Stealing History

Stealing History Police say looters in a Peruvian village almost destroyed one of the world’s great archaeological finds. But to the people of Sipan, the archaeologists are the real thieves.

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The road to Sipan winds for miles through the radiant green of sugarcane fields, bending now and then around barren little outcrops. At one of these rocky hills, I’m told, shamans gather during Holy Week to speak in tongues and draw pottery out of the ground. It’s said that ancient indigenous ceramics respond to the shamans’ incantations by rising to the surface so that people can dig them up and take them home.

This is northern Peru, where the ancient past is never far from the surface.

As the road approaches Sipan, a treeless mound as high as a 10-story building appears above the forests of sugarcane. It is the Huaca, a pyramid built 2,000 years ago from millions of adobe bricks and eroded by so many centuries of wind and rain that it now looks from afar like an old man’s weathered skin. The Moche, who dominated this arid landscape along Peru’s northern coast in the first millennium A.D., buried their royalty in the Huaca. They sacrificed animals and people and drained their blood there. Sometime around 800 A.D., their civilization disappeared. Other cultures came and went until the last of them, the Incas, were vanquished by the Spaniards.

Now the Huaca is both the blessing and curse of the village that lives in its shadow. Blessing because the 1987 discovery of a Moche tomb stuffed with gold, silver, and pottery brought an influx of archaeologists, tourists, and fame. And curse because all that fame and treasure has brought almost nothing of value to this town of 2,000. Fifteen years after local looters made what is perhaps the 20th century’s most important archaeological discovery in the Americas, the town has almost nothing to show for it: no running water, no paved roads, no medical facilities to speak of, and no hope.

“They take those treasures all around the world, and what happens to us? We have to bathe in the irrigation ditches — first the horses, then the cows, then the goats, then us,” a stout old woman named Isabel Rodríguez told me. “The archaeologists come here and dig up all the gold and silver and leave us with nothing. And they call us the looters.”

Go to marquee archaeological sites in Cambodia, Egypt, or Guatemala and you’ll find places not too different from Sipan — places where well-funded excavations and museums sit next door to neglected, embittered communities. Too often, people in such towns make a living by digging up ancient sites, grabbing what artifacts they can before the archaeologists catch on. Sipan is a good example of the reasons why.

The first time I came to Sipan, last December, the villagers had shut the steel gate across the main road into town and covered it in bedsheets printed with angry slogans. The banners denounced the Sipan site’s lead archaeologist, Walter Alva, an internationally known field researcher. “Alva! Thanks for keeping us in the most extreme poverty,” said one. “Walter Alva is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — beware!” said another. A small crowd gathered as I walked down the street. People looked at me suspiciously, examining me for the telltale tools of the hated archaeologists, asking one another if I was a spy sent by Alva.

“Alva comes here, brings all the foreigners around, shows them the Huaca,” said one old man standing by his crumbling adobe home. “And we never got a dollar. Look at this place — we have nothing.”

Gabino Chero, a farmworker with a face that could have been a model for a Moche ceramic portrait vessel, drew close to me and spat on the ground. “Do they think we’re a bunch of sheep? They want us to shut our mouths while they come in and take the treasures out of the Huaca. But we’re the real heirs of the Moche, not Alva and his pals.” I wandered over to the Huaca and up to the archaeological site, where there were three armed policemen, a barking dog, and one lonely archaeologist, José Bonilla. He wanted to leave town that afternoon. Could I please carry him out in the trunk of my rented car, he asked, so he could avoid the villagers? “They used to throw things at me,” he said. “They don’t do that much anymore because they know they’ll be arrested. So they shout obscenities. Very unpleasant.”

At the heart of Sipan’s bitterness is the sense that archaeologists are taking something of value — artifacts worth more money, in many cases, than villagers will see in a lifetime — without leaving anything behind. But running deeper is despair at how the old ways of making a living are gradually being closed off.

Sipan is one of the many towns in this part of northern Peru where pillaging ancient sites has been a part of survival. For decades, men have gone into the sandy hills with shovels and poles to dig for pre-Inca trinkets — a ceramic pot, a bit of metalwork, a textile fragment for which an art dealer might pay the equivalent of a few dollars, and that might fetch hundreds of times that much on the international art market. Looting was a seasonal trade, a way to make a little cash after the sugar harvest.

But now the harvest is mostly mechanized, the sugar refineries have fewer and fewer jobs, and digging up ancient graves isn’t as easy as it once was. The hills close to town are mostly tapped out, and there’s competition from professional grave robbers who roam up and down the coast of Peru. Police who didn’t use to pay much attention to looters now arrest men with shovels and confiscate their bounty. There are armed officers stationed at the Huaca 24 hours a day.

And for all this, the villagers blame Walter Alva.

In 1987, before the world had heard of Sipan, Alva was the director of a provincial museum in his hometown of Lambayeque, the provincial capital about an hour’s drive from Sipan. Sometimes he would collaborate with American and European archaeologists excavating Moche tombs near Lambayeque; sometimes he would work with his own team at out-of-the-way sites. A good-natured fellow, he might have spent a lifetime in semi-obscurity — digging up tombs, filling museum shelves with pots and shards, publishing an article now and then.

