of how the tombs must have looked just before the dead were buried.  

Archaeologists have also uncovered the burial places of several less important figures at Sipan. One, a high priest, had a tomb almost as impressive as the royal ones. Another burial contained 1,137 pots shaped into warriors, priests, prisoners, musicians, and anthropomorphic deities.  

An exploration of Sipan should undoubtedly be accompanied by a visit to the excellent Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, the best museum in northern Peru, in the nearby town of Lambayeque

Opened in 2002, as the name suggests, it is dedicated to the royal tombs of Sipan. Just as archaeologists must dig from the topmost layer downward, you will descend through the museum, whose muted atmosphere and dim lighting highlight the superb displays.

On the third-floor, a short video and other presentations introduces the geography and history of the Moche people. The eye-catching pieces of pottery on display have provided historians with an endless source of information about the people, their gods, and their lives. But visitors should not overlook the more mundane items such as seeds and bones, which reveal much about ancient agriculture, wildlife, and fishing. 

Also on the third floor, you can follow the development of Moche metallurgy; many of the copper, silver, and gold items on display were the result of improved techniques and advances in technology. 

The second floor presents visitors with a series of breathtaking exhibits of gold, silver, and turquoise treasures. Highlights include a gold and silver necklace shaped like two strings of ten huge peanuts; breastplates made of thousands of tiny blue turquoise and red Spondylus shell beads painstakingly strung onto cotton thread; and gold earplugs decorated with animal mosaics. Archaeologists discovered these fabulous pieces among a pile of disintegrated textiles, corroded copper, rotted wood, and other refuse.

Some of the displays explain the techniques used to save the hundreds of objects within the tombs, and an accurate reproduction of several of the burials as they were uncovered demonstrates clearly how painstaking the recovery and restoration efforts must have been.

The Lord of Sipan, like other Moche noblemen, was buried in a cane coffin surrounded by small pottery vessels containing food such as yams, chilies, sweet potatoes, and corn. But he was not buried alone. The bodies of three women, two soldiers, one boy, and several llamas were also found in the tomb.

On the first floor of the museum, you can see a reconstruction of the burial—which was distributed over two levels—along with the skeletal remains of the nobleman and his dazzling riches. 

How to Visit: The treasures of the Lord of Sipan are an undisputed must-see when in Chiclayo, and so are included in the following itineraries: