Seventy-three intact burials with carved masks discovered at Pachacámac

Seventy-three intact burials in burial bundles, some with carved masks, have just been discovered at Pachacámac. The site of the find is an extensive complex of cemeteries from different periods at the foot of the Painted Temple. Nearby, wooden staff with images of dignitaries of the Wari Empire were also discovered.

The burials date from the second half of the Middle Horizon, that is, the time of the Wari Empire. The burial bundles were initially deposited individually and later also in groups. The state of preservation for most of them is spectacular.

Carved wood mask on the so-called “false head” of a burial tomb, Pachacámac, Peru
© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

73 intact burials below the Incan wall

These seventy-three intact burials in funerary bundles (fardos) date from the expansion period of the prehistoric Wari Empire, i.e. from around 800–1100 AD. Particularly noteworthy among them are the burials of individuals of both sexes wearing masks made of carved wood and ceramics, on so-called “false heads”. The discovery was made by a team of archaeologists from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, led by Professor Krzysztof Makowski at Pachacámac, south of Lima (Peru).

Professor Krzysztof Makowski and one of the mummies
© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

The site of Pachacámac is a famous Incan-period temple and oracle of a deity whose name, Pacha Kamaq (Pachakamak, in Quechua), means ‘one who gives life to the earth’. The exact site of the find is an extensive complex of cemeteries from different periods, at the foot of the Painted Temple. The complex of cemeteries was already discovered at the end of the 19th century by Max Uhle, considered a pioneer of scientific archaeology in the Andes. It was Uhle who attributed the worship of the temple to a deity named Pacha Kamaq. Uhle did not publish his findings, apart from general descriptions of the site plan, architecture, excavations and stratigraphy. The cemetery suffered systematic destruction both before and after Uhle’s fieldwork. The first was by the campaign to eradicate pagan beliefs carried out during colonial times (extirpación de idolatrías). Then afterwards, unfortunately, by grave robbers. It can be assumed that only a small percentage of the graves he excavated were well preserved. Hence the uniqueness of the current discovery.

Decorative fabric detail inside the burial bundle of one of the mummies
© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

The research by Professor Makowski and his colleagues Cynthia Vargas, Doménico Villavicencio and Ana Fernández, was deliberately targeted at an area where a high wall dating from the Inca and colonial periods had collapsed. It had been assumed that the piles of adobe bricks would have made it difficult for robbers to access the graves. This proved to be correct. The discovery of a well-preserved assemblage of individual and group burials with dates precisely to the second half of the Middle Horizon.

North-South profile at cemetery 1 in Pachacamac (Peru), the surface of which was partially disturbed by a wall from the Inca period, rebuilt in the early Colonial period
© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacamac”, ed. K. Kowalewski, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

This is crucial for establishing what role in the cultural development of the pre-Hispanic Andes can be attributed to the presumed conquest of the Wari Empire, along with its capital at Ayacucho, and its subsequent history until its final collapse in 1000–1100 AD. It is very important to be able to compare the results this research with another extremely important site on the coast from the same period, the Castillo de Huarmey, also studied by Polish scholars, colleagues and former students of Professor Makowski, namely Professor Miłosz Giersz and Patrycja Prządka-Giersz, PhD.

Professor Krzysztof Makowski and his team – Cynthia Vargas, Doménico Villavicencio, Ana Fernández and Christopher Beltrán – during the documentation of one of the mummies
© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski, , published under CC BY-SA 4.0

Wooden staff decorated with the image of dignitaries

So far, the findings of Professor Makowski and his team do not support the textbook hypothesis as to the history of Pachacámac. It appears that Pachacámac did not function continuously as a sacred city and centre of worship from the construction of the Old Temple of the Lima culture until the Spanish conquest. The site has a different plan and character during the period of the Wari Empire. It became a monumental establishment worthy of its function as an oracle and one of the three most important temples in the central Andes only after its incorporation into the Inca Empire. Pachacámac during the Wari period, on the other hand, was not monumental. Despite more than a century of research, no evidence has yet been found to support the hypothesis that ceramics, textiles and other objects bearing complex iconography of imperial deities known from Huari, the capital of the Wari empire, from Conchopata (Ayacucho) and from Tiahuanaco, the capital of the Tiwanaku kingdom, were produced at this site. The population that emerged in connection with the conquest of the central Peruvian coast around 800 AD and the abandonment of the temples and other centres of power of the Lima culture, dating from around 300 to 800 AD, used ceramics associated with Ayacucho traditions, but also vessels characterised by influences from the northern Peruvian coast. 

