Radar unearths princely trove of buried gold

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Unprecedented quantities of ancient South American gold and other treasures are expected to be discovered under a deserted pre-Inca city in northern Peru.

In a major archaeological investigation involving academics in Britain, the United States and Peru, two tombs - one of which is the largest excavated in the Americas - have been unearthed, and the positions of a further 12 have been found with the use of ultraground-penetrating radar.

Archaeo-metallurgists at the Institute of Archaeology in London have been analysing the gold alloy objects found to establish their ritual and other uses.

The Peruvian site - known to archaeologists as Sican - will almost certainly yield hundreds of skeletons and thousands of gold and other artefacts. The larger of the two 1,000-year-old tombs excavated consists of a 50ft- deep shaft and contained the remains of 24 people, including one very high status male - perhaps a high priest or a prince - aged 25-30, flanked by two women of 20-25, who appear to have been deliberately sacrificed to accompany him on his journey to the spirit world.

The other 21 skeletons - all of females aged 20-25, possibly also sacrificial victims - were buried in a dozen shallow graves on a ledge immediately above the main chamber.

In the chamber, archaeologists led by a leading pre-Colombianist, the Japanese scholar Professor Izumi Shimada of Southern Illinois University in the US, discovered a beautiful gold and copper crown, a gold alloy mask with amber eyes, a pair of gold alloy gloves and a multi-layer necklace made of blue sodalite, turquoise, amber and shell.

The tomb has also yielded the extraordinary remains of 80 square feet of beautifully decorated gilded cotton cloth, perhaps used as a room partition.

The smaller of the two tombs excavated has yielded five skeletons (one man, two women and two children) and several kilos of gold and gold alloy.

The male skeleton was still "wearing" a spectacular golden death-mask with eyes made of emeralds and the remains of a four-layer beadwork cloak of turquoise, crystal, sodalite and sea shells. He was also covered with a layer of red pigment, possibly regarded as a magical potion to ensure that he continued to live in the spirit world.

About 500kg of scrap gold and gold alloy were also in the tomb - suggesting that the man buried there was involved in Sican's gold industry in contrast to the larger tomb's occupant who it is thought was connected to the textile industry.

The whole burial complex of a pyramid, a long platform and 14 tombs form part of a much larger city which covered almost a square mile and consisted of dozens of public buildings including 10 more pyramids. This was the capital of a pre-Inca Peruvian state which in the 9th and 10th centuries AD controlled some 35,000 square miles of territory between Colombia and northern Chile.

The current excavations are changing the way scholars view treasures found earlier. Often unearthed by looters and treasure-hunters in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, many museum pieces were unprovenanced and have traditionally been seen as Inca in origin. Now many are being re-categorised as Sican and re-dated as being almost twice as old.

"The intensive scientific investigation into the Sican material being carried out here in Britain is of vital importance because the Sican tombs are the first of their type ever to have been scientifically excavated by archaeologists," Dr John Merkel, head of the London Institute of Archaeology metallurgical team analysing the Sican gold, said.

Professor Shimada described the dig as "an unparalleled opportunity to study the wealth and social elite of a pre-Inca society". "The Sican discoveries clearly show the importance of excavating these so-called treasures in an archaeological context so we can better understand their cultural significance," he said.

The professor said that the archaeologists hoped to continue excavating the site for several more years.