Ancient palace guards ‘preserved’ in termite poop

Peruvian archaeologists working in a 750-year-old city recently discovered something uniquely surprising about an already stunning find.

When archaeologists recently excavated the ceremonial entranceway to an ancient palace in Peru, they were excited to discover a series of 750-year-old wooden “guardians” flanking the passage. But there was an even bigger surprise in store as the statues emerged from the dirt: termites had chewed through the 19 wooden bodies over the centuries, leaving in their place two-foot-high human figures fashioned at least partially—and in some cases perhaps almost completely—from centuries-old insect excrement.

Not all the statues received the same termite “treatment,” says archaeological director Henry Gayoso. Upon initial inspection, some of the statues appeared to consist almost completely of termite excrement (formally known as frass), Gayoso told National Geographic in an email. Others seemed to have the wooden structure preserved under a layer of frass. (Discover why termites are rather fascinating creatures.)

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Each ancient wooden statue features a face fashioned from a clay mask, a wooden scepter in one hand, and the representation of a decapitated human head in the other hand. But how could the termites have chewed through the wooden statues, only to keep them more or less in their original form?

The key is that termites are photophobic, and when chewing through wooden objects they tend to leave a thin wooden “skin” intact to protect their tunnels from light, explains Lynn Grant, head conservator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

“The frass does not usually fill the whole tunnel, so unless one is extremely careful, it is all too easy to have the whole preserved facade collapse if the pieces are not handled with extreme caution,” Grant adds in an email. “The archaeologist is to be congratulated.”

“I’m sort of surprised they didn’t eat the whole thing up,” says Robert Koestler, Director of the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute. “After 700 years, it’s surprising that they’re in the shape they’re in.”

The discovery came as archaeologists recently excavated a passageway in Utz An palace (formerly the Grand Chimú palace), the largest of 10 enormous adobe complexes that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chan Chan in northern Peru. Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimú people between the 10th and 15th centuries A.D., and at its height was one of the largest cities in the Americas.

The statues are set into niches—ten on each side—that flank the roughly 100-foot-long passageway that leads into a ceremonial courtyard larger than an acre. (Of the 20 original statues, one apparently succumbed completely to the termite onslaught.) Patricia Balbuena, Peru’s minister of culture, calls the statue find an “extraordinary archaeological discovery.”

A person passing through the entrance to Utz An and into the enormous courtyard, under the gaze of the wooden statues holding scepters and decapitated heads, would be overwhelmed with awe, says archaeologist Gayoso.

“When you came to see him, there was no doubt that the character that governed Utz An was the most powerful [person] you would ever meet in your life.”