Latin America & Caribbean

In pictures: Protecting Peru's ancient burial grounds

Huaca Malena is an ancient Peruvian burial site located approximately 100km (62 miles) south of the capital, Lima.

It is a major cemetery of the Wari culture, a civilisation which flourished in the Andes between the seventh and the 12th Century.

The site was discovered by Julio Tello and Toriba Mejia Xesspe in 1925. The two Peruvian archaeologists found more than 300 bundles containing mummies.

Heavily looted by grave diggers in the 1980s and 90s, Huaca Malena is now looked after by archaeologist Rommel Angeles Falcon.

Helen Soteriou travelled to Huaca Malena to speak to him about his work watching over the dead.

Image copyright Helen Soteriou

The area around Huaca Malena, located in a valley about 4km (2.5 miles) from the coast, is believed to have been inhabited by an ancient agricultural society as far back as 2,000 BC.

Centuries later it became one of the most important burial places for the Wari, a pre-Columbian society living in parts of what are now Peru, Colombia and Chile and considered to be one of the first great empires of the Andes,

Image copyright Helen Soteriou

Thousands of Wari fabrics and tapestries have been found at here, indicating that those buried in Huaca Malena were of high rank.

Many of the woven fabrics were abandoned by grave robbers, locally known as huaqueros.

Image copyright Helen Soteriou

Rommel Angeles Falcon says the bones found in Huaca Malena are exceptionally well preserved.

Image copyright Helen Soteriou
Image copyright Helen Soteriou

He says the main challenge for the archaeologist working here is not a race against the elements - as the desert conditions preserve the bones well - but one to keep the grave robbers away.

They appear on nights with a full moon, and with bribes of alcohol, cigarettes or coca leaves gain access to the site.

If their spade hits the hard surface of a tomb, they will dig it up and take anything inside that they think may be of value.

Most of the 4,000 textiles found by archaeologists at the site are believed to have been discarded by grave robbers.

Image copyright Helen Soteriou
Image copyright Helen Soteriou

It is impossible to know how many were originally there.

"They don't respect anything," Mr Falcon says.

Image copyright Helen Soteriou

Some of the textiles not looted from Huaca Malena have been taken to the Municipal Museum in the nearby village of Capilla de Asia.

Mr Falcon holds the key and shows me around.

The museum does not have the funds to meet the conservation and restoration needs for the textiles, so the team behind it has created an adopt-a-textile project, trying to get members of the public to donate enough to ensure their preservation.

Image copyright Helen Soteriou

Mr Falcon explains that textiles are one of the finest legacies from the Wari. They are characterised by geometric patterns depicting animals and human forms.

Some are believed to have been worn as tunics by the Wari men, but there are also some well-preserved bags used and feather head pieces at display at the small museum.

Image copyright Helen Soteriou
Image copyright Helen Soteriou

Mr Falcon knows that the Huaca Malena site and the small municipal museum in Capilla de Asia cannot compete with such well-known tourist draws as the Inca trail or the Machu Picchu.

But he is adamant small sites like this one should not be ignored, especially as the Wari artefacts and fabrics found here actually predate those of the Incas, giving the visitor a rare glimpse into the lives, and above all, death rites of a little-known culture.

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