The Sipan Culture and Museum

The November 2002 opening of the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, Latin America’s most spectacular new museum in Lambayeque, marked an important step for the conservation of the almost two thousand pieces which traveled around the world before finally finding a home in this building conceived in the style of the mausoleums of the ancient Mochica culture. The three-story, six-million-dollar museum, which contains by far the greatest intact discovery of gold artifacts in the Americas, is shaped like the pre-Columbian pyramid under which Peruvian archaeologists discovered this amazing tomb in 1987.

The story began in the summer of 1987, when the Chiclayo police force arrested a gang of thieves who had sacked a Sipán tomb and confiscated several pieces, including an important gold mask. This incident alerted Walter Alva, who immediately organized an emergency plan aimed at combating the constant threats to the region’s archaeological remains.

After fifteen years of work, this new museum allows the whole world to see the magnificently opulent lifestyle of the rulers of ancient Peru and the technical and cultural development of the Mochica culture, which established itself on the coast of northern Peru 1700 years ago.

The decision to locate the new museum in the city of Lambayeque grew not just from the recognition of the need for a place with an appropriate climate for the preservation of antiquities, but also from a desire to give the people of Lambayeque the opportunity to become the custodians of their own cultural heritage.

The Chiclayo countryside was deemed the perfect place to, as Walter Alva put it: “Devise a project which would advance the cause of Peru’s museums”.

From the very beginning, the museum was conceived as a place to exhibit the Sipán finds alone, which meant that a single-themed and contextual design was called for. Also, it was decided that the entire process of discovery, recovery and conservation of the mummies, jewelry and other pieces found should be represented. All in all, the new project presented many challenges.

The building, built on a seven hectare site, is a reinforced concrete structure designed both to withstand earthquakes and any attempted robbery. The display rooms have no windows, which protects the artificially-lit artifacts from the sun’s rays and humidity. The Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum is considered as one of the biggest museum in Latin America dedicated to a single archeological discovery.

The pyramidal form of the building was designed by the architect Celso Prado Pastor and was inspired by the temples and shrines of the Moche culture. The idea, as Alva explains, was to “Make this museum the new mausoleum of the royal tombs”.

The main entrance takes the visitor along a seventy meter-long ramp which leads directly to the third floor. “Walking along this ramp, one finds oneself in a recreation of an ancient ritual, as if one were entering a shrine”.

The concept which leads the visitor from the third floor down to the first mirrors the chronological sequence followed by the archaeologists during the discovery process, when they found the most recent remains on the upper levels of the site and the older remains below.

On opening the doors of the third floor, the visitor is met by a computer generated animation projected onto a giant screen, where the Lord of Sipán is followed by his entire court and a warrior guard. On the same floor, a display shows the extraordinary developments made by the Moche culture in the fields of agriculture, weaving and metalwork, as well as the lavishness of their most important shrines.

An outline of the “life and death of the Mochica culture” leads to the second floor, where the royal tombs of Sipán are displayed, with 1300 original pieces making up the funerary offerings. A video is shown of the work done by the archaeologists during several years of excavations. In this way, “The spectator is able to share what we felt as we discovered the royal crown and realized who the tomb we had found belonged to”, Walter Alva explained enthused.

Finally, on the first floor lies the tomb of the Old Lord of Sipán, decorated with impressive jewelry and surrounded by other tombs. This display illustrates how the true importance of the discovery lay in the fact that the thirteen tombs discovered reflect different periods and social levels of Mochica culture. Here, the original sarcophagi have been reconstructed using the same kind of wood utilized by the Moche.

Before the end of the tour, one passes through a room where the objects recovered by local and international police forces are displayed, including the gold back flap brought back from Philadelphia and other pieces rescued from Sotheby’s.

The display ends at “The Royal House of Sipán”, a recreation of the Sipán court using thirty-seven mannequins which faithfully represent the people who surrounded the great governor during his lifetime. These mannequins were fashioned on the basis of careful studies of the dress and physical characteristics of the people of the Mochica culture.

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