Day 11 |
Nov 11, 2011


By Claire Allum, Archaeologist

Co-ordinates: 08° 13’ 42” S 78°59’ 01” W
Weather: overcast, hazy turning to blue sky at mid-morning
Air Temperature: High 25 C / 77 F

I had a rude awakening as we sailed into Salaverry this morning. The Silver Explorer rolled dramatically, throwing open my cupboard doors and drawers and then slamming them shut again. I should have made sure they were securely fastened the night before. Robin West, our Expedition Leader, had warned us that the water was deep at this port and subject to “swells”. My biggest fear was that the ocean would be so rough that we wouldn’t be able to dock. I had been looking forward to this stop throughout the voyage.

We are in the land of the Moche. A complex culture that lived along the north Peruvian coast from about AD 1-750. They are best known for their remarkable and beautiful pottery and gold and copper jewelry. On the 5th of November I had given a lecture on Moche ritual life and included extensive references to the archaeological site of Huaca Cao Viejo. Today we were going to visit it.

Three tall double-decker buses collected us portside at 8:15 am. There was enough room for everyone to have their own double-seat if they wanted it. Most guests opted for the open view of the upper deck. I did too.

After leaving the outskirts of the city of Trujillo, we drove along the Panamerican Highway through the Atacama Desert until we reached the sugarcane fields of the Chicama River valley. Even though water flowed in many of the canals alongside the sugarcane fields, the riverbed itself was waterless. According to our guide, Rocio, the water is diverted much further upstream and travels underground in pipes to the area so that none is lost to evaporation.

She pointed out dozens of “huacas” or ruins located in the middle of sugarcane fields. They look like small hills, but the occasional adobe brick on their slopes or at their bases identified them. Many had been badly damaged. Rocio explained that digging in huacas was a favourite activity for locals on the weekends. The local agricultural salaries are low, so finding an ancient artifact and selling it illegally, is common.

We turned off the asphalt highway onto a dirt road used by the sugarcane trucks and bumped our way towards a mound with a large white fabric cover dramatically shading the excavated and stabilized remains of Huaca Cao Viejo.

Huaca Cao Viejo contains the remains of a large Moche temple complex dating to between AD 200 and 700. The mound is composed of seven superimposed temples and is about 150 feet high. It is famous for brightly coloured polychrome murals that cover its walls and depict the ritual life and what took place in the temple grounds over 1,000 years ago. Plus, in 2005, the archaeologists discovered the tomb of Señora de Cao, which was excavated in 2006.

A small museum close to the parking lot sets the scene and provides the context for visiting the temple. It contains a general description of Peruvian prehistory for the area as well as a the mummy of the Senora de Cao and a sample of the grave goods found with her. She was probably a high-ranking priestess who controlled the area and administered the temple. Gorgeous Moche pottery vessels, gold jewelry and a sacrificial victim were found with her.

The wall murals found lining the large ceremonial plaza associated with the temple mound can be associated with the “Sacrificial Scene” found depicted on fine-line Moche pottery, especially the lower frieze of bound prisoners being led to sacrifice. If the scene accurately portrays what took place, the prisoners were captured during a ritual battle, were stripped of clothing, had their throats slit and their blood collected in a gold goblet—possibly by the priestess. The goblet was then presented to a warrior chief or lord who drank it.

Our visit to the site flew by and I felt I could easily have spent another couple of hours there. But I reluctantly climbed back into our bus at lunchtime for a short drive to a private hacienda. There we enjoyed a delicious buffet and watched Peruvian Paso horses and award-winning Peruvian marinera and tendero dancers perform.

On the way back to the Silver Explorer, we enjoyed a short tour of the City of Trujillo and stopped at the main plaza for photographs.

At the end of the day I attended the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party. It seems strange to think that in two days I will leave this hot, dry desert and be on a plane bound for the winter cold in western Canada.