An ancient, pre-Columbian fresco that was lost for more than a century — and only known from black-and-white photographs — has been rediscovered in northern Peru. Thought to be around 1,000 years old, the artwork forms part of the temple, which was built by the Moche civilization that flourished between around 100–700 AD. According to the experts, the temple was constructed in veneration of the Moon, the rain, iguanas and spiders.
The team that unearthed the missing mural was led by archaeologist Sâm Ghavami of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He said: “It’s an exceptional discovery.
“It is rare to unearth wall paintings of such quality in pre-Columbian archaeology. The composition of this painting is unique in the history of mural art in pre-Hispanic Peru.”
The mural is around 98 feet long and is adorned with images of mythological scenes in various colours — blue, brown, mustard yellow, red and white — the paint of which is said to be extremely well-preserved.
It is unusual, also, in how it appears to sport a mixture of styles and elements from two pre-Incan cultures, both the Moche and the Lambayeque. The latter group lived along Peru’s northern coastline between around 750 and 1375 AD.
The Lambayeque — also known as the Sicán — are responsible for some of the most iconic artefacts from the ancient Americas. They were prolific producers of masks and goldwork, among other works of art.
Experts believe that the Lambayeque culture emerged as the previously dominant Wari civilization faded. Their founding city was Huaca Chotuna, although the group endured for some 12 generations with rulers overseeing a loose network of cities linked via family ties.
One of the most significant Lambayeque sites was Batán Grande in the La Leche Valley. This settlement features a system of irrigation canals alongside 17 massive burial mounds. These pyramid-shaped structures contained tombs that held mummified bodies, sacrificial remains and precious goods made from gold, silver and copper alloys.
Historians believe that the Lambayeque were ultimately defeated and forcibly assimilated into the Chimú empire around the year 1375. This led to a continuity in Andean art being perpetuated across various subsequent cultures.
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The photographs of the mural — the only previous proof of its existence — were taken in the year 1916 by the German ethnologist Hans Heinrich Bruning, who lived in Peru. He studied both the Aguaruna, the indigenous people who primarily live along the Marañón River and some of its tributaries.
After some initial resistance, Mr Brunning was able to study the Moche people — completing a dictionary of their language in 1917 — after participating in local rituals.
He became aware of the Huaca Pintada temple site after hearing of the activities of treasure hunters who had tried to loot it, but found nothing of value to them to steal.
After Mr Brunning took his snapshots of the fresco, it became obscured under thick foliage and lost to the annals of history — until the photographs piqued Mr Ghavami’s interest.
It took the archaeologist and his group of local students four years, however, to locate and visit the artwork, having struggled for some time to obtain permission from the landowners to be able to visit the site to study it.