Because history nerds cannot live on Rome alone (jk, we totally can, but I loved the pics from this story so I’m interpolating a little pre-Hispanic Peru into my Roman idyll), I digress to cover a neat discovery at the ancient Chimu culture site of Chan Chan in northern Peru. Archaeologists have unearthed 20 wooden statues that date back 800 years. They are the oldest sculptures found so far at Chan Chan.
The statues are 27.5 inches high and made of black wood. They wear beige clay face masks which make for a striking contrast against the darkness of the wood. (They’re like the ancient Peruvian version of No Face from Spirited Away.) Each has a circular object on its back that may represent a shield. Of the 20 idols, 19 are intact, one was devoured by termites.
The idols are set in two rows of opposing niches occupying a ceremonial corridor of the Utzh An (the Great Chimu palace). The walls are decorated with high reliefs more than 100 feet long, primarily lines of squares reminiscent of a chessboard. There are also wave patterns and images of the “lunar animal,” a dragonlike quadruped accompanied by lunar symbols which is one of the most ancient recurring figures in Peruvian iconography, first appearing in the early Moche culture. The corridor was discovered in June and was filled with soil. It was excavated over the course of months. The statues were first uncovered in September.
The Chimú ruled the northern coastal area of Peru from around 850 A.D. until the Inca conquered them in 1470. Chan Chan was the capital of their empire, Chimor, and it was the largest city in pre-Columbian South America. At its peak, Chan Chan had an estimated population of some 40,000-60,000. It was not overbuilt – the modern city of Trujillo is 2.5 miles to the northwest — and the archaeological site attests to what a great urban center Chan Chan was. In the eight square miles of the excavated city, there are more adobe buildings than in any other city in the Americas, and only the magnificent Achaemenid Citadel of Bam in Iran is larger. (Bam may have lost the title, however, after it was leveled most brutally by a 2003 earthquake. It was almost entirely rebuilt but some structures could not be restored.)
This great video shows the excavations at Chan Chan, including how the soil fill around the statues was painstakingly removed to reveal the full figures.