Some of the earthenware found in grave settings. Influences from the southern Andes and the northern coast of Peru are evident
© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

The burial rites also changed completely. The iconography of the famous idol, which was probably the main object of worship in Pachacámac during the Wari period, indicates strong links with northern coast beliefs. The discovery of two staff, also made by a team led by Professor Makowski, confirms these conclusions. The staff were carved in wood and decorated with images of two dignitaries wearing Tiwanaku-type headgear.  The staff were found in a settlement layer contemporary with the cemetery and a short distance from it. They were located in a votive deposit covered with a layer of fragments of the tropical shell Spondydus princeps, imported from Ecuador. The style of these staff is comparable to the famous cult image known as the ‘idol of Pachacámac’. This wooden carving depicts two deities standing on a high pedestal. Each of them looks towards the other like the Roman Janus, but the two figures are clearly joined back to back and each has a different character, i.e. a celestial aspect versus a telluric aspect, and are possibly also of different sexes. Stylistically, the idol is closer to the iconography known from the Castillo de Huarmey, among other places, than from the Wari religious centres at Ayacucho.

Staff carved in wood with depictions of two dignitaries of the Wari Empire (800-1,100 AD) deposited in a votive deposit covered with a layer of fragments of the tropical shell Spondydus princeps, imported from Ecuador
© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

Hurin (Luren) Pacha, or the world of Peruvian ancestors 

The results of the research to date indicate that during the Wari Empire period, specifically between 800 and 1100 AD, Pachacámac had the character of a settlement, with a ceremonial platform. This platform is currently hidden under the rubble and terraces of the Painted Temple from the Inca period. The cemetery uncovered by Professor Makowski’s excavations does not have the character of an elite necropolis as suggested by Uhle. It is instead comparable to the Ancón site, which was the burial place of fishermen, from the part of the coast between the Chancay and Chillón valleys both during the Wari Empire and in later periods.  

A pair of miniature jugs, with the image of an ancestor (?) found as part of a grave setting
© M.Giersz, ed. K. Kowalewski, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

Due to the state of preservation and the precision of the documentation of the context of the finds at the time of excavation, as well as the laboratory analyses, the burial assemblages uncovered are a veritable goldmine of information on the social position of men, women and children according to kinship ties, the care of invalids, indicators of war and domestic violence. Nineteen of the bundles, with their lower part preserved and an intact structure, could be transferred to the laboratory in their entirety in order to document them three-dimensionally using CT scanning without having to be opened. Their contents will be analysed on a computer screen by bioarchaeologists Professor Dr Andrew Nelson and Dr Lucía Watson.

Excavations of a group burial complex in chambers at Pachacamac cemetery 1: three burial bundles
© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”, ed. M. Giersz,  published under CC BY-SA 4.0

In the pre-Hispanic Andes, no one died. Everyone was predestined to continue living in the parallel world of the ancestors (hurin pacha)

–  explains Professor Makowski –

The condition was that family members did their duty and prepared the deceased to continue living. The prevalence of burial bundles in the cemeteries of the Peruvian coast in the late period (8001531/32), and at the beginning of the colonial period, in the case of burials of all age groups of both sexes is evidence that this duty to ensure the continuity of life after life to one’s immediate ancestors was taken very seriously. After all, it is the dead who return each year to the land and look after the harvest; on them also depends the abundance of water which flows down from the mountains to the desert coasts filling the irrigation channels.

Excavations of a group burial complex in chambers at Pachacamac cemetery 1: canopies have been partially raised
© PUCP Archaeology Program “Valley of Pachacámac”, ed. M. Giersz, published under CC BY-SA 4.0

This article can be reprinted free of charge, with photos, and with the source indicated


Website of the “Valley of Pachacámac” project



Profesor Krzysztof Makowski
© M. Giersz,  published under CC BY-SA 4.0

Krzysztof Makowski – Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Lima, until 2012. Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. Graduate of the Faculty of History, researcher at the Institute of Archaeology until 1982. He has worked in Peru for more than 40 years, where he has carried out archaeological research in Cerro Vicus, Pampa Juarez (Alto Piura valley), or Tablada de Lurín y Pueblo Viejo-Pucará (Lurín valley), among others. Since 2005, head of archaeological research at the Pachacámac site. Mentor and friend of Polish archaeologists working in Peru. Awarded with the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Rebirth of Poland.



Editing: J.M.C

Proofreading: S.A

Cover: Professor Krzysztof Makowski and one of the mummies found.
© M.Giersz, ed. K. K.


This text was funded by IDUB and the project entitled “Popularizing the research of the Department of Archaeology of the Americas at the Faculty of Archaeology” from Inicjatywa Doskonałości – Uczelnia Badawcza programme.


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