Often heralded as one of the significant archaeological finds of the 20th century, the Lord of Sipán was the first of the famous Moche mummies found (in 1987) at the site of Huaca Rajada, northern Peru. The almost 2,000-year old mummy was accompanied by plethora of treasures inside a tomb complex, thereby fueling the importance of the discovery. On further analysis of his artifacts (and complementary inscriptions), it is widely hypothesized that the Lord of Sipán was probably a high ranking Moche warrior-priest and also the ruler of the polity based in the Lambayeque valley of Peru. And now researchers have further built upon the historicity of this fascinating figure, by digitally reconstructing how the ‘lord’ might have looked like in real-life.
The Moche culture (100-700 AD) in itself is quite mysterious from the historical perspective. That is because not much is known about the political and religious system of these people, since they didn’t leave behind conclusive written texts. However while lacking in literary endeavors, the Moche more than made up for it by their architectural and even technological pursuits. The former scope is best represented by the massive brick-made pyramids, like the Temple of the Sun (Huaca del Sol) and the Temple of the Moon (Huaca de la Luna). As for the latter, the Moche were known for erecting extensive aqueduct systems for mass irrigation in arid conditions, while also showcasing their flair for metalworking that translated to exquisite forms of jewelry and other artifacts.
Unfortunately much like our opaque understanding about Moche political norms, the historians are also not sure how this seemingly brilliant civilization collapsed in circa early 9th century. Conjectures put forth by scholars range from climatic effects like droughts, earthquakes and even extensive flooding (due to El Niño) to conflict scenarios like civil wars – a scope made plausible by the Moche penchant for ritual combat. But this time around espousing a ‘blast from the past’, researchers have been able to salvage of parcel of Moche history by successfully recreating the face of the Lord of Sipán, by using techniques like 3D imaging.
Now of course this was no easy feat, especially since the skull of the Lord of Sipán was actually broken into 96 fragments during the time of its discovery (due to the pressure of the soil sediments over the millenniums). So as a result, the researchers from the Brazilian Team of Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Odontology, had to painstakingly arrange together these numerous pieces in a virtual manner. The reassembled skull was then photographed from various angles (with a technique known as photogrammetry) for precise digital mapping of the organic object.
The high-tech analysis of the figure allowed the experts to determine the age of the Lord of Sipán when the ruler met his demise. The warrior-priest was possibly 45-55 years old at the time of his death, while he stood at a height of around 1.67 m (5 ft 6 inches). And since the researchers were aiming for a credible reconstruction of his face, they made a detailed assessment of his biological record that could have revealed any scar or deformation that the Moche ruler might have had. This is what Dr Paulo Miamoto, who conducted the anthropological analysis, said –
He has the typical features of pre-Columbian ancestry and looks like the original South American indigenous Indians that lived here hundreds of years ago. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Moche king had remarkably good oral health. He did have a few cavities but considering the period he lived in, his dental work showed he held a high economic position and was wealthy. During his era, it was typical for the majority of the peasants to use their teeth as tools. There was no evidence this person ever did this or did any hard work.
Now beyond his physical attributes, the researchers also had to take into account the wealth of jewelry and accessories that the Lord of Sipán was buried with. To that end, the elite warrior-priest was interred with a striking crescent-shaped headdress complete with plume of feathers and a face-mask. This ritzy arrangement was accompanied by pectorals made of shell beads, necklaces made of gold and silver mani (peanuts – signifying the staple food of Moche) that symbolized both the Sun and the Moon, nose and ear rings, cotton cloth with sewn gilded metals, a scepter made of gold and silver, trapezoidal sheets of beaten gold that high-ranking warriors sometimes wore on the rear end of their opulent costumes, and a myriad other stuff – accounting for a total of 451 ostentatious objects.
Interestingly, it should also be noted that the Lord of Sipán was not buried alone in his tomb. He was accompanied by six other people, including three women attired in ceremonial robes (possibly his wives or concubines), two men with amputated feet (warriors who were possibly sacrificed to accompany to their master) and a child who was around 9-10 years old. Additionally, the tomb also contained the remains of a dog (possibly the ruler’s favorite pet) and two llamas that were provided as ritual offerings. Here is the reconstruction of the Huaca Rajada tomb complex –