Sican Archaeological Project
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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The Sican Archaeological Project since its inception in 1978 has received research grants from the Heinz Family Foundation (1999), National Geographic Society (1981-83, 1985-86, 1989, 1999, 2001), National Science Foundation (1979-81, 1983-84, 1989) Shibusawa Ethnological Foundation (1990-97), Southern Illiniois University (2000), Tokyo Broadcasting System (2006-07), and Wenner-Gren Anthropological Foundation (2001-02). Our indebtedness for their generous support is hereby acknowledged.

Research Settings: The Sicán Culture

The Name, Sicán

The term "Sicán" (or Signan or Sian) in the indigenous Muchik language that was recorded on the north coast of Peru in the Colonial era signifies the "house" or "temple" of the moon (si). It was the name of a location, most likely one or a group of ancient temples or huacas, in what is today the Poma National Historical Sanctuary in the central La Leche Valley northeast of the city of Chiclayo. During the early historical era, Poma with some 30 scattered, small and large huacas in the extensive dry thorny forest was known for ancient religious idols and treasures. Over 20 years of investigation by the Sicán Archaeological Project (SAP) revealed that most of these mounds were constructed around A.D. 1000 by the same prehispanic, indigenous culture, that was named Sicán in 1983 by Izumi Shimada, the director of the SAP. The same name also has been applied to the capital of the Middle Sicán theocratic state located in Poma (see below).

Sicán versus Sipán

The similar names, Sicán and Sipán, have been widely confused, but their archaeological significance differs markedly. Sipán (or Cipán; see under its entry) refers to a modern community and archaeological site situated in mid-Lambayeque Valley and ca.42 km southeast of the site of Sicán. Though the site of Sipán has a long and complex occupational history, the recent fame of Sipán derives from the discovery of a series of "royal" tombs of the Northern Mochica (Moche) that appear to date to third and fourth centuries A.D. However, little is known about the associated culture and society.


In essence, Sicán is an archaeological culture centered in the extensive Lambayeque region (composed of the contiguous valleys of Motupe, La Leche, Lambayeque, and Zaña) that emerged around A.D. 750-800 after the Mochica political demise. It remained viable until ca. A.D. 1375 when it was conquered by the Chimú (Chimor) Kingdom that intruded from the south. Because of its geographical focus, this culture was first called Eten by the German archaeologist, Max Uhle, and later Lambayeque by the Peruvian scholar, Rafael Larco. Until the onset of the focused, long-term program of fieldwork by the SAP, however, our understanding of the Sicán culture was largely limited to its art style and iconography of looted funerary ceramics. Its culture history was reconstructed on the basis of the assumed historical veracity of the legend of Naymlap and his dynasty that was recorded in early colonial times. Though there are some agreements between the legend and archaeological data, the extent to which the legend accurately reflects the historical reality remains controversial.

Roughly 600-year span of the Sicán culture is divided into three periods, based on major cultural changes documented through excavations of stratified sites and calibration of over 100 associated radiocarbon dates. The Early, Middle, and Late Sicán periods are thus dated A.D. 800-900, 900-1100, and 1100-1375, respectively. The periods of the Chimú and Inka domination of the Sicán people, called Sicán-Chimú and Sicán-Inka, are dated A.D. 1375-1470 and 1470-1532, respectively.

Early Sicán

It is still poorly known with its artifacts scarce and dispersed and no known major settlements or corporate architecture. At Sicán and few other sites, small numbers of Early Sicán ceramic fragments were found buried between Middle Sicán and Moche V remains. Unlike the preceding and succeeding periods, the Early Sicán appears to have been a period of political fragmentation, in which foreign influences were strongly felt, particularly in art and religion.

The polished, black ceramics that gained some popularity during the Moche V continued through the Early Sicán and became the dominant finish among Middle Sicán finewares. A good example is the single spout-loop handle bottle bearing anthropomorphic-avian face at the spout base that resembles the mythical "eagle" in the Pachacamac art. The hourglass-shaped and double spout-and-bridge bottles reflect influence from the Wari via central and south coast, while the painted bowls and plates, popularly called "Coastal Cajamarca," were inspired by the Middle Cajamarca counterparts.

