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Significant Archaeological Finds in Peru

Researchers of Freie Universität Discovered One of the Oldest Ceremonial Sites of the Americas

№ 230/2008 from Jul 11, 2008

Archaeologists from the Institute for Latin American Studies of Freie Universität working in Peru have unearthed one of the oldest ceremonial sites in the Americas. The area around Sechín Bajo in the Casma Valley on the northern coast of Peru was investigated over a period of several years through a project sponsored by the German Research Foundation. The interdisciplinary team of scientists consisted of archaeologists, geophysisists, and conservators. The most recent investigations indicate that the earliest structures were built during the second half of the 4th millennium BC. The Berlin archaeologist, Dr. Peter Fuchs, head of the project, along with members of his team, presented their results on Friday at Freie Universität. The Ambassador of the Republic of Peru, Prof. Dr. Federico Kauffmann-Doig, was present.

In addition to the archaeologists of the Institute for Latin American Studies of Freie Universität Berlin, the excavation team included researchers from the Department for Geodesy and Geoinformation Science of Technische Universität Berlin, the independent contractor Büro für Geophysik Lorenz, and the restoration specialists Restaurierung am Oberbaum.

Background and Goal of the Excavation

The groundwork for the excavation of Sechín Bajo began in 1992 during a field trip by the Institute for Latin American Studies of Freie Universität Berlin. In 2000 the first archaeological studies were undertaken and the area was recorded topographically. The preliminary work was financed by the archaeological excavation company Archäo Kontrakt. Since 2003 the project has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The goal of the project is to gather information about  the conditions present during the original building phase of the monumental complex in the Casma Valley and its possible purpose, as well as to document the various building stages, take exact measurements, and achieve more accurate dating. Geophysical prospection will provide knowledge about the morphology of the land before building was begun and about buildings that were in place before the ceremonial  complex. The restoration studies are expected to provide information about ancient workmanship and techniques as well as the foundation for initial steps in conservation.

The Historical Situation

In the valleys along the northern coast of Peru, far-reaching changes occurred during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Settlements sprang up; large settlement cells and monumental building complexes spread out in the valleys, phenomena reflecting important changes in the structure of the settlements and the social fabric of the societies living there.

The Casma Valley

The Casma Valley played a significant role because it connects major resource zones with regions of cultural importance. The coastal zone and the Peru River with its abundance of fish and valley oases is connected with the Andes Highlands and with the tropical lowlands, a region where many agricultural crops are grown and the source of essential trading goods. The dense settlement of the Casma Valley during the Late Archaic and early Formative period and the large number of monumental buildings can be attributed to the significance of the valley.

The Construction Sequence

Before construction began, the surface was leveled and covered with a layer of clay. The earliest construction was built upon this clay pavement. It was a platform consisting of stones held together with clay plaster over a length of at least 40 meters with a height of over two meters. Staircases were placed at the sides. From the platform a staircase made of small rectangle-shaped mud bricks led down to a sunken circular plaza of about 16 meters in diameter. These sunken circular plazas later became a defining characteristic of the early monumental architecture. It is not yet known what function they served. The platform was extended laterally several times and three additional sunken circular plazas were built over the original one. On top of the platform there are still remains of a building as well as several walls and fireplaces. Several radiocarbon dating samples have placed the platform building with its sunken circular plazas in the period 3500-3000 BC, making it one of the oldest sites in the Andes region.

A rectangle-shaped building was later contructed on top of the platform, with parts of the platform remaining in place. The new building complex covered an area of ca. 35 by 40 meters and consisted of three room sequences with three rooms each. Next to this complex, a much larger building was constructed, covering a surface of ca. 125 meters by 150 meters. Originally the two buildings were separated by a ca. two-meter wide corridor. Later they were connected. The two later buildings have been placed in the period between 2100 and 1600 BC.

The latest and largest building consisted of an axis-symmetrical structure with four ascending courtyards, one behind the other, connected by axial staircases. The building materials consisted of locally quarried stones, mainly granidiorite, hewn smooth along one side and set in clay mortar with smaller stones filling in the spaces.

Prehistoric Relief Frieze

On one temple wall a prehistoric relief frieze made of clay mortar was discovered that appears to be 3,600 to 3,800 years old. Persons with various mythological or religious characteristics are depicted in it. The representations have great cultural and art historical significance. They originated in a very early highly developed culture and appear to have had an initiatory character for the later cultural development in this region.

Purpose of the Site

About or shortly after 1600 BC the site was abandoned. The staircases and entrances were walled up or destroyed to symbolize that the site was now out of bounds. Before final abandonment, over 130 graffiti were scratched into the clay mortar of the outer wall of the platform structure. Some of them were clumsy depictions of the relief in the first courtyard, but others were geometrical or zoomorphological motifs by expert artists. Particularly outstanding is the representation of a new type of being, a mixture between cayman, feline, and spider, possibly as the announcement of a new world view, referring to later regional cultures such as the Cupisnique or Chavin. The earliest ceramic vessels were produced during this period. Some of them were placed next to small fireplaces at the foot of the graffiti wall. In the following periods the site was used only as a burial grounds. So far 118 burials from later epochs have been documented.

Summary

The archaeological studies undertaken at the ceremonial site of Sechín Bajo document building history lasting over a period of 2,000 years, beginning with the oldest yet discovered monumental building, the first sunken circular plaza constructed in the fourth millennium BC, on through the large platform constructions from the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. The various stages are an impressive reflection of a building tradition as well as of societal evolution and change in world views.

Additional information may be obtained from:

Renate Patzschke
Archaeologist and Member of the Excavation Team
Telephone: +49 - 0170-2773462