In the late afternoon light along the Peruvian coast, local workmen gather as archaeologists Miłosz Giersz and Roberto Pimentel Nita open a row of small sealed chambers near the entrance of an ancient tomb. Concealed for more than a thousand years under a layer of heavy adobe brick, the mini-chambers hold large ceramic jars, some bearing painted lizards, others displaying grinning human faces. As Giersz pries loose the brick from the final compartment, he grimaces. “It smells awful down here,” he splutters. He peers warily into a large undecorated pot. It’s full of decayed puparia, traces of flies once drawn to the pot’s contents. The archaeologist backs away and stands up, slapping a cloud of 1,200-year-old dust from his pants. In three years of digging at this site, called El Castillo de Huarmey, Giersz has encountered an unexpected ecosystem of death—from traces of insects that once fed on human flesh, to snakes that coiled and died in the bottoms of ceramic pots, to Africanized killer bees that swarmed out of subterranean chambers and attacked workers.
Plenty of people had warned Giersz that excavating in the rubble of El Castillo would be difficult, and almost certainly a waste of time and money. For at least a century looters had tunneled into the slopes of the massive hill, searching for tombs containing ancient skeletons decked out in gold and wrapped in some of the finest woven tapestries ever made. The serpent-shaped hill, located a four-hour drive north of Lima, looked like a cross between the surface of the moon and a landfill site—pitted with holes, littered with ancient human bones, and strewn with modern garbage and rags. The looters liked to toss away their clothing before they returned home for fear of bringing sickness from the dead to their families.
But Giersz, an affable 36-year-old maverick who teaches Andean archaeology at the University of Warsaw, was determined to dig there anyway. Something important had happened at El Castillo 1,200 years ago, Giersz was sure of that. Bits of textiles and broken pottery from Peru’s little-known Wari civilization, whose heartland lay far to the south, dotted the slopes. So Giersz and a small research team began imaging what lay underground with a magnetometer and taking aerial photos with a camera on a kite. The results revealed something that generations of grave robbers had missed: the faint outlines of buried walls running along a rocky southern spur. Giersz and a Polish-Peruvian team applied for permission to begin digging.