Middle Sicán

The better known Middle Sicán or "florescent" period is distinguished by the political dominance, economic ties and religious prestige it established over much of the northern coast and its rapid pace and wide spectrum of cultural change, as well as technological sophistication and the sheer quantity of constructions and artifacts produced. One of the major Middle Sicán characteristic is its distinct art, which was essentially representational in style and religious in nature. It disseminated the ideology espoused by the social elite. The art synthesized selected Wari and Mochica motifs, conventions, and concepts into a new overall configuration. Their integration would have given prestige and legitimacy to the emergent Middle Sicán religion. Though the Middle Sicán style was once considered to be "epigonal" (in the sense of less distinguished successors of the illustrious Wari style), we know today that it was highly distinct and innovative and held a considerable prestige oover much of the coastal Peru. Like the antecedent north coast cultures, sculptural representations remained popular in ceramics and metals, while minimizing the number of colors (one to three colors). Pictorial composition that characterized late Mochica art was retained in some murals, painted cloth, and ceramics1. The range of motifs represented is relatively narrow and shown in frontal or profile views.

The hallmark of Middle Sicán art is the ubiquitous icon of the "Sicán Deity" with a mask face and upturned eyes. The icon dominated all artistic media. Though the Sicán Deity is described often as the legendary folk hero, Naymlap, rather, it seems to have fused the earlier Mochica and Wari concepts of male celestial deities. The upturned eyes, as in the case of Mochica art, probably indicated the mythical character of the bearers. Alternatively, they may have evolved out of the bulging eyes and accompanying upturned lines on the Early Sicán anthropomorphic-avian face. In fact, the Deity is often shown with avian features, such as wings, hooked beak, and talons.

The Deity was shown as omnipotent with power to control all the esteemed celestial forces fundamental to life and abundance. He is shown in daylight or under the night sky. In some cases he is depicted standing above the ocean, holding a tumi-knife on one hand and a trophy head on the other, and flanked by the sun and the moon. He is commonly shown with animals that are either nocturnal (e.g., foxes) or those that appear at the beginning of the summer when runoff from the adjacent highlands arrives on the coast (e.g., toads, bees, and iguanas). Tear drops shown under his eyes and the use of emerald to represent the pupil are likely to symbolize water crucial for agriculture. These features may also embody the belief in complementary oppositions, e.g., death-life.

Human representations are limited to those of the male elite personage called Sicán Lord and his entourage. The Lord seems identical to the Sicán Deity except that he is shown in a natural setting and possesses no avian features. The Lord probably was conceived as the earthly alter-ego of the Deity and/or of a divine origin.

The preeminence of the religious ideology and authority was already suggested by the ubiquitous representations of the Sicán Deity. It is also attested by the rapid and widespread distribution of the diagnostic ceramics bearing this icon and the sheer magnitude of labor and material investment in erecting dozens of monumental temples and other religious structures throughout its territory that extended to the Chicama to the south and Chira to the north. Sicán mounds represent a remarkable resurgence of the earlier North Coast tradition of monumental mound building following a hiatus of some 200 years. The Chimú kingdom based in southern north coast emphasized large walled enclosures instead of truncated pyramids.

The site of Sicán has a roughly T-shaped shape (ca. 1 km north-south and 1.6 km east-west) defined by a dozen monumental, multi-level platform mounds that either covered or were surrounded by numerous small and large tombs. Sicán was in essence a religious city. Some mounds were indeed monumental in size. For example, Huaca Rodillona measured 100 x 100 x 40 m high. All Sicán monumental mounds were built out of superimposed lattices of adobe chambers filled with refuse and/or other readily available materials. Before a new layer of the chambers was constructed, the extant layer was sealed with mud roof reinforced with wooden logs. This construction technique that first appeared on the North Coast during Moche V allowed a rapid erection of massive buildings while minimizing labor and material investment. At the same time, the technique required large-scale, unified construction with centrally pooled materials and labor force. In other words, the temple construction promoted centralization of political and religious power. Over 200 distinct marks documented thus far among Middle Sicán corporate structures are best understood as indicating patrons (perhaps competing with other patrons) donating materials and perhaps even labor towards the construction of public temples. It is akin to a practice found among Christian churches in Europe and Buddhist temples in Asia.

