Moche culture was a pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in northern Peru from approximately 100 A.D to 800 A.D. The Moche, also known as Mochica, left a material culture that includes monumental architecture, elaborate iconography, and finely made ceramics and metalwork. Mochica ceramicists were unique in the pre-Hispanic New World as the only artists who sculpted naturalistic vessels, usually called stirrup or stirrup-spout pots.
Grave robbers, known locally as huaqueros, initially exposed the first Royal Tombs of Sipan in a large adobe pyramid complex (huaca) in the Lambayeque Valley near the north coast of Peru. Peruvian archeologist Dr. Walter Alva became aware of the looting and, at considerable personal risk, chased off the grave robbers and stabilized the pyramids.
Christopher B. Donnan, a professor of anthropology at UCLA and a leading expert on Moche culture, became liaison with the National Geographic Society to support Dr. Alva’s excavation. With NGS funding, Dr. Alva explored the huaca and soon found a unlooted tomb with an elite figure he called the “Lord of Sipan.” The Lord of Sipan’s tomb soon yielded the richest treasure ever excavated by archeologists in the New World. National Geographic Magazine published “Discovering the New World’s Richest Unlooted Tomb” in October 1988.
In early 1989 Dr. Alva and his team began to excavate an even earlier tomb of a figure they dubbed as the “Old Lord of Sipan.” Beginning in March 1989 the archeologists carefully excavated and documented the Old Lord’s tomb, which proved to be even richer and more wondrous than the first tomb.
The National Geographic Society assigned Nathan Benn to photograph the excavation in March 1989. Between March and September 1989 Nathan shot 526 rolls of film and expanded the reportage to include related stories on local Peruvian culture and the rich artistic legacy of Moche pottery and metalwork. National Geographic published the tomb, the culture, and the art over 52 pages as three stories in the June 1990 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The authors were Dr. Walter Alva, Christopher B. Donnan, and Michael E. Long.
Technical Notes: Most of the location photography was shot with Leica M6 and Nikon F cameras with Kodachrome 35mm film. The pots and other sculptural details were shot with a Hasselblad 500c camera with a close-up bellows and a 135mm Planar macro lens on Fujichrome 120 film. Nathan used a Balcar studio strobe with a combination of fiber optics and softboxes to control lighting for pots and metalwork. Nathan utilized pre-Columbian textiles as sympathetic backgrounds to photograph the Moche pots.
Archaeologist Guillermo (Willy) Cock provided great guidance and encouragement throughout the project. His assistance was especially helpful in July 1989 when Nathan spent four weeks in a half-body cast as a result of an injury that occurred in Lima during the assignment. Despite the inconvenience of having only one working arm during those weeks, Nathan and Willy were able to photograph dozens of Moche pots from Lima collections.