Unearthing Ancient Peruvian History: International, Women-Led Team of Archaeologists and Conservators Releases Findings From Excavations at Pañamerica

Tuesday, April 11, 2023
Unearthing Ancient Peruvian History: International, Women-Led Team of Archaeologists and Conservators Releases Findings From Excavations at Pañamerica

Clues to better understanding the religious rituals, political life and societal hierarchy of the Moche people are coming into view as a multi-year excavation continues at Pañamarca, led by a team of women archeologists and conservators, including a local Denver resident and Denver Museum of Nature & Science scientist.

Construction of Pañamarca, an architectural complex that sits upon a rock outcrop in the Peruvian Ancash region’s lower Nepeña Valley, is estimated to have occurred between 550-800 CE. 

So far, teams have uncovered what they estimate to be less than 10 percent of extensive paintings created on the adobe walls of the architectural complex at Pañamarca. Work to piece together the narratives revealed by these ancient murals is ongoing. Researchers plan to return to the site in 2023. 

The Archaeological Research Project (PIA) “Paisajes Arqueológicos de Pañamarca” is collaboratively led by the international team of Jessica Ortiz Zevallos, Lisa Trever of Columbia University and Michele Koons of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS). The team presented a digital poster detailing their recent findings at the January 2023 meeting of the Institute of Andean Studies in Berkeley, California.  

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science and Columbia are exploring ways to formally support the PIA’s excavation and research in 2023 and into the future. Continual work to uncover, document and preserve the site will enable Peruvians, South Americans and the rest of the world to know and appreciate this important period in human history. 

“We are adding significantly to a body of work that lends insight into the perspectives and priorities of the people who walked this landscape long before us,” said Jessica Ortiz Zevallos, the Peruvian director of the archaeological research project. “These murals are beautiful windows into our past which we’ve never seen before. It’s exhilarating to be leading this work.” 

Recent discoveries at Pañamarca and previous findings at the site over the last century have manifested a more complete throughline for Peruvian history and culture. These findings will be made more publicly accessible than ever before through digital photography, photogrammetric modeling and virtual reality simulation.  

A resurgence in national and regional pride is evident through contemporary artwork, political campaigns, and brand marketing that are all borrowing from the imagery and motifs found on the walls at Pañamarca. 

“Pañamarca was a place of remarkable artistic innovation and creativity, with painters elaborating on their knowledge of artistic canons in creative and meaningful ways as the people of Nepeña established their position in the far southern Moche world,” said Lisa Trever, Lisa and Bernard Selz Associate Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. “Our project has the potential to inaugurate a new period of understanding and appreciation of Moche art, including by contemporary artists who use these ancestral works as inspiration in their own practice.” 

The complementary disciplines of archaeology and art history make this creative and cultural exploration possible. The team has been carefully documenting every detail exposed in the murals and has compared findings to related materials. Together, artifacts and the murals at Pañamarca can tell us more about what the Moche people believed and how they lived. 

“We are eager to return to Pañamarca and continue to share our findings,” said Michele Koons, DMNS Curator of Archaeology. “It is an absolute honor to work at this important monument of the ancient world. We are only beginning to comprehend the mysteries revealed by these murals.” 

Although Moche burials and other sites have been found farther south, there are no Moche structures that match the scale of Pañamarca beyond Nepeña. The Pañamarca murals, therefore, hold the potential to reveal much more about the collective identity and aspirations of the Moche people, who lived long before the formation of the Inca Empire. The team has proposed that the mural paintings — together with the evidence of highland-style textiles and tropical feathers found alongside locally-made ceramics and material culture in the excavations — suggest multicultural relationships and long-distance economies. 

Recent and planned excavation, conservation and documentation efforts at Pañamarca build on previous work there by Trever and her former team; interventions by Lorenzo Samaniego in the 1970s; research by Donald Proulx in the 1960s and 70s, Hans Horkheimer and Duccio Bonavia’s discovery of a fragment of a painted wall in 1958, and earlier work by Richard Schaedel in 1950. 

The segment found by Horkheimer and Bonavia depicted a female supernatural being, or “Priestess,” participating in the presentation of a goblet in the company of attendant beings and bound captives. This “Sacrifice Ceremony” became a famous, canonical example of Moche art — comparable in its imagery to fineline ceramics made in the Moche heartland. 

The current PIA began in 2018, directed by Hugo Ikehara Tsukayama, with the goal of documenting and analyzing the environmental and architectural history of Pañamarca and its surroundings. The project recommenced in 2022, under the direction of Jessica Ortiz Zevallos, to continue investigation and expand the excavation, conservation and documentation of Pañamarca’s pillared hall begun in 2010 by the Proyecto Arqueológico Pañamarca-Área Moñumental. 

When the team returns to the site in 2023, they will continue the work of excavation, conservation and documentation begun last year. The timing of return to the site has been carefully planned for winter in Peru when the weather is most predictable and dry. At the end of the next field season, everything will be reburied for its protection because, left exposed without maintenance, the ancient earthen art will perish. 

Image :The upper figure painted on the pillar. Photograph by Lisa Trever 

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Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.

Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.


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