Mounds of Huaca Loro, El Moscón, Las Ventanas, La Merced, and Abejas surrounded the "Great Plaza," measuring ca. 500 m north-south and 250 m east-west. The Huaca El Corte and Las Ventanas mounds situated 1 km apart were perfectly aligned with each other along the east-west axis. Most of these mounds were built between ca. A.D. 900-1000. Though the modern course of the La Leche River separates the Huaca Loro and La Merced structures, originally they were connected to each other. At the time of a major flood that occurred sometime around A.D. 1050-1100, the river flow shifted from the southwesternly direction to the current course. The major Middle Sicán mounds in the Lambayeque region (e.g., Huaca Chotuna, Chornancap, La Luya, Sipán, and Taco) were all built close to a river or a major canal. Some of these mounds (e.g., El Corte and Taco) were relatively low and had a wide, short, central ramp, while others (e.g., Loro and Rodillona) were much higher and had a long, narrow, zig-zagging ramp and a walled-in enclosure at the top. The difference may reflect physical segregation of more visible, public ceremonies versus more private, exclusive rituals. Yet, both types of mounds had walls with polychrome murals showing religious icons, and impressive colonnades supporting solid roofs.

Much of the site of Sicán was destroyed by intense, systematic looting that spanned late 1920s to mid- 1970s and at times involved use of earth-moving machineries. What were preserved indicated that the temples were accompanied by craft workshops, storage facilities, plazas, and perhaps elite residences. The resident population of the capital is believed to have been relatively small, perhaps numbering a few thousands at most. Extensive residential settlements encircled the perimeter of the capital.

Middle Sicán artisans achieved sophisticated ceramic and metallurgical technologies. Generally large and utilitarian vessels (e.g., urns and ollas, globular cooking vessels) were made with "paddle and anvil" technique. Their ceramics were distinguished by the first widespread use of the paddled decoration ("paleteada"). Paddling not only strengthen and shape vessel walls, but also decorated the vessel exterior with representational or abstract designs. Miniature paddled designs of valued objects or icons such as the Sicán Deity, double-spout bottles, seated felines, tumi-knives, iguanas, and the sun are diagnostic Middle Sicán markers. Along with Sicán territorial expansion, the paleteada technique (primarily geometric designs) spread southward along the coast. Only geometric designs continued into the Late Sicán.

Generally small, fine vessels (e.g., single and double-spout bottles) were formed and decorated with one or more pairs of vertical press-molds. Vessels were fired in oval, semi-closed kilns at a temperature of ca. 700-900°C. Middle Sicán potters excelled in producing black ceramics that were fired in a reducing atmosphere, probably using dried llama dung as the carbon source. This firing technology, together with the prestige of the Middle Sicán religious art, seems to account for the rapid spread of the popularity of monochrome blackware along much of the coast, supplanting the earlier emphasis of polychromy that came with the northward Wari and Pachacamac expansions. The later Chimu culture inherited this preference for reduced ceramics.

One of the most important Middle Sicán legacies is its metallurgy. Though its gold alloy objects commonly attract public attention, what distinguished Middle Sicán metallurgy was its success in large scale smelting of arsenical copper or arsenical bronze. This alloy offered superior ductility (the ability of a material to be deformed without breaking), tensile strength (toughness), hardness (ability to work harden), and resistance to corrosion than pure copper. It was used to produce a wide variety of utilitarian items (e.g., knives, needles, and hoe blades) and permanently replaced pure copper as the metal of late prehispanic cultures of northern Peru. Its smelting required much labor and materials and was carried out in small pear-shaped furnaces with charcoal fuel and forced draft laboriously supplied by human lung power through blowtubes with ceramic tips. The smelting charge was prepared from locally available ore by crushing them with a large rocking stone (chungo) in a large, stable anvil stone called batán. Metal workshops have been located throughout the Lambayeque region and the large scale arsenical copper production served as a major driving force of Middle Sicán economy.

