Major archaeological discovery in Peru

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Emotion during the update of the fresco of the Huaca Pintada.
Emotion during the update of the fresco of the Huaca Pintada.

We had met him at the beginning of the year so that he speaks to us about his archaeological excavations in Peru. Sâm Ghavami has just made a crucial discovery there, that of a pre-Incaic fresco which one believed lost forever.

What makes the uncovered fresco exceptional?
It is remarkable in the sense that it is extremely rare to be able to unearth mural paintings of such quality in pre-Columbian archaeology. This fresco is also unique, because it has a particular history. It was unearthed in 1916 by a group of huaqueros, grave robbers, operating in one of the hundreds of huacas (ancient sanctuaries) of the northern coast of Peru. It was then one of the most fantastic sets of images ever discovered. This one was exposed along a large wall and illustrated a finely executed mythological scene in colors. One of the most important ethnographers living in Peru at that time, Heinrich Brüning, took wonderful pictures of the murals showing them in all their splendor. Unfortunately, it is told that the looters destroyed this fabulous find, after it was forbidden to them to excavate more the site. The strong rains caused by El Nińo in the Peruvian desert and the passage of the time ended up burying the few rests and the news was forgotten of all.

So you thought that bits of fresco had escaped the greed of looters?
Yes, I did. This is why I decided to excavate this site which, in a century, has been covered by vegetation. It was important for me to find the possible remains of this fresco, but also to put them in context, in order to understand the function of the site, which is now done. I emphasize that the paintings we found were not damaged by looters, but had been buried for probably 1000 years!

What was your reaction when you saw the pictorial elements appear, little by little?
My team and I were definitely moved. I’ve been working on it for four years and at least twice that since I came to visit the site for the first time. The archaeological community of the region was curious to see what my work would lead to, but few predicted such success. It is necessary to say that the access to the land on which the huaca is located proved to be complicated, because it belongs to a private individual who for a long time did not want to know anything about me. The first two campaigns of excavations did not give very promising results but, this year, I fell by chance on an old photograph of the fresco which, by observing the shadows projected on the walls, allowed me to deduce its orientation and its probable location. Then, things went quickly. First we came across small fragments of paint on the ground, then we found the top of a large wall. By gently scraping the earth against its inner wall, we saw the headdress of a warrior appear.

Can you describe this work?
We know today that the fresco was 30 meters long and perhaps up to 3 meters high! Originally, it showed a long procession of finely dressed warriors heading towards a central deity with ornithomorphic features, the same attributes that would later be characteristic of the rise of the Lambayeque culture. Above these panels, a meandering river was drawn, carrying its fertile water and numerous fish to the inhabitants of the valley.

And were you able to date this fresco?
Its "mixed" style brings together elements of two pre-Inca cultures: the Lambayeque, who developed on the northern coast of Peru (900 - 1350 AD), and their Mochica ancestors (100 - 850 AD). This stylistic syncretism suggests that the Huaca Pintada may have witnessed the process of formation of a new culture: the Lambayeque, or Sicán.

Is this the fresco that speaks about Ńaimlap, this mythical hero arrived by the sea, who would have founded the Lambayeque culture?

It is difficult to weave direct links when we analyze the pre-Hispanic iconography in Peru. We do not have any texts that can tell us the illustrated scenes. On the other hand, we can observe recurring elements by examining the corpus of the images at disposal, that they are represented on the walls, the ceramics, the metal or the textile. The myth of Ńaimlap lays the foundations of Lambayeque society in the sense that it tells of a new vision of the world at the time of the arrival of the hero, who establishes a new collective identity through his iconization. The scene represented in the fresco seems to be inspired by the same idea of sacred hierarchy, built around a cult of ancestors and their intimate links with the forces of nature.

What will happen to the objects you discovered, some of which are gold?
We will first spend time to analyze them in laboratory. Then, they will be all catalogued, then stored in the deposits of the Ministry of the Culture of Peru according to the protocol. But I was offered the possibility of setting up a small exhibition to present the discoveries to the public in the Brüning Museum of Lambayeque, whose director, Carlos Wester, gave me his support since the beginning of my research on the spot.

But money is the key!

I have a Doc.CH grant from the SNSF which allowed me to finance the excavations. However, the great quantity of archaeological material, as well as its exceptional quality requires additional means. I am in the process of making the approaches to different institutions. I am anxiously waiting for their answer, which I hope will be positive!


  • Photos: Sâm Ghavami

  • The long and winding road! After a detour through archaeology, alpine pastures, teaching French and journalism, Christian has been working since the summer of 2015 in our beautiful University. His pleasure as an online editor? Meeting, discussing, understanding, popularizing and sharing!