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People Behind the Myths: Smithsonian Displays Royal Tombs of Sipan

May 31, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For years, archeologists thought pottery depicting the Warrior Priest and Lord of Sipan merely reflected ancient myths. Now we know they were real people, and their regalia are on display at the Smithsonian Institution this summer.

It was but a few years ago, in 1987, that the sudden appearance of looted artifacts brought researchers to Sipan, in northern Peru. They found not only looted graves, but others that had rested untouched for nearly 1,700 years.

``It was probably the most important archaeological finding in this hemisphere,″ said Peru’s ambassador, Ricardo V. Luna, in dedicating the exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.

Hundreds of gold and silver, copper and shell artifacts will be on public view at the museum starting Friday and continuing through Sept. 4.

The Moche culture flourished from 100 A.D. to 800 A.D., explained curator Abelardo Sandoval. It had been known through pottery depicting people and events, but experts believed characters known as the Bird Priest, Warrior Priest and Lord of Sipan were merely mythological individuals.

But as they dug beneath huge adobe pyramids, the researchers began to realize from the scepters and necklaces, headdresses and other items that they had found the real people behind those characters.

A necklace of golden spiders with human heads and other ornaments revealed the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, while a large gold-copper headdress shaped like an owl was in the tomb of the Bird Priest. The Warrior Priest’s resting place includes a huge, square gold scepter, headdress and elaborate ear ornament.

``We can now see a picture of one part of the continent’s pre-Columbian past that remained elusive for 17 centuries,″ Luna commented.

By the time the Spanish arrived, the Moche civilization had collapsed, and much remains in question because it never developed a written language.

Yet the items on display clearly illustrate extraordinary skill in metalworking. ``Their techniques were as good as any in antiquity,″ observed Donald Ortner, acting director of the museum.

Ortner, an entomologist, was particularly smitten with a set of 10 gold ornaments shaped like spiders resting on a fist-sized spider web. The skill in making the spiders shows the Moche knew biology too, said Ortner.

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