The Middle Sicán metallurgy was also distinguished by the unprecedented scale of precious metal production and use. Large gold ceremonial tumi-knives and masks that have been used as the national symbols of Peru and published in books on pre-Columbian civilizations are Middle Sicán objects looted from elite tombs (see below). What is commonly described as "gold" or "gold alloys" are essentially gold-silver-copper alloys ranging from ca. 1 to 21 karats. Those of less than 10 karats are called tumbaga. Precious metal objects became the standard bearers of Middle Sicán art and craftsmanship and ceramics emulated them. Following the North Coast tradition, Sicán goldsmithing emphasized sheetmetal working with stone hammers and anvils. Chasing-repoussé (embossing)2 and cut-out were the primary decorative techniques. To manufacture a wide variety of objects, Sicán goldsmiths produced a corresponding wide range of gold-silver-copper alloys with different mechanical properties and colors.

Use and accumulation of precious metal objects was prerogative of the social elite as with the preceding Mochica culture. Their use was quite diverse and included wrapping of ceramic vessels and backing of painted cloth that lined the interior of elite shafttombs. Overall, metals permeated all facets of the Sicán culture and served as social status markers. Access to different metals was clearly demarcated: The commoner had arsenical copper, lower elite arsenical copper and tumbaga, and upper nobility, all metals including high karat gold alloys.

Reflecting the marked social differentiation, economic productivity, and material wealth noted above, the Middle Sicán culture developed unique elite funerary customs. Commoners were buried with a handful of ceramic vessels and arsenical copper objects in simple, small, shallow pits often in their residences. In contrast, social elites were interred in deep shafttombs with wall niches, a planned distribution under and around monumental mounds, and impressive quantity of grave goods and/or number of accompanying bodies. The "East" and "West" tombs excavated at the north base of the Huaca Loro mound had vertical shafts 3 x 3 m and 10 x 6 m in dimensions and depths of ca. 11 m and 15 m, respectively.

The East Tomb illustrates the impressive material accumulation seen in the Middle Sicán elite tombs. It contained two adult females and two juveniles and ca. 1.2 tons of diverse grave goods placed on and around the inverted body of an adult male personage in full regalia placed at the center of the burial chamber. He wore a large 14-karat gold mask (46 x 29 cm and 677 g in weight) with its eyes made with amber and emerald beads. Some two-thirds of the grave goods, by weight, were arsenical copper, tumbaga, and high-karat gold alloy objects. One chest contained over 24 superimposed layers of some 60 major high karat gold, gold-silver, and tumbaga ornaments and ritual paraphernalia (e.g., rattles, crowns and their ornaments, and head bands). There were two piles each of Spondylus princeps and Conus fergusoni shells (total of 179 and 141, respectively). In addition, there were a gilt litter that was undoubtedly used to carry the central personage during his life and some 80 kg of beads made of amethyst, quartz, amber, turquoise, sodalite, and other minerals, as well as Spondylus shell.

The West Tomb contained much fewer precious metal objects but the centrally placed the male personage was accompanied by eight camelid heads, the articulated feet of at least 25 camelids, 9 rolls of cloth, and four tumbaga sheet-wrapped ceramic bottles and jars, among other items. He was also accompanied by 22 adult women and one male juvenile. DNA, dental, and artifact analyses as well as placement of the 22 women indicate that they represent two distinct social groups. Various lines of evidence suggest that the Middle Sicán elite may have integrated at least two distinct ethnic groups and practiced endogamy and patrilocality. The dental analysis also suggests that the principal personages of the East and West tombs were related. Results of recent ground-penetrating radar survey and associated test excavations suggest that the Huaca Loro mound was built over a series of orderly placed elite shafttombs. In other words, the mound and its temple at the top was not only a gigantic "tombstone" but also served as the focus of ancestor worship. Huaca Loro and other monumental mounds at the capital of Sicán as a whole was a dramatic symbol of the power, wealth and permanence of the Middle Sicán elite and their theocratic state that dominated much of the north coast.

