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Since their discovery in 1991 by Luis Jaime Castillo and Christopher Donnan, the tombs of the Priestesses of San José de Moro were cause for global excitement and became the focus of an intensive scientific investigation given their extraordinary richness and great complexity. As it happened with the tombs of the Lords of Sipán, these magnificent tombs for women served as a font of privileged information that allowed detailed understanding of the most intimate and complex aspects of the Moche ritual world.

Two of the chamber tombs found between 1991 and 1992 contained the remains of buried women with attire and ornaments similar to those worn by the female character frequently depicted carrying a goblet in the Sacrifice and Presentation Ceremony. This ceremony consisted of a complex ritual of human sacrifice of Moche warriors defeated in ritual combat and the subsequent offering of their blood to a “Supreme God”.

The women found in SJM were buried with “Sacrifice Goblets” and unique crested headdresses that also appeared in iconographic representations in Moche art. The importance and transcendence of their participation in religious rituals of their community is reflected in the high level of social participation that would have been required to achieve the splendor of their tombs, the luxury of their offerings, and the complexity of the funeral ceremonies that were held in their honor.

The chamber tombs consist of a large quadrangular pit of variable depth, but always greater than two meters. Inside this large shaft was constructed an adobe room or chamber with niches in its walls. The interior of these funerary contexts appears to have been divided into two sections: an antechamber directly below the entrance to the pit and a funerary chamber where the coffin of the principal occupant, his or her offerings, and, in some cases, additional mummies were deposited.

The funeral attire found in these tombs included fine pieces of ceramic, colorful beaded necklaces, metal artifacts, and animal bones, among others. These Priestesses were placed inside a rectangular coffin made of cane, to the sides of which were adhered metal plaques with anthropomorphic designs.

  • Tomb M-U41, the First Priestess. The principal occupant of this chamber tomb was an adult woman (approximately 30-40 years old) invested with the same items worn by the female character appearing in Moche art known as the Priestess. This woman was placed in a cane coffin covered with copper discs. Afterward, metal engravings in the shape of arms and legs were attached to the sides of the coffin, with a mask and headdress adorning the frontal part. With her were placed 5 other female individuals distributed around the main coffin. The chamber structure consists of two parts: the chamber and, on the northern side, a funerary antechamber. Into its walls are carved 16 niches on three of four walls, the largest number of niches found in any chamber. The funerary offering showed several Spondylus shell necklaces, metal objects, and ceramic vessels of different styles. In addition to the Moche fineline bottles, notable pieces were found in foreign styles such as that of Nievería and Cajamarca.
  • Tomb M-U30, the Girl Priestess. The main occupant of this funerary chamber was a young girl who was between the ages of 5 and 7 at the time of her death. Buried remains of 2 girls, 2 boys, and 2 young women were distributed around the principal individual. The architectonical structure of the context consisted of a rectangular chamber that had 10 niches in three walls. In three of these niches were found architectural models in a poor state of preservation, surrounded by very fine ceramics. The metal objects (the mask and headdress) appeared in a tight bundle to the south of the coffin, which indicates that the mummies were bent before being deposited. These objects bore a design representing reed boats, common in the iconography of this period. On some of these adornments are found designs in the shape of heads with feline teeth in relief.
  • Tomb M-103, the Young Priestess. This rectangular chamber tomb is divided into two sections: the chamber to the south and the antechamber to the north. 12 niches are dug out of three of its four walls, inside of which were placed fineline vessels. The main individual was a young woman of 20-25 years of age, surrounded by 9 individuals. She was placed inside a cane coffin covered with copper discs. Later, metal plaques were attached to both sides in the shape of arms and legs, as well as a mask on the frontal part. Noteworthy Moche fineline bottles were found representing the Burial Theme and the Priestess on the Boat.
  • Tomb M-U1525, the Last Moche Priestess. This context is one of the most unique, since it signals a mid-point in the transition from the traditional chamber tombs of the Late Moche Period to the chamber tombs of the Transitional Period. These were oriented west to east, with an entrance located to the west. The structure had a rectangular shape with 10 niches distributed across three of four walls and a bench that divided the interior of the tomb into two levels. Among the most significant ornaments of this burial were a metal cup, a crested headdress, metal plaques that fit one of two found coffins, two metal masks, nine painted house models, two flask vessels bearing a representation of a winged feline, and a great variety of pieces associated with distinct ceramics styles that converged on SJM at the end of the Late Moche Period. She was probably the last Moche Priestess, interred at a time that saw the beginnings of profound social and political transformations in San José de Moro and the Jequetepeque Valley.
Nevertheless, the tradition of the Priestesses was not a phenomenon exclusive to the Moche Period. In recent years tombs have been discovered for women that have attributes of the Priestesses, but this time associated with the Transitional Period. Among the most important we have:
  • Tomb M-U1045, the Transitional Priestess. This was a rectangular chamber tomb with lateral benches and an entrance opening to the north. On its walls were placed niches in which were found a large number of artifacts, including house models, ceramics of diverse styles, camelid bones, crisoles or miniatures, and other ritual objects. The main individuals were two women and a boy found in coffins arranged on the floor of the tomb. Associated with these were discovered two young men and a square wrapping that contained four children and the legs of three adults.
  • Tomb M-U1242, the Absent Priestess. This is the largest chamber tomb found in SJM. It was made of adobe walls with niches and was divided into three parts: the funerary chamber, the antechamber on the eastern side, and the annex on the western side. In the antechamber, the deepest level of the tomb, more than 10 individuals were placed on the floor. Included with them were various ceramic pieces of diverse types and shapes. The majority of artifacts were found in the annex and antechamber, while in the niches were located figurines and the finest ceramic pieces, associated with the traditions of Cajamarca, Wari, and proto-Lambayeque. The funerary chamber contained the remains of a rectangular coffin capped with metal plaques cut in the shape of waves and stairs. Other plaques show a design of a woman dressed in a skirt with braided hair, adorned with a headdress made of ruffled feathers and carrying a goblet in her hand. However, this coffin was empty, its original occupant having been removed and her ornamental lid with metal plaques bearing the silhouette of the Priestess was found supported against the wall of the chamber.
  • Tomb M-U615, the collective mausoleum of the Priestesses. Its multiple-occupancy character makes this an extremely unique site. It consists of a square subterranean structure, the access to which is located on the northeast side. The interior of the chamber was divided by three benches, a main one in the southern area of the enclosure and two smaller, side benches at the northeast and northwest corners. During the excavation process, four levels of deposition were recorded, each one composed of a series of offerings (208 ceramic pieces total) and approximately 58 individuals of different sexes and ages. The funeral assemblage found in burial M-U615 are very varied, noteworthy among which are ceramic vessels, beaded necklaces and bracelets with shell or wooden pendants, and metal and wooden spindles, as well as copper artifacts, masks, crests, cups, spoons, and plates of various shapes associated with the two women who had assumed the role of Priestesses.

Tomb M-U30
Tomb M-U41
Tomb M-U103
Tomb M-U615
Tomb M-U1045
Tomb M-U1242
Tomb M-U1525

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