Ancient Peruvian Gold Mask Was Painted with Human Blood!

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Ancient Peruvian Gold Mask Was Painted with Human Blood!

Archaeologists with the  Sicán Archaeological Project , a decades-long study of a lost pre-Incan culture, unearthed a tomb and its contents along the

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Archaeologists with the  Sicán Archaeological Project , a decades-long study of a lost pre-Incan culture, unearthed a tomb and its contents along the northern coast of Peru in the early 1990s. Amongst the ancient hoard they also discovered a 1,000-year-old Sicán gold mask decorated with red paint. While the paint was tentatively identified as being made from common natural substances at that time, before scientists conducted a recent study, no one had any idea that it also contained human blood.

The gold mask was found affixed to the severed skeletal head of a 40-to-50-year-old man, who would have belonged to the ancient  Sicán culture  that occupied Peruvian coastal territory in the 11th century AD. The  red paint  found on the mask was also splashed over the man’s skeletal remains, which had been placed in the center of the tomb. Four other  skeletons were also found inside the tomb, along with several more gold artifacts and a significant number of other burial items.

The Sicán people inhabited the northern coast of  Peru from approximately the mid-8th century through the end of the 14th century. The Sicán were skilled and dedicated metal workers and, from the 10th through the 12th centuries in particular, they produced a marvelous variety of personal and ceremonial objects made from  pure gold . It was common practice to bury such objects in the tombs of ruling elites, presumably as offerings to the gods or for use in the afterlife.

The 1,000-year-old mask excavated from a Sicán tomb in Peru has been tested and found to contain human blood and bird egg proteins. ( ACS Journal of Proteome Research )

Sicán Red Paint: A Blood-Soaked Journey to the Next World

In the early 1990s, a team of Sicán Archaeological Project archaeologists and conservators excavated a 39-foot-deep (12 m) burial chamber that contained five intact skeletons. The tomb was also filled with a stunning and extensive collection of grave goods that weighed approximately 1.2 tons (1.1 metric tons) in total. There were quite a few gold objects included in the collection, signifying that this was the tomb of a wealthy and important person.

The middle-aged man whose painted skeleton was placed in the center of the tomb was found in a bizarre pose. He was bent at the waist as if sitting but placed upside down, with his mask-covered skull on the ground beside him. The skeletal remains of two young women were nearby, arranged in birthing and midwifing positions respectively. At a higher level of the  tomb, the archaeologists found the skeletons of two children, who were curled up in crouching positions.

None of the other skeletons or artifacts were  painted red. That honor was reserved exclusively for the elite man and his golden mask. The red  paint was identified as consisting largely of pigments derived from  cinnabar, a type of mercury ore from which bright red pigment could be extracted and used for drawing, painting, or writing.

Originally experts identified the red paint as being made of pigments derived from cinnabar. (Björn Wylezich / Adobe Stock)

Originally experts identified the red paint as being made of pigments derived from cinnabar. ( Björn Wylezich  / Adobe Stock)

Analysis of the Red Paint Used on the Sicán Golden Mask

Seeking to uncover more details about Sicán burial practices, a group of Oxford University scientists, led by archaeologist Luciana de Costa Carvalho, performed a chemical analysis of this red paint using mass spectrometry to reveal its exact constituents. During this new study, whose results have been published in  ACS Journal of Proteome Research , the Oxford researchers collaborated with anthropologist Izumi Shimada, the head of the Sicán Archaeological Project who led the early 90s excavation that discovered the tomb of the red-painted man.

The primary purpose of this research was to uncover the secret of the red paint’s incredible longevity. The painted mask and skeleton had been entombed for 1,000 years or more, yet had hardly degraded at all during that time. Initially, the scientists used infrared spectroscopy to identify the substances found in the  paint. This procedure revealed the presence of various proteins, which meant the paint contained some type of organic material in addition to the cinnabar pigment.

The tomb was excavated in the 1990s and archaeologists originally thought that the red maint on the was cinnabar paint. (ACS Journal of Proteome Research)

The tomb was excavated in the 1990s and archaeologists originally thought that the red maint on the was cinnabar paint. ( ACS Journal of Proteome Research )

With a mass spectrometer, the scientists were able to confirm that most of the proteins in the paint came from  human blood . Other proteins came from egg whites, most likely the egg whites of a species known as the Muscovy duck that was commonly found in the region in ancient times.  

The arrangement of the deceased man’s skeleton was unusual, but likely had ritual significance, the Oxford researchers theorized. While the body was facing downward, the skull’s face and covering mask were looking upward, possibly in anticipation of rebirth on a higher spiritual plane. Meanwhile, the position of the two women suggested impending childbirth. But it may have symbolized the man’s coming rebirth instead.

The use of cinnabar paint was also a sign that the burial arrangement had some type of ceremonial meaning. “Cinnabar-based paints were typically used in the context of social elites and ritually important items,” the authors wrote in their recently published  ACS Journal of Proteome Research  article. The red paint that covered the elite man’s skeleton may have represented the animating life force found in human  blood, which would explain why actual human blood was added to the mixture.

Izumi Shimada, the head of the Sicán Archaeological Project who led the early 90s excavation that discovered the tomb of the red-painted man. (Public domain)

Izumi Shimada, the head of the Sicán Archaeological Project who led the early 90s excavation that discovered the tomb of the red-painted man. ( Public domain )

Human Sacrifice and the Hidden Mysteries of the Sicán People

Another recent study of Sicán ritual practices revealed their reliance on  human sacrifice  as a way to gain favor from their gods. They used a method of killing that involved cutting the neck arteries to induce rapid and ample bleeding. “From an archeological perspective, the use of human blood in the paint would not be surprising,” the Oxford scientists wrote, in acknowledgment of this grisly practice.

There is no reason to believe the individual buried with the  gold mask  in the tomb was a victim of  human sacrifice . But it’s possible the women and children buried with him  were sacrificed, so they could act as his companions in the next world. They could have been members of his actual family, or simply chosen to fill the required spaces in the rebirth ritual suggested by the way the skeletons were arranged.

At this point, the only conclusions that can be drawn about this ancient  Sicán culture  burial mask are strictly theoretical. Without any written texts to explain exactly who the elite man was or what the details of his group’s burial arrangement are supposed to represent, archaeologists and historians can only speculate about what it all means.

Top image: An ancient Peruvian funerary mask. Source:  Olena / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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