Thieves of the Sacred

A Peruvian examines the grave looting traditions of her country

By Micaela Bullard


[dropcap]I[/dropcap] first arrived at Panquilma in a 1982 Volkswagen Type 2 microbus. Sand-colored, flower-powered, and frankly, hazardous, the Time Machine, as it was aptly named, was perhaps the perfect adventurous vehicle to deliver a team of archeology students to the sites of the past. After banging its way through Lima’s low-lying valleys for an hour and a half, the Time Machine wheezed to a stop in front of a Ministry of Culture warning sign and deposited us amongst the dusty presence of the ruins.
My first thought as I descended from the bus was that the Peruvians of old must have been either stupid or crazy to choose to live in such a desolate expanse of dirt-dry nothingness. The site of Panquilma is nestled at the bottom of a ravine, cloistered by the neophyte crags that mark the beginning of the Andes. It is a claustrophobic stretch of rock and sand from where the crumbling adobe walls of antique settlements rise up lazily. The air is odorless and arid. The silence is eerie. Panquilma seems more alien than ancient.
In spite of its forsaken exterior, Panquilma’s desert environment lends itself to unbelievable preservation; during the month I spent there, fulfilling childhood dreams of archeological adventure, I managed to dig up six-hundred-year old corncobs that might have come out of the fall displays at Whole Foods and a mummified guinea pig whose blond locks could have been featured in a L’Oreal commercial. Every field season, Panquilma’s sands yield entire boxes of artifacts. Yet amongst this abundance of historical relics, there is a particular object that is hard to come by: skulls.
The archeologists weren’t the first to arrive at Panquilma. Long before the Time Machine trundled down the dirt paths of Lima’s coastal valleys, Panquilma’s depths were already being overturned by the determined greed of generation upon generation of tomb raiders. Even to the untrained eye, their legacy on the ruins is clear. The low-lying hills of Panquilma’s funerary sector are speckled with deep holes. In the maps of archeologists, these have their own unique acronym: L.P., looter’s pit. The skulls are gone, sold as training tools to nursing students, good luck charms to the superstitious and ritual objects to shamans.
A couple of days after my initial arrival to the ruins, we opened up our first excavation unit. One of the adobe walls surrounding us was marked by raider’s graffiti: unintelligible signs meant to mark looting territory. The large equilateral triangle with a circle in its middle had been carved with a knife on the dry mud, an unspoken and unnerving reminder that we weren’t the only ones there, that the looters were watching.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he proclivity of looting is unsurprising given Peru’s vast archeological richness; as a Venezuelan archeologist remarked to me, “wherever you stick a shovel in, a bone pops out,” Since burials tend to be accompanied by valuable offerings, tomb raiding has been so widespread and so influential that its history makes a sad footnote in high school textbooks. The long process of voracious destruction began with the Conquistadores, as they melted the gold and silver of Peru’s past and shipped it off to Spain. During the colony, looting was permitted as long as one was a member of the official tomb-robbing guild.
After the country gained its independence from the Spanish, hacienda owners would commonly loot the sites in their lands, with some wealthy families obtaining considerable collections of artifacts. The northern coast holds some particularly infamous cases. About two thirds of the massive pyramid at the Moche Temple of the Sun were destroyed when looters changed the course of an entire river to erode the structure. Another pre-Inca site, Batán Grande, was surrounded by barbed wire and officially declared a gold deposit by the government after considerable pressure from the owners. A foundry was built next to it to process the enormous amounts of gold pieces that came out.
As it became one of the country’s most common crimes, grave looting acquired its own verb and noun within the common vocabulary of Peruvians. Both terms are derived from the Quechua word huaca, meaning revered object or location. To raid a site is to huaquear, and a grave looter is a huaquero, a thief of the sacred.
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]rave looting is no longer the government-supported sport it once was. Peru now has a Ministry of Culture that oversees – or at least attempts to oversee – the conservation of the country’s cultural heritage, and anyone attempting to wash off half a pyramid would get into considerable amounts of trouble.
Yet, the huaqueros are far from gone. Only their methodology, a curious combination of crime and tradition, has changed.
The modern Peruvian grave looter requires five things: a bag of coca leaves, cigarettes, spirits (generally Peruvian pisco or anise liquor), shovels and a very long, thin metal rod. After amassing their basic toolkit the huaqueros will proceed to obtain the blessing of their ancestors by smoking, chewing coca leaves and getting somewhat drunk. They will then offer a small payment to the earth, an ancient Peruvian tradition meant to thank the Pachamama, or mother earth, for whatever she decides to yield. They will proceed to the site, generally crossing Ministry fences under cover of night, and, guided by the high of the liquor or the signals of the ancestors, will start digging the long rod into the earth. If the ancestors are feeling particularly kind that day, the rod will sink, and the team of huaqueros will shovel up any artifacts in approximately one millionth of the time it would take an archeologist’s trowel to do the same. If the ancient spirits did not provide their blessing and there was no booty to be found, they can always come back another day.
The technique differs depending on location, with some variants including looking for golden lights in the dark and tying dogs to pyramids (wherever the dogs die, there is treasure underneath). Grave looting is also far more common in the coast, especially in the north, where it constitutes a normal weekend family activity for lower income families, like getting ice cream or going to the pool. Nevertheless, the general consensus amongst archeologists is that in the Andean highlights superstitions concede a greater respect for the dead. As for the booty, whole ceramics will generally be sold to domestic collectors and any precious metals will be melted, with the exception of high quality pieces that can fetch tens of thousands of dollars abroad.
