About the project

In 2018 Dr George Lau, Reader in the Arts and Archaeology of the Americas at the Sainbury Research Unit, was awarded a four year research grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to direct a major archaeology project in the Peruvian Andes on ancient polities and systems of authority. This project is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation (USA) and partners with a UEA/SRU alumnus, Dr David Chicoine, now based at Louisiana State University.

The project investigates the early record of divine lordship in ancient Peru. Divine lordships characterised much of western South America when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century. These native polities featured social ranking and kin-based lineages centred on special leaders who held power as god-like, ancestral beings. Despite the prevalence of divine lordships across the world, very little is known about their emergence.

The rise of Andean social complexity has usually been explained by ecological prime movers and evolutionary developments within single coastal valleys. Yet robust interpretations are difficult due to existing gaps in coverage, uneven data and sampling biases. Combining 40 years of field research in the Andes, the principal investigators head an international team (UK, USA & Peru) and seek to overcome these challenges by researching the archaeological record of two neighbouring regions of north-central Peru.

Three seasons of fieldwork (begining summer 2019) and post-excavation studies will investigate the ancient political centres of Pashash (Pallasca region) and Cerro San Isidro (Moro region), and their surrounding hinterlands of northern Ancash Department, Peru.

Our primary research question centres on the emergence of ‘kin-based, segmentary lordships’. Such lordships characterised historic Andean groups, but their beginnings remain far from clear. This project evaluates the hypothesis that internal social dynamics – spurred by rival groups, ancestor veneration and transformation of leaders into divine lords – were crucial to early social complexity of the native Americas. 


New settlement survey on site patterning, elite architecture, and funerary activities will allow comparison of pivotal cultural transformations that led to segmentary lordships. Excavations within walled house compounds and plaza areas will help to distinguish high-status versus commoner activities. Analysis of skeletal remains from nearby tombs will help to characterise the individuals associated with the compounds. Studies of artefacts and coeval visual arts will offer insights into local ritual practices, burial cults, and the exercise of authority. Researching these data comparatively will illuminate how and when a major form of political system (divine lordship) took root in ancient Peru.