Student unearths ancient priestess tomb


WEB-Priestess tomb-PAMR copy

Matthew Go, a 20-year-old undergraduate student at SFU, was part of a group of researchers that discovered the remains of a Moche priestess chamber tomb while excavating in Peru this summer.

The fourth-year archaeology student was the only Canadian taking part in the field school, which was composed of students accepted to the San Jose De Moro Archaeological Project and students from Harvard University. Go, an archaeology major and biology minor with credits for a certificate in forensic studies, acted as the teaching assistant for those interested in biological archaeology.

After making the discovery towards the end of the regularly-scheduled field season, he and a team of eight other archaeologists stayed beyond the scheduled time to excavate the site. They found the remains of a Moche priestess whom they currently believe to be “the highest social, religious, and political leader at the time,” according to Go. The team found seven other bodies alongside her as well as a myriad of pottery, jewelry, and marine-related items.

The chamber represents much that is unknown about the civilization, Go suggests. The conditions in which the priestess was buried, alongside the several other bodies and surrounded by valuables, “can tell us more about the political nature of the people at that time,” said Go. “At the end of the Moche regime, where we suddenly see their disappearance from the archaeological record.”

“This discovery,” he continued, “will really help us understand more how, why, or when the Moche disappeared.” Additionally, the great amount of marine-related articles found in the tomb could help archaeologists understand the people, specifically their relationship with their demise, Go suggests. These articles include seashells, ceramics in the shapes of prawns, and copper plates which, when joined together, create geometric waves.

“One of the key factors that archaeologists think led to the demise of the Moche was a mega El Niño event,” he says, which gave them “torrential rain. It cut off the ecosystem supply of food, etcetera.” The objects could be related, he says, finding this tomb can really help us answer . . . what those people thought, and how they dealt with this phenomenon.”


The skeletal remains were left in the tomb as they were especially degraded and trapped in the concrete-like ground.

All of the artifacts that have been recovered from the chamber have been relocated to their lab in Lima, Peru, to be catalogued and interpreted. Unfortunately for Go, the skeletal remains were left in the tomb as they were especially degraded and trapped in the concrete-like ground of the tomb and too much time would be needed  to extract the remains properly.

“I assessed as much information as I could from the skeletons while they were in the ground,” he says. “We will try and retrieve them next year, or sometime between this year and next year.”

Of the skeletons accompanying the princess, there were seven other individuals who accompanied her, ranging from newborns, to infants, to teenagers, and adults. Go says that while there is no evidence that these people were sacrificed for the tomb, such a thing has been found at other Moche sites on the north coast, and they did find evidence showing that “the other individuals were deceased quite some time before being buried.”

Go has been invited to return to the site again next year, but is unsure if he will. He has also been invited by a professor in the department of archaeology to work with him in China, and if these conflict, he might favor the second trip in the hopes of “being more well-rounded” in his field.

After Go is done with his undergraduate degree, he plans to apply to PhD programs in America, and grad programs in Canada to pursue his three interests, “teaching, practicing bio-archaeology, and . . . consulting with forensic anthropology.”