National Geographic : 2014 Jun
60 national geographic • June 2014 traces of insects that once fed on human flesh, to snakes that coiled and died in the bottoms of ceramic pots, to Africanized killer bees that swarmed out of subterranean chambers and attacked workers. Plenty of people had warned Giersz that ex- cavating in the rubble of El Castillo would be difficult, and almost certainly a waste of time and money. For at least a century looters had tunneled into the slopes of the massive hill, searching for tombs containing ancient skel- etons decked out in gold and wrapped in some of the finest woven tapestries ever made. The serpent-shaped hill, located a four-hour drive north of Lima, looked like a cross between the surface of the moon and a landfill site—pitted with holes, littered with ancient human bones, and strewn with modern garbage and rags. The looters liked to toss away their clothing before they returned home for fear of bringing sickness from the dead to their families. But Giersz, an affable 36-year-old maverick who teaches Andean archaeology at the Uni- versity of Warsaw, was determined to dig there anyway. Something important had happened at El Castillo 1,200 years ago, Giersz was sure of that. Bits of textiles and broken pottery from Peru’s little-known Wari civilization, whose heartland lay far to the south, dotted the slopes. So Giersz and a small research team began imag- ing what lay underground with a magnetometer and taking aerial photos with a camera on a kite. The results revealed something that generations of grave robbers had missed: the faint outlines of buried walls running along a rocky southern spur. Giersz and a Polish-Peruvian team applied for permission to begin digging. The faint outline turned out to be a massive maze of towers and high walls spread over the entire southern end of El Castillo. Once painted crimson red, the sprawling complex seemed to be a Wari temple dedicated to ancestor wor- ship. As the team dug down beneath a layer of heavy trapezoidal bricks in the fall of 2012, they discovered something few Andean archaeologists ever expected to find: an unlooted royal tomb. Inside were interred four Wari queens or prin- cesses, at least 54 other highborn individuals, and more than a thousand elite Wari goods, from huge gold ear ornaments to silver bowls and copper-alloy axes, all of the finest workmanship. “ This is one of the most important discover- ies in recent years,” says Cecilia Pardo Grau, the curator of pre-Columbian art at the Art Museum of Lima. While Giersz and his team continue Heather Pringle is the author of The Mummy Congress. Robert Clark has photographed more than 30 stories for National Geographic.