A Hidden Culture Comes to Light
The artifacts are stunning, but
archaeologist Izumi Shimada prizes the knowledge he's gained even more
trick to keeping a diverse group of people working harmoniously on a hot,
dirty archaeological dig?
Let them eat cake, says Izumi Shimada.
Shimada, an associate professor of anthropology,
isn't the only archaeologist to recognize the importance of good food in
keeping up morale. But he's probably relied on this recipe—leavened well
with humor and respect—longer than most.
For nearly 25 years, he has directed the
Sicán Archaeological Project on the north coast of Peru, the longest-running
archaeological field project in South America. It has produced its share
of treasure, from gold artifacts to a better understanding of the people
who lived in Peru hundreds of years before the Inca Empire. It has involved
dozens of local fieldworkers, as well as students and scientists from around
the world, who live together during field seasons at the project headquarters
despite differences in age, language, race, and nationality. And at the
end of each grueling workday, Shimada makes sure his team gets tempting
meals and pastries, not unappetizing grub.
Having grown up in Japan, Shimada originally
was interested in the archaeology of central Asia. But as an undergraduate
at Cornell University, he took classes with John Murra, a charismatic teacher
who was a leading expert on the Incas.
"I was fascinated by the story he told
about the Inca empire," says Shimada. By the time Shimada went on to graduate
studies at the University of Arizona, he had set his sights on becoming
a specialist in Andean civilization.
The two key areas of archaeological exploration
in Peru are the southern highlands, home to the Incas, and the north coast,
a major center of pre-Inca culture.
"Murra said that to fully understand how
the Inca empire emerged, and its features, we needed to better understand
the cultural development on the north coast," Shimada says. "He thought
that the Incas learned a lot from these cultures."
The north coast, running about 200 miles
along the Pacific, boasts fertile river valleys. "What you're looking at
is agricultural productivity," says Shimada. "That typically means large
populations, and it's inevitable there would be some sort of important
cultural development. And that's exactly what you have in the north coast.
It saw a succession of complex societies."
One of those
was the pre-Incan culture that Shimada named Sicán (meaning "temple
of the moon," the indigenous name for the place where its capital was located).
Flourishing from A.D. 800 to 1375, it was a society of farmers, fishermen,
ceramic artisans, and metalworkers. It built adobe-brick platform mounds
for ceremonial and funerary purposes. And little was known about it.
First with a project run by the Royal Ontario
Museum, and then on his own starting in 1978, Shimada worked in the northernmost
part of the north coast. This area had the greatest agricultural potential
but had been largely ignored by researchers.
"It's odd that people didn't pay attention
to it," Shimada says. "I found a landscape dotted with many monumental
structures—very impressive huacas [mounds], 100 meters to a side and 30-40
meters in height. I felt it was well worth archaeological investigation,
and that it had been an important cultural center."
The region, a broad river valley extending
some 25 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Andean foothills, is called
Batán Grande. In 1978, surveying the area to prepare for fieldwork,
Shimada found that looters had dug thousands of holes to reach tombs that
contained gold ornaments and other valuables.
"We even came upon grave looters in the
midst of it," he says. "Oftentimes when I and my guide would approach,
people would run and leave behind what they were digging [for]."
Despite the wide-scale plundering, Shimada
believed that many tombs remained to be discovered, including tombs of
the elite. Radar surveys later proved him right—but he waited a long time
to bring any of those tombs to light.
"I was convinced that the culture was a
highly complex one, and to understand a complex culture is a major task,
one that no archaeologist can do singly," he says. "So I decided to take
many years and to take an interdisciplinary approach, assembling a team
of specialists to work together. Because very little was known about this
culture, I felt I needed to establish a sort of databank—as comprehensive
a background understanding as possible."
Over the years, Shimada has drawn on the
expertise of mining engineers, geologists, physical anthropologists, DNA
specialists, historians, botanists, chemists, materials scientists, artifact
conservators, potters, and metalsmiths, among others.
