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Gallery: SFU student helps discover ancient Peruvian priestess’ tomb

A 20-year-old student from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby B.C. was the only Canadian on an expedition in Peru in July, where an important archaeological discovery was made.

Matthew Go and eight other international archaeologists unearthed an ancient Moche priestess’ chamber tomb in northwest Peru.

Go, 20, is an archaeology undergraduate student and a budding expert on human osteology – the study of human bones.

This tomb contains a priestess’ skeleton dated AD 700-800 and is about 1,200 years old. This is the eighth tomb discovered in this area and archaeologists say it reveals the fact that women played a dominant role in human sacrifices in Moche society.

The priestess is wearing hundreds of beads, with her hands resting over two pink spondylus shells placed on her pelvis. Copper plates decorate her coffin. The skeletons of two other adults and five children also occupy her tomb.

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“The tomb contains a great quantity of artifacts associated with elite status,” says Go, who became the excavation team’s local expert on human remains.

“This chamber is clearly one of royal proportions. Such a find gives archaeologists a glimpse into Moche social and political organization, as well as possible clues to questions about the society’s sudden collapse,” he adds. The Moche were expert craftsmen and there are still many unanswered questions that sustain this culture’s enigma.”

There were many marine-related artifacts found in the tomb, and Go thinks they foreshadow the Moche’s collapse due to climate change.

“The chamber comes from the late Moche period, a time preceding the decline of the society,” explains Go. “Most scholars believe that a mega El Niño event, which likely caused torrential rains and unpredictable changes in the environment, was one of the key causes of its demise.”

Discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru.
Credit: Simon Fraser University
Discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru. Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru.
Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru. Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru.
Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru. Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru.
Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru. Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru.
Credit: Simon Fraser University
Matthew Go at the discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru. Credit: Simon Fraser University
Discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru.
Credit: Simon Fraser University
Discovery of an ancient tomb in Peru. Credit: Simon Fraser University

The mainly Peruvian expedition made its find while digging at the San José de Moro (SJM) Archaeological Project (SJMAP). Archaeology professor Luis Jaime Castillo at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) in Lima leads the 23-year-old dig.

Go was teaching and digging in a field school program jointly run by PUCP and Harvard University and attached to the SJMAP project when he and his colleagues made their discovery.

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When the young archeaologist returns to SFU this fall he will be pursuing his fourth year of studies, and says he owes Chris Papaianni, SFU’s academic advisor for archaeology, for recommending he check out the PUCP program.

“What I needed was experience dealing with human remains all the way from excavation in the field to further analysis in the lab,” says Go, who is pursuing a certificate in forensic studies.

“Such an experience is hard to find in North America because the laws protecting human remains are so restrictive. Peru, on the other hand, is literally a country filthy with accessible archaeological material.”