Dealing with huaqueros has become a common concern for Peruvian archeologists, since the destructive power of looting can have remarkable influence over the validity of delicate archeological processes. One of the teaching assistants at the Panquilma field school, an American osteologist, had to change her entire dissertation topic as a result. She had meant to investigate common pathologies at the site, but the dispersal of remains made her task very difficult— “all they leave behind are toe bones, so many toe bones.” She researched raiders’ handling of burials instead, tracking the making of looting pits on Google Earth. Bryan Nuñez, who was in charge of the lab at Panquilma, told me he had once excavated an intact burial in the central highlands. After cleaning the initial layers, they had returned one morning to find that looters had gone through the objects. “They only moved a couple of ceramics,” he said “but the damage was done, we could no longer call it intact.” A similar thing happened to the project director at one of the first Panquilma digs. He had found the skeleton of a woman clutching a bag and left it overnight. When he returned in the morning, the bag was gone. Its contents will remain forever a mystery, literally stolen from the hands of the past.
Occasionally, looters will even organize into mafias and prevent archeologists from excavating new sites. The director of an Andean dig I excavated in after Panquilma, Jose Luis Fuentes, had had a close encounter with huaqueros in his youth. He was looking at sites in the northern coast and visited a particularly spectacular one that was outside ministry protection. It was a huge pyramidal mound, topped by some sort of fortress structure. He walked around and lifted his camera to take a picture. As he put it down, he realized he had suddenly been surrounded by a group of muscular, threatening men. Their leader walked up to him and said, “Who are you and what are you doing here? This is my castle. Only I can loot it.”
Jose Luis faked ignorance, said he was a student (of course failing to mention his major) and left in a rush. Yet stories of violent coercion, extortion and racketeering by huaqueros abound within archaeology circles.
Considering such stories, it is easy to conclude that the relationship between looters and archaeologists is a completely antagonistic one. My time spent amongst archeologists, however, showed me something different: the two are more intertwined than one would assume. Huaqueros and archeologists share certain superstitions: we also made a payment to earth before opening our first unit at Panquilma. Some Peruvian archeologists come from families with strong raiding traditions; when I asked Bryan whether he’d ever met a huaquero, he blushed a little and said “Of course! My grandfather was one”. He admitted that when going to the homes of his fellow archeology students many of them displayed artifacts looted by older generations. The interest in the past of certain looters, in spite of being purely commercial, can apparently inspire their children to go legitimate.
In their need for information, archaeologists can strike a delicate balance with huaqueros. One of Peru’s most prominent archaeological discoveries, the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, was a result of archaeologist Walter Alva’s conversations with looters at local bars in the northern coast. Alva heard of the discovery of a rich burial and intervened, managing to take it by force from the grasp of raiding mafias, but not before they escaped with 11 sacks worth of gold. The father of Peruvian archeology, Julio C. Tello, and the scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham, both purchased pieces from looters that can be now observed at museums. The fear of Peruvian society to work near sites and handle remains, supposedly leading to a heaviness of the heart they call “Evil of the Huaca”, means archeologists many times end up hiring former huaqueros to work as aides in the field.
“If they’re willing to help us out, you know they probably dug their own hands into the dirt some time before,” Bryan remarked.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wo days before Panquilma’s field season was over, I decided to explore some walls close to the unit we were soon closing. It had been a frustrating couple of weeks. After going through layer upon layer of hard sediment, we had only found corncobs and ceramic shards. A couple of promising burial cysts had been completely empty but for rat bones and textile fragments, wiped clean by raiding god knows how many years ago. Disillusioned, I walked along the line of walls, looking for copper needles or stone points over the sand. I reached a room filled with a row of square adobe storage areas. I was about to leave when movement caught my eye. There was a piece of cloth hanging over one of the compartments, floating lightly in the breeze. I approached it. A white textile lay at the bottom of the adobe square, covering something slightly curved. With a sudden iciness in my gut, I disturbingly realized that I was looking at some sort of body. Against my every instinct, I climbed down into the cyst and uncovered its contents.
There were skulls: four of them, three adults and what was clearly a child, nestled on a bed of red textile and yellowed cotton, with more bones underneath. It was a mummy bundle, ripped open and exposed, the abandoned booty of a huaquero. As I watched in terrorized awe, a brown spotted lizard climbed out of an eye socket.
I ran away and returned with the rest of the team. We hid the finding and came back to remove it the following day. There were a total of six skulls, a complete adult skeleton with a mane of red hair, textiles and a worked gourd. The bundle had been moved from its original location, so the majority of its archaeological value was gone. It was also clear evidence of recent looting at the site. Yet as I loaded the discovery into the trunk of the Time Machine, I couldn’t help but think that it was a small victory. We had unbleached bones to measure and whole textiles to analyze, and this time, we had gotten back the skulls.


Micaela Bullard ’18 is a Latin American Studies major in Calhoun College. You can contact her at