The large copper bowl lay within my grasp, undisturbed for 1,500 years since it had been placed upside down over the dead man's face. Our team had worked more than a month to reach this point in the excavation of one of the richest and most intriguing tombs ever found in Peru—the tomb of a Moche elite.
The Moche inhabited a series of river valleys along the arid coastal plain of northern Peru from about a.d. 100 to 800. Through farming and fishing, they supported a dense population and highly stratified society that constructed irrigation canals, pyramids, palaces, and temples. Although they had no writing system, the Moche left a vivid artistic record of their activities in beautiful ceramic vessels, elaborately woven textiles, colorful murals, and wondrous objects of gold, silver, and copper.
Finding undisturbed Moche tombs is rare in an area that has been looted for more than four centuries, yet from 1997 to 1999 our team of U.S. and Peruvian researchers discovered three extraordinary tombs at Dos Cabezas, an ancient settlement in the lower Jequetepeque Valley. Outside each burial chamber was a miniature tomb containing a small copper statue meant to represent the tomb's principal occupant. Each tomb also contained a remarkably tall adult male who would have been a giant among his peers.
Gently lifting the copper bowl, I expected to see a skeletonized face. But instead, looking up at me with inlaid eyes, was an exquisite gold-and-copper funerary mask. We were all astonished and knew then how important these tombs could be to unraveling the mystery of the Moche.