Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán
By Russell Sabo
The first touristic place I visited in Peru was the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán. This is the museum which displays most of the artifacts recovered from the tomb of the “Señor de Sipán” or Lord of Sipán. The museum is located in the town of Lambayeque, about 10 minutes from Chiclayo if you take a taxi. Knowing nothing about the Señor de Sipán, this was just a museum with a lot of interesting pieces from the Moche, or Mochica culture in northwestern Peru.
As an ignorant tourist, the museum was interesting to me because I knew I was seeing the remains of an old culture that I had never heard of. When I think of Peru, I think of the Incan culture, not realizing that they weren’t the only culture that had ever existed in Peru. So when I saw the ornaments, beads, weapons, ceramic pots, and the photos of the excavation of the site at Huaca Rajada near the town of Sipán, as well as full-sized reproductions of the original tomb, it really sparked my interest in the Moche culture.
The museum got its start back in 1987 when the police in Chiclayo contacted Dr. Walter Alva, the director of the Brüning Museum in Lambayeque, to examine a sack of looted artifacts that they had seized from the home of a huaquero, a tomb robber. These artifacts turned out to be from Huaca Rajada, which was quickly being emptied of its treasures by local huaqueros. In turn, the stolen artifacts were being sold on the Black Market and being shipped all over the world. The police put a stop to the tomb-looting and Dr. Alva put together a team of trained and untrained archaeologists to excavate the site.
There was some tension between the archaeologists and the locals, including the huaqueros, as the site was being excavated. But once Dr. Alva and his team discovered the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, he showed the locals the tomb, telling them that a great lord of the Moche had once ruled over the area in which they now lived. The tension quickly disappeared as the locals flocked to see the site, now knowing that they had an esteemed ancestor instead of a giant storeroom of gold to loot and sell.
One discovery led to another and soon it was clear that Dr. Alva was the lead archaeologist in one of the most important archaeological finds of the past 50 years. The Brüning Museum wouldn’t be large enough to hold all of the artifacts, especially since many of the artifacts which had been sold on the Black Market were being returned to Peru as quickly as American Customs agents could find them.
El Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán was inaugurated on November 8, 2002 by the president of Peru, and is now a favorite place to visit among the tourists who visit the Lambayeque Region. It’s located just a few blocks east of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional Bruning and any taxi driver will know where it is.
Upon arrival to the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, you will pay 15 Soles for your ticket and then you will go to the right side of the building to drop off your cameras and cell phones at a check-in area. Photography is not allowed inside of this museum. You can take as many pictures as you want of the outside of it, which is impressive to say the least. At the check-in area, somebody will store your cameras and cell phones for free and give you a ticket so you can collect them after touring the museum. Because of the amount of gold in this museum, the security is very good, so there’s no need to worry about your stuff.
After checking in, you will head up the ramp to the top floor after being swept with a metal detector wand. I set off the metal detector a couple times because of my watch and coins in my pocket, but the guard just waved me through. After you enter the museum, somebody will check your entrance ticket and then allow you in. From there you can view the exhibits on your own, or somebody may come along and tell you about each of the exhibits.
Even though I knew nothing about the Moche culture, the museum was fascinating. Seeing everything that they had created out of gold and copper gave me an appreciation of their metal-working skills, especially for how they created all of the fine and exact details on some of their small sculptures. Some of the things you will see are: ceramic pots, many of them with pictures on them that show bits of everyday life among the Moche, including religious rites, sacrifices, and sexual practices. There are many ornaments constructed of gold and copper that the Lord of Sipán wore, weapons of the warriors, textiles with beautiful designs, reproductions of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán and some of the other high-ranking persons, and representations of some of the gods they worshipped.
Once you reach the end of the museum you’re treated to an animatronic display of the Lord of Sipán and his people which includes an interpretation of what their music may have sounded like.
All of the pieces in this museum are authentic and were pain-stakingly restored to their original glimmer and shine. If you’d like to get a taste of the Moche culture, this museum is one of the best places in the world to experience it. Once you’ve been to this museum, make sure you visit the Museo Arqueológico Nacional Brüning, which is located just a few blocks straight west of the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, where you will improve your understanding of the Moche culture, as well as the Chimú culture that also called northwest Peru their home after the decline of the Mochicas.
If you’d like to make the most out of your visit to the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, I definitely recommend doing a little bit of research before coming to visit. There is a wonderful book published called “Lords of Sipán, A True Story of Pre-Inca Tombs, Archaeology, and Crime by Kidney Kirkpatrick that describes everything that happened prior to the museum being built. You will learn of the huaqueros that looted the tombs, of the smugglers and art dealers that sold the looted artifacts from the tombs to art collectors all over the world, and of Dr. Alva who excavated the tombs, enabling the rest of us to enjoy the art and history of the Moche culture. Had I read this book prior to my visit, my appreciation for all things Moche would have been much more than it was as an ignorant tourist.
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