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Tomb of Señora de Cao

The funerary bundle of the Señora de Cao, headdress ornament and six nose ornaments, found in what is now the El Brujo Archaeological Complex, c. 400 C.E., Moche (Museo Cao, Magdalena de Cao, Peru) A conversation with Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Golden Kingdoms exhibition looking at burial objects from the Moche culture from the ancient Andes. Because ancient Andean cultures commonly buried their elite dead with valuable objects, they became targets of looters. The result is that we have very few untouched tombs, tombs that could be excavated scientifically using up-to-date archaeological methods. - [Sarahh] And we're very lucky to be able to look at a couple pieces here from one of those tombs, and it's the tomb of a woman known as the Senora or the Dama de Cao, the Lady of Cao. - [Steven] She's named after the site. This was not actually her name. - [Sarahh] We have no idea what her name was, and so she is thought of as the ruler over this site. - [Steven] But thanks to forensic archaeology, we do know that she was in her 20s and there is the possibility that she died soon after childbirth. - [Sarahh] One of the things about her that is exceptional is not just the wealth of her tomb, but how well her body was preserved. Normally, what we have is just bones, but with the Senora de Cao, we actually have mummified skin. - [Steven] But in addition, what makes this tomb so exceptional is what we found with her body. For example, we used to think that nose rings were exclusively found with men, but in this tomb, we found dozens of nose rings of extraordinary variety. - [Sarahh] What we're relying on is not just what's in graves, but also what we see in the art, and what we see is that women don't wear nose rings. And so for a woman to be buried with all of these nose rings is really something exceptional and something that does make her a little bit more masculine. - [Steven] But it's not just the nose rings. She was buried with weapons. - [Sarahh] Yes, she was buried with two five-foot tall ceremonial maces covered in gold leaf as well as a whole series of spear throwers and spears, which were used both as hunting implements and as implements of war. One of the things that we used to think about the Moche was that it was an exclusively masculine run society, that men were in charge, men were the only rulers, men were the ones who were the true highest of the elites. And what we're starting to find in several different places, like at Cao, is tombs of women who are buried in such a way that we see lots of elite indicators. - [Steven] And indicators that we once thought were exclusively masculine. - [Sarahh] Things that are seemingly borrowed by these women in order to express status. - [Steven] The objects and the body were not relegated to different parts of the tomb. There was a kind of interrelationship between them. Two of the nose rings were found in her mouth and she was interred in an elaborate mummy bundle. - [Sarahh] She was basically placed inside the center of a concentric series of wrappings of different kinds of cloth. There were several dresses in there, all of this jewelry, and all of these weapons. - [Steven] Most impressive is this headpiece. - [Sarahh] This would have been attached to a headband, and so it would have sat on the front of her forehead when it was being worn. It's one of a series of them that were included in the tomb, so there's multiple of these. Like the nose rings, you also have women in Moche art not normally wearing any kind of head covering, and so to have a headdress like this is something, again, that makes her sort of masculine. And what it tells us is that this idea of power itself is masculine. The idea is that you cannot be the ruler unless you carry the clothes. You cannot be the ruler unless you wear the crown. And if we think of a cross-cultural comparison of Hatshepsut. - [Steven] The ancient New Kingdom Egyptian ruler, a woman who ruled as king and as a god. - [Sarahh] First of all, we do find sculptures of her where she has the body of a man and then her face to show her strength as king. And we also find in texts that the scribes had a real problem writing about her because all of their vocabulary about kingship was gendered male, and so there's texts that refer to Hatshepsut as His Majesty Herself. And so this is kind of a corollary of that, where you have a female in power, or who appears to be in power, and in order to show that power, you have to adopt things that are not normally worn and used by women. - [Steven] Although we know this Egyptian ruler was, in fact, a ruler, we don't know that this woman who was found at Cao was a ruler. We know nothing about her actual life. - [Sarahh] Now it is quite possible that she was a female ruler or that she had political power. She could've, perhaps, been a priestess but not a ruler. It is very to say that how a person is buried reflects what they were in life, but that doesn't always mean that this is the case. We need to remember a famous anthropological phrase: The dead don't bury themselves. - [Steven] She could have filled an important ceremonial role that had nothing to do with her actual living existence. - [Sarahh] As people become powerful ancestors in death, maybe more so than they were ever powerful in life, they're being presented in a way, and their status only came from what they were in death. - [Steven] But nevertheless, this is an incredibly impressive grave. And the metalwork looks as if it's repousse, that is, it was hammered from the back, and it gives a real sense of dimensionality. You have this ovoid face with a kind of wave motif that's framing it and then this ferocious face. - [Sarahh] It's a very abstracted version of a snarling feline face, as a symbol of power and supernatural status. It's something that we see in giant beads that were found with the Lord of Sipan, to the north of where Cao is, and it is something that really goes back to the legacy of Cupisnique and Chavin, this imagery of the snarling feline. - [Steven] And it's something that we see in cultures far to the north as well, for example, in the Kunz Axe, this ancient Olmec object. And that snarling face is full frontal, but the small figures below it are seen in profile. - [Sarahh] They're these sort of wiggly looking figures with open mouths and they look like they're intended to represent what we call the crested being, a creature that is associated with the moon very frequently. - [Steven] Some of the most spectacular objects that were found in the tomb are the nose rings, and there's a lot of them. - [Sarahh] And one of the main features of them is that they tend to be combinations of gold and silver metal. This combination of gold and silver was highly symbolic in the Andes. It was a expression of duality, like sun and moon, so gold and silver, but also male and female. You also have the idea that duality governs the geography of the coast, the high mountain peaks and the low coastal areas. - [Steven] Looking at one particular nose ring, I see two crawfish that are curving away from each other, and then tucked in between and slightly below is this beautiful full frontal crab. - [Sarahh] You also have emphasis on the legs of the crawfish and crab. - [Steven] What the artist has been able to show us though is the ability to render movement, even in static metal. These are animated figures. They're both graceful and arcing. - [Sarahh] And it's a very naturalistic representation, which contrasts the geometric elements that we see in one of the other nose ornaments. - [Steven] So whereas we see a complex, curvilinear contour in the nose ring we were just discussing, here we have something that is almost perfectly rectilinear. - [Sarahh] And in fact, it's based on the idea of how you construct a textile. When you construct a textile, you have vertical and horizontal threads. You're creating a grid. And so what we see in Moche art is at least some geometrization based on this kind of gridding. Even though the lower part of the nose ring does look like a early '80s Space Invader, it's actually meant to be either a manta ray or a catfish. - [Steven] What the rectilinear and the curvilinear nose rings have in common though in this case are inset inlays of semi-precious stones, in this case, turquoise. - [Sarahh] The turquoise is not completely local to where the Moche are, so it's showing the extent of trade networks, and it's a very popular stone. - [Steven] The fact that this woman was buried with dozens of these elaborate pieces of jewelry is fascinating, and perhaps someday we'll know what the meaning was. Was it a representation of her wealth? Did these nose rings come from specific people? It's a lovely reminder that archaeology is solving puzzles. (jazzy piano music)