Five kilometres south of Trujillo, in a barren desert landscape beside the Río Moche, two temples really bring ancient Peru to life. Collectively known as the Huacas del Moche, these sites make a fine day’s outing and shouldn’t be missed even if you only have a passing interest in archeology or the ancient civilizations of Peru. The stunning Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) is the largest adobe structure in the Americas, and easily the most impressive of the many pyramids on the Peruvian coast. Its twin, the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), is smaller, but more complex and brilliantly frescoed.

Brief history

After more than 18 years of excavation, the Huaca de la Luna is now believed to have been developed in two main phases: platform I and three plazas (know collectively as the old temple) around 600AD; platform III by around 900AD.

The complex is believed to have been the capital, or most important ceremonial and urban centre, for the Moche culture, at its peak between 400 and 600 AD. Although very much associated with the Moche culture and nation (100–600 AD), however, there is evidence of earlier occupation at these sites, dating back two thousand years to the Salinar and Gallinazo cultures, indicated by constructions underlying the huacas. The area continued to be held in high regard after the collapse of the Moche culture, with signs of Wari, Chimu and Inca offerings here demonstrating a continued importance. The latest theory suggests that these huacas were mainly ceremonial centres, separated physically by a large graveyard and an associated urban settlement. Finds in this intermediate zone have so far revealed some fine structures, plus pottery workshops and storehouses.

Huaca del Sol

The Huaca del Sol is presently off limits to visitors, but it’s an amazing sight from the grounds below or even in the distance from the Huaca de la Luna, which is very much open to the public. Built by the Mochica around 500 AD, and extremely weathered, its pyramid edges still slope at a sharp 77 degrees to the horizon. Although still an enormous structure, what you see today is about thirty percent of the original construction. On top of the base platform is the demolished stump of a four-sided, stepped pyramid, surmounted about 50m above the desert by a ceremonial platform. From the top of this platform you can clearly see how the Río Moche was diverted by the Spanish in 1602, in order to erode the huaca and find treasure. They were quite successful at washing away a large section of the site, but found precious little except adobe bricks.

Estimates of the pyramid’s brickwork vary, but it is reckoned to contain somewhere between 50 million and 140 million adobe blocks, each of which was marked in any one of a hundred different ways – probably with the maker’s distinguishing signs. It must have required a massively well organized labour supply to put together – Calancha, a Spanish historian, wrote that 200,000 workers were required. How the Mochica priests and architects decided on the shape of the huaca is unknown, but if you look from the main road at its form against the silhouette of Cerro Blanco, there is a remarkable similarity between the two, and if you look at the huaca sideways from the vantage point of the Huaca de la Luna, it has the same general outline as the hills behind.

Huaca de la Luna

Clinging to the bottom of Cerro Blanco, just 500m from Huaca del Sol, is Huaca de la Luna, a ritual and ceremonial centre that was built around the same time as its neighbour. What you see today is only part of an older complex of interior rooms built over six centuries that included a maze of interconnected patios, some covered and lavishly adorned with painted friezes. The friezes are still the most striking feature of the site, rhomboid in shape and dominated by an anthropomorphic face surrounded by symbols representing nature spirits, such as the ray fish (symbol of water), pelicans (symbol of air) and serpent (symbol of earth). Its feline fangs and boggle-eyes are stylizations dating back to the early Chavín cult and it’s similar to an image known to the Moche as Ai-Apaec, master of life and death. The god that kept the human world in order, he has been frequently linked with human sacrifice, and in 1995, archeologists found 42 skeletons of sacrificial victims here. Sediment found in their graves indicates that these sacrifices took place during an El Niño weather phenomenon, something that would have threatened the economic and political stability of the nation. Ceramics dug up from the vast graveyard that extends between the two huacas and around the base of Cerro Blanco suggest that this might have also been a site for a cult of the dead. Cerro Blanco itself may have been considered a link to deity.

Behind the huaca are some frescoed rooms, discovered in the early 1990s, displaying multicoloured murals (mostly reds and blues). The most famous of these paintings has been called The Rebellion of the Artefacts because, as is fairly common on Mochica ceramics, all sorts of objects are depicted attacking human beings, getting their revenge, or rebelling. Over 6000 square metres of polychrome reliefs have been uncovered.

The new Museo Huacas de Moche, built in a pyramid style to look like Moche architecture, displays some fine ceramics – check out the warrior duck and the blind shaman – as well as a feline cat-cloak of gold and feathers. The museum combines exhibition rooms with an investigations centre, communal space and a theatre.

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