Lord of the Sipan

By uncovering the skeleton and lavish grave goods of the man in whose honor the gold effigy had been created: the Lord of Sipan. A pair of gold eyes, a gold nose with two gold ornaments, and a gold chin-and-cheek visor overlay the Lord of Sipan's shattered skull like a death mask. A gold saucer-like headrest cradled the cranial fragments. Exquisitely faceted pieces of turquoise formed mosaics of deer, ducks, and warriors on three different sets of disk-like ear ornaments, including two fitted with the little man of gold and a matching companion. Sixteen gold disks as large as silver dollars lay where they had adorned the royal chest. Perfectly round, they gleamed like miniature suns. Holes in the disks had been enlarged, as by a cord, indicating that the necklace had been worn regularly and not simply for occasional ritual display. Signs of wear identified other everyday items, including clamshell like tweezers for plucking whiskers.

No such use marked the copper sandals that were discovered on the feet of the Lord of Sipan. Strictly ceremonial wear, they were impossibly stiff for comfortable walking. Like Inca rulers, Moche sovereigns were often borne on litters. The panoply of high rank seemed endless. Four headdresses-two large gold crescents and two conical caps of cane fiber that were stitched with fine cotton thread and mounted with filigreed rondelles of gilded copper. Sediments in the coffin bore traces of feathers that adorned the copper-handled headdress ornaments. Hundreds of minute gold and turquoise beads told of elegant bracelets, and thousands of white, coral, and red shell beads formed bib-like pectoral coverings.

Five of these draped the chest and shoulders of the Lord of Sipan; two rested atop his legs; four more lay beneath his skeleton. There were found insignia of war: Darts and a small symbolic war club with a shield in mid-handle. A long rattle with a gold chamber that resembled an inverted pyramid. Its copper handle was sculptured with shields and battle clubs and terminated in a wicked looking blade.
Scenes in relief on the rattle chamber were easy to decipher. In these a man wore much of the regalia of a Moche warrior. Tugging the hair of a hapless prisoner, he pitilessly thrust a war club at his head, bringing to mind the sacrifice of prisoners for blood offerings.

And what of him, that fierce aristocrat: How did he die? Was he young or old? Did his people lament his passing? Bones in the tomb answer largely blackened splinters. Gathered shards of the skull, crushed `as the timbers vaulting the coffin recess decayed and earth settled. Of other bones found, only four vertebrae and the two heel bones remained whole. The Lord of Sipan was five and a half feet tall and in his early 30s when he died. His back may have stiffened a bit at times from incipient arthritis, and a cavity etched a canine, but his full set of teeth showed little wear.

To what could this man in his prime have succumbed? Poor diet and prolonged bone-damaging or deforming diseases? Sudden death in an epidemic? A shocked society must have momentarily tottered, shaken and unbalanced. And balance was mystically, profoundly important to the Moche. An eerie sense of this crept over from the pair of necklaces from the skeleton of the Lord of Sipan. Those identical strings each held ten metal peanuts, similar to those looted. Five peanuts in each necklace were of gold, and all lay upon the Lord of Sipan's right side; matching silver peanuts lay to the left. Paralleling this, an ingot of gold nestled amid the bones of his right hand, an ingot of copper in his left. The Lord lay with head to the south and feet to the north. The position of his skeleton and feet to the north, the position of his skeleton lying across the east-west axis of the platform. Such heed to the four cardinal points of the compass-to the four quarters of the world, the Moche would have said-is typically Andean.

At the head of the Lord of Sipan's coffin the bones uncovered of one yound women and at the foot the bones of another. About 20 when they died, they may have been concubines of their master, if not his wives. One wore a copper headdress and rested on her right side, head pointing west. Her opposite was exactly that, lying with her head to the east. Head to head with the women and flanking the coffin were the upward-facing skeletons of two men. Both had lived to around 40. Copper shield, headdress, and war club marked one as a warrior. The other, perhaps an assistant, lay buried with a dog, likely one of the spotted whip-tailed breed that Moche iconography depicts chasing deer with aristocrats. It may have been the Lord of Sipan's personal and prized hound. The warrior and one of the women lacked left feet, so that their crippled legs ended at diagonally opposite corners of their master's sarcophagus.

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