Through the 1980s, excavations of ancient
houses, trash middens, and metallurgy "factories" helped him and his colleagues
piece together the economic and technological aspects of Sicán culture.
people lived well. Accomplished farmers, they grew corn, beans, squash,
sweet potatoes, and other crops, including many kinds of fruit. They also
grew cotton for textiles. Their canals—up to 30 miles long and many feet
wide—crisscrossed the river valleys. Shimada's work helped establish that
this was in fact the largest irrigation system in the New World in pre-colonial
The Sicán raised llamas, alpacas,
dogs, ducks, and guinea pigs for food. They used what the sea had to offer,
too, harvesting everything from shellfish to sharks—along with the occasional
penguin or sea lion. (The Peruvian coast once boasted large colonies of
Pictographs and ornament decorations show
that the Sicán used reed boats for near-shore fishing and netting.
By about A.D. 1000 they also had balsa-wood rafts, which Shimada believes
were used for long-distance trade along the coast that brought in tropical
shells, emeralds, amber, and other exotic items.
Sicán settlements ranged from hamlets
to towns with thousands of inhabitants. Commoners lived in wattle-and-daub
houses, which have mud-covered frameworks of branches or canes. The elite
had larger homes made of adobe bricks with solid roofs and carefully plastered
floors. They had higher-quality household goods to match.
Sophisticated blackware—very glossy, black
ceramics—is one hallmark of Sicán culture. But metallurgy was this
society's most important legacy, Shimada says. "They were the first in
the New World to successfully produce bronze at an industrial scale. They
brought in the Bronze Age to a large portion of Peru."
bronze, an alloy of copper and arsenic, was used for tools, household utensils,
and ornamental goods for commoners. Ornaments for the social elite, however,
were more often made of gold, with the highest-karat gold reserved for
the top brass.
"The Sicán people produced a quantity
of gold, silver, and copper alloy that was unprecedented in the New World,"
says Shimada. Skilled workers made sheet metal, some of it paper-thin,
out of this gold alloy; then they cut, folded, and mechanically and chemically
joined sheets to fashion objects large and small.
To better understand Sicán ceramic
and metal production, Shimada and his colleagues turned to experimental
archaeology. "Through simulation of ancient techniques, we test our ideas
about how things were done," Shimada explains.
Excavations of Sicán workshops and
analyses of artifacts gave the team many clues about production processes.
Several pottery-making experiments over a 10-year period gradually improved
the team's understanding of Sicán ceramic technology, for example.
Smelting bronze was a tougher proposition.
"It proved to be quite a challenge, because this primitive smelting process
is no longer used," says Shimada. "It becomes a process of trial and error.
We produced things that were pretty close [to the originals], and we feel
we have a pretty good understanding of how things were done."
Four SIUC anthropology students—doctoral
students David Goldstein and Jorge Montenegro, and master's students Sarah
Taylor and Haagen Klaus—worked with Shimada on his most recent excavation
site: a coastal Sicán workshop that produced fine ceramics and metalwork.
Montenegro served as Peruvian co-director for that dig. Taylor is investigating
how the workshop was administered and how much artistic and technical freedom
the artisans there had. Klaus is analyzing the burials excavated at the
workshop. And Goldstein will do follow-up fieldwork to determine how the
Sicán managed their wood resources (making metal and pottery takes
a lot of fuel).
In the early
years of his project, Shimada worked to establish the chronology of the
Sicán culture's development up through the 14th century, when this
society was conquered by outsiders. During this time his team had run across
various burials—commoners were often buried in the floor of their house
or workshop—but not until 1990 did he feel prepared to systematically investigate
Tombs of the elite were sited under or
next to platform mounds, with tombs of high-status commoners often found
nearby. The flat tops of the mounds apparently served as temples or ceremonial
areas. Plastered wooden colonnades supported large roofs, and surrounding
adobe walls were plastered and elaborately painted with murals depicting
the principal Sicán deity, a human-like figure sporting wings and
1990 Shimada began excavating the tombs of commoners, and in 1991-92 he
excavated three elite tombs—including one he called the East Tomb at Huaca
Loro, an immense platform mound. This was the first elite Sicán
burial chamber that was largely intact when archaeologists got to it, at
the bottom of a 35-foot-deep shaft.