All that changed on February 6, 1987, when a band of looters struck a tomb deep inside the Huaca. They ransacked the tomb, carrying their finds out in rice sacks. Dozens of delicate metal pieces, ceramic pots, and human remains were smashed or lost. Within days, the men were knocking on the doors of Peruvian art dealers with some of the most fabulous pre-Columbian objects ever seen — gold and turquoise ornaments, metal body armor, exquisite figurines. From Los Angeles to London, word swept through the international antiquities market that Peruvian looters had stumbled upon a major site. The dealers figured they had to move fast: Police were sure to bust the whole racket soon. Back in Sipan, a looter who felt cheated of his share of the treasure alerted police. They raided another looter’s home, found some artifacts that had not yet been sold, and called Alva. That night at the police station, Alva gasped when he saw the first pieces from the site that would make him famous.

By then the entire village had gotten into the act. People were clambering down into the looted tomb, digging into the Huaca with trowels, sifting the dirt with patches of window screen. Police forced the townspeople off the site and erected a fence as Alva and his crew went to work. For months, the enraged villagers taunted the archaeologists and pelted them with rocks. But Alva persisted, excavating about a dozen tombs in the Huaca. At least two were as rich in precious metals and jewels as the looted tomb.

Those pieces became the core of an exhibit, titled “Royal Tombs of Sipan,” that in the mid-’90s traveled to museums around the world and was the subject of lavish photo spreads in National Geographic. Sipan deepened historians’ understanding of Moche society and showed that its artistic achievements and social complexity were greater than anyone had realized. More than any other site, it brought a shift in the focus of archaeology from the Mediterranean world, where it had been since the 19th century, to the indigenous societies of the Americas.

But if the find was a spectacular bit of good fortune for archaeologists, Sipan has been almost cosmically unlucky in the years since. Peru’s government, sensitive to charges that it was neglecting the town, built a new steel bridge over the Reque River four years ago. It collapsed the day it was opened. Last November, officials spruced up the place for a visit by the king and queen of Spain. Men came to lay a fresh layer of dirt on the roads; rumors spread that they were finally going to be paved. In the end, the monarchs never came. Clouds of dust still rise from the dirt roads every time a car pulls into town.

Archaeologists say they sympathize with Sipan’s plight — but that poverty and bad roads are not their problem. Looting is. “In one night they destroyed a tomb that would have taken us a year to excavate,” Alva says. “In a few more nights they would have gotten the rest, and all this knowledge would have been lost.” The village’s current population is descended mostly from people who migrated to the area from the Andes over the past century, he notes. “They don’t have a connection with the land there and, unlike some of the other villages in the area, they don’t respect the past.”

In recent years, looting has become more controversial in northern Peru. The federal government has cracked down on exports of stolen antiquities, and in some communities, local government and private landowners have mobilized citizen patrols to stop the plunder. But Sipan has resisted such efforts. Here, the looters who discovered the treasure have become folk heroes, symbols of the town’s collective resentment. Even the local soccer team is named after the man who first dug into the Huaca, Ernil Bernal.

The latest slap in the face for Sipan is the Moche museum being built, with a budget of $5 million, in Lambayeque. Modern, ultra-secure and beautifully designed, the museum is funded by the proceeds of the Sipan traveling exhibit and $1 million from the Swiss government. It will house nearly all of the Sipan artifacts, including what has become a kind of Moche masterpiece, a necklace made of huge gold-and-silver peanuts. Peru’s government hopes the museum will become a major tourist draw once it opens in May. “First they took away our treasures and now they deny us the only opportunity we had for jobs here,” says Carlos Zapata, head of Sipan’s community development committee and the town’s highest elected official. “They built a museum. Great. How about a decent school for Sipan?”

Of all the people in this unlucky town, the unluckiest surely is Carlos Bernal Vargas, a lean, deep-voiced man in his 70s and father of the legendary looter Ernil Bernal. The Bernal family was asleep on the morning, in April 1987, when police swooped in on their house, looking for loot from the Huaca. Alva had come along on the raid armed with a metal detector, suspecting that Ernil had buried his treasure.

What followed became national news in Peru and forever poisoned relations between the archaeologists and the people of Sipan. As police moved in, Ernil Bernal dashed out of the house. An officer fired, and Bernal was mortally wounded. Sipan had a martyr. “My son is lying on the ground dying, and there’s Alva with his metal detector looking for who knows what,” his father recalled, sitting alone last December in the living room of the new house he has built. (“Too many ghosts in the old place,” he explained.) Since his son died, nothing has gone well for Bernal Vargas. Emilio, his other son and Ernil’s partner in the looting, fell off a tractor and was crushed by its wheel. Another son was expelled from the Peruvian air force after he, too, was accused of trafficking in looted Sipan artifacts. Bernal Vargas’ wife died a few years ago. And then, one by one, seven of his cows were stolen. Small comfort that in the village his son’s name is spoken reverentially, like that of an outlaw saint.

“I wish my son had never found that damn tomb,” Bernal Vargas said. “It brought me nothing but curses. But you know what they say, ÔNo hay bien que por mal no venga.'” Which is to say, every good thing turns bad. As Sipan knows.


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