Three summer seasons of fieldwork (2019-2021) 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. Northern Ancash is uniquely suited for the research. The Moro and Pallasca regions have been chosen because they are manageably-sized and largely uninvestigated, yet feature excellent preservation and rich, distinctive records for comparison. Burial cults appeared in both regions at about the same time as the growth of small towns and political centralisation. The appearance of elaborate tomb constructions in both areas also suggest that funerary practices rapidly became a focus of elite activity and wealth consumption. These important co-developments are not known elsewhere so early, yet have gone largely unstudied.

New settlement surveys 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.

Moro (Nepeña Valley):

Nepeña is a small drainage on the Pacific coast and was an important heartland for early Peruvian developments, especially for temple mounds and polychrome murals (1st millennium BC). The Moro ‘pocket’ lies upriver in the Andean foothills; its bottleneck position was advantageous for coasthighland trade and defense, as well as control of irrigation systems and valuable farming lands. The area saw unprecedented demographic surge at ca. 200 BC, with the growth of large, mound-centres, many with fortifications. Each may have been the seat of a small ethnic group or lordship, in a highly fragmented political landscape due to regular conflict over resources. 

General view of Cerro San Isidro sector (looking northeast)

The Moro evidence contrasts with coeval developments near the coast, where groups built an extensive urban settlement and organised a single integrated system of defense at Caylán. Caylán was a major town; its dense layout and walled compounds indicate a clustering of powerful kin collectives. By 100 BC, however, Caylán diminished in importance just as foreign groups intruded into the lower valley, indicated by cemeteries and ritual centres associated with major state societies of the Gallinazo and Moche cultures.

Excavations at Cerro San Isidro, June 2019

In this time of flux, Cerro San Isidro grew in importance, probably becoming primus inter pares in the Moro midvalley. Built on a highly visible mound, its central placement in a cluster of client/rival settlements very likely had ideological significance; the pattern also characterises new midvalley sites in adjacent drainages (Virú, Santa, Casma). The proposed study should thus illuminate a series of wider cultural changes, including exchange and warfare relations with neighbouring areas. San Isidro is heavily built-up and abundant surface ceramics identify occupation ca. 200 BC-AD 300 (Ikehara). It has at least three large, walled compounds, which given their size and elaborate masonry, appear to exceed the work typifying common residences. We believe they were built by the prosperous, newly elite segments of San Isidro’s community. 

Cabana (Pallasca province):

Nepeña’s adjacent highlands (Pallasca) were inhabited by early groups of the Recuay tradition (ca. AD 1-700), who made fine polychrome ceramics and carved stone monoliths, often depicting human ancestral figures to place in funerary sites. The previous period was known for platform temples and open plazas for the widespread Chavín cult; Recuay monuments (like those in Moro) were mainly tombs, burial shrines and fancy residential compounds. The Recuay also lived mainly in defensive settlements built on ridgetops with fortifications. These changes indicate a great social transformation—from a system where power was centralised in priestly authority and pilgrimage centres, to one increasingly linked to competing kin groups and villages, and led by warrior-chiefs (Lau, Makowski). 

Pashash overlooks the mosaic of fields and hills in the Cabana valley
Excavations at Pashash, July 2019

Pallasca’s stonecarving and pottery were among the most accomplished in all of ancient Peru. Current evidence indicates that, by ca. AD 200, Pashash (Cabana) became its political and cultural centre. Impressive ruins extend across a steep ridgeline and its best-known part, ‘La Capilla,’ covers a major hilltop. Smaller sites occupying adjacent hilltops were part of Pashash’s multivillage cluster (a common settlement pattern for Recuay polities). Also nearby are extensive terraces, corrals, canals, and a large water reservoir. La Capilla features four large wall-block constructions (15m tall x 30m wide); test pits will clarify if they served as bastions and/or funerary monuments. The rest of the terraced hilltop is covered with well-made masonry structures. Finely dressed stonework adorned the most important buildings, which probably had elite residential functions (administration, ritual, burials). Research in the 1970s (Grieder, Bueno) and early 2000s (government inspectors) discovered elite burials on La Capilla with impressive offerings, especially pottery and metalwork. Detailed mapping and project excavations in this sector will shed light on how these mortuary features were incorporated into the working facilities of a noble residence. 

Excavations at Cerro San Isidro & Pashash:

Both sites show excellent archaeological preservation; because new residential and mortuary buildings appear in both areas almost simultaneously, our project can clarify their co-development. Lordships should show evidence of segmentary organisation, ancestor veneration and wealth differences. We aim to study these patterns in large compounds, as palatial spaces of kin groups at the seats of power. Burials and mausolea inside them may indicate ‘living with the dead,’ ritual practices that helped legitimise increasingly powerful noble groups. Post excavation analyses (organic & non-organic remains) should show variability in diet, wealth accumulation and trade items.

Regional Settlement Survey:

Social complexity models have tended to focus on single valleys. We examine adjacent valleys to widen the frame of analysis to observe larger scale systemic change. Each basin is dominated by an impressive hilltop centre, Cerro San Isidro (Moro) & Pashash (Cabana), which overlooks valuable lands and features commoner and elite dwellings, fortifications and mausolea. Surrounding them are many other settlements and features (hamlets, fields, roads, canals). Detailed surveys will help determine their dating, activities and functional relationships to the centres.