The chamber held the skeletons of a man
estimated to be in his mid-40s, two younger women, and two children. They
were accompanied by more than 100 gold objects, including a spectacular
headdress, a pair of golden gloves three feet long, headbands, crowns,
bracelets, and rattles. Physical evidence indicates that the man himself
may have been a master goldsmith, Shimada says.
In 1995 and 1996 Shimada uncovered a second
tomb, called the West Tomb, at Huaca Loro. Fifty feet underground, and
measuring more than 600 square feet at the bottom, it was the resting place
for 24 people, including a principal figure (a man about 40 years old)
and two groups of nine young women.
Dental, bone, and DNA analyses of the skeletons
gave Shimada information about the people's health and genetic relationships.
"We're dealing with a society that seemed
to have two major ethnic groups—an immigrant group closely related to modern-day
inhabitants of Ecuador and Colombia, and an indigenous group more closely
related to the modern-day inhabitants of Peru," he says.
While these groups overlapped in status,
the highest social tier was occupied only by the immigrant group. One of
the two groups of women buried in the West Tomb was indigenous; the other
group, which was genetically related to the central man, was immigrant.
a Sicán elite tomb is not like opening up King Tut's burial chamber.
Because the Sicán burial chambers are at the bottom of deep, dirt-filled
shafts, the grave goods are corroded and crumpled.
"The gold objects still sparkle, but they're
flattened by the weight of the fill and covered with dirt," Shimada explains.
It took months for conservators to restore some of the artifacts, such
as the headdress, found in the two tombs.
Many of the artifacts Shimada has recovered,
which remain the property of Peru, are displayed at the recently opened
National Sicán Museum in Ferreñafe. In 1997, Peruvian president
Alberto Fujimori asked Shimada to plan and design the museum—a task that
he took on reluctantly.
"I didn't expect it would be as time-consuming
and difficult as it's been to do conservation on these objects, to help
organize exhibits, to work on this museum," he says. "To say it comes with
the territory is one thing; to actually face it is another. But I've realized
that archaeologists do not do enough to educate the public. So I've reevaluated
the time I've spent on these public duties. It is rewarding work.
"For example, it's rewarding to know that
the national museum has hundreds of people visiting daily. It's more important
to me that the local people are getting something out of it than it is
to get another research publication." Shimada periodically visits towns
and schools in the Batán Grande area to share information about
A slim, soft-spoken man, Shimada is long
accustomed to talking about his research. Archaeological digs that may
turn up gold artifacts tend to get attention. To date, Japanese, Australian,
and Peruvian TV crews, a Discovery Channel crew, and most recently a National
Geographic crew have filmed some of his field work. To make sure their
presence doesn't compromise his scientific work, Shimada has learned to
set strict ground rules about when they can film and how close they can
get to the action.
The Japanese crew was there when Shimada's
workers finally dug through to the burial chamber of the East Tomb.
"The TV company was filming us every day,
so it was kind of a relief that we actually found gold objects—it got them
off my back," says Shimada with a laugh. "They were very excited, and I
think they were disappointed that I seemed so matter-of-fact. But the long
period of background research had prepared us to expect certain things,
and what we found was not a surprise."
He knows he's lucky, however.
As he acknowledges, "Very few of us, archaeologists
or the public, get to see that kind of thing in our lifetime."
—by Marilyn Davis
For a peek into Shimada's working style,
see The Psychology
of Archaeology.The Sicán Archaeological Project has been funded
by the National Science Foundation, the
Geographic Society, the Shibusawa Foundation for Ethnological Studies
(Japan), the Wenner-Gren Foundation,
the Heinz Foundation,
and a 2000 SIUC Summer Research Fellowship.
For more information, contact Dr. Izumi
Shimada, Dept. of Anthropology, at (618) 453-5023 or email@example.com.