Many items found in the elite tombs were exotic imports and as such attests to the presence of a long-distance trade network. The Middle Sicán elite not only intensified the earlier trade relationship between the coastal Ecuador and the north coast in ritual and status items, but they expanded its reach further north to Colombia and east to the Marañon drainage. To the south, it may have included the central coast and perhaps as far south as the Tiwanaku land in the South-Central Andes. The North Andes as a whole was the primary supplier of tropical seashells, emerald, and amber, and while the Marañon drainage provided placer-mined gold and perhaps bird feathers. This trade network was more extensive than any of pre-Sicán era. The establishment of this network went hand in hand with the rapid spread of the aforementioned, innovative technologies and the mold-made ceramics bearing Sicán religious ideology. In this regard, we are speaking of the establishment of a Middle Sicán "horizon.”

Regional and interregional economy and religion reinforced each other. Membership in the Middle Sicán religion assured access to status and ritual goods, while the Sicán state controlled their production, procurement and distribution. In other words, the theocratic state was underwritten by effective integration and control of regional and interregional economies whereby local products (e.g., arsenical copper) were traded for exotic ritual goods.

Late Sicán

The rise of the Middle Sicán from a local power to domination of the northern coast of Peru took less than 100 years. Its demise was probably even more abrupt and was accompanied by marked changes in religious ideology and relocation of the capital from Sicán to Túcume (also called El Purgatorio and Túcume Viejo - see its entry) some 5 km to the west. Sometime during or after the 30-year long drought that started around A.D. 1020, temples atop the monumental mounds and associated structures around their bases at Sicán were all burnt down. However, a nearby contemporaneous commoners' residential settlement was not burnt. There was no repair or reoccupation of these temples. The costly ancestor cult and aggrandizement of extant elite lineages as seen above may have been too much burden for the masses to bear, creating a strong undercurrent of resentment. The drought that adversely affected agriculture may have eclipsed the tolerance of the populace, leading to the internal revolt to remove the extant political and religious leadership at Sicán. Shortly after the systematic torching, a major El Niño flood (ca. AD. 1050-1100) brought further destruction to Sicán.

The destruction and abandonment of Sicán was accompanied by abrupt and sweeping changes in Sicán art; the Sicán Deity and Sicán Lord essentially disappeared. In contrast, forms of ceramics, both domestic and fine, and secondary icons such as the mythical felines, marine fish and birds, survived into the Late Sicán art. In general, most aspects of Sicán material life did not change at the time of the Middle-Late Sicán transition.

Construction of new monumental temples and associated structures at what was to become the Late Sicán capital began around A.D. 1100-1150 at Túcume at the juncture of the La Leche and Lambayeque valleys. Túcume grew in size and by the time of the Chimú conquest of the Lambayeque region around A.D. 1375, it had 26, tightly clustered major mounds and enclosures that together covered over 220 hectares. A more detailed description of this site and Late Sicán culture is found under Túcume.

There has also been a persistent and widespread misidentification of Sicán objects as those of the later Chimú. This problem stems out of various factors including (1) that many notable Sicán gold objects such as tumi ceremonial knives and masks were illegally looted from tombs without proper documentation, (2) that the Sicán culture was not properly studied until a few decades ago, and (3) that Chimú artisans imitated and revived motifs and themes of the antecedent Sicán style. In fact, it now appears that following the conquest of the Sicán people around A.D. 1375, the Chimú elite forced skilled Sicán potters and metalworkers to relocate to Chan Chan, the Chimú capital. Thus, goods they produced for Chimú overlords bear Sicán stylistic and technological imprints. It should be remembered that the Sicán and the Chimú styles were chronologically and spatially distinct to a large extent and reflect more basic differences in the cultural substrata of the northern and southern subareas of the North Coast.


  1. E.g., Bonavia 1985; Carrion 1940; Donnan 1984; Florian 1951; Kosok 1965; Schaedel 1978; Shimada 1981a, b. [back]
  2. A process in which a stone or metal tool with fine tip and a hammer are used to press recesses into a sheet for decorative purposes. Chasing refers to hitting from the exterior surface, while repoussé indicates hitting from the interior or underside. [back]

(Please see "Reccommended Readings" for details of references cited in the text above).