Deep inside an ancient pyramid in Peru, a mummy lay hidden in a gold-filled tomb. The underground chamber remained a secret for nearly 1,600 years, until an archaeologist noticed rectangular patches of soft clay in the pyramid's floor—a telltale sign of a grave. His heartbeat quickened. He suspected that someone powerful would be buried here.

The archaeologist was standing in a sacred location, a courtyard near the peak of the biggest pyramid at El Brujo—a ceremonial site of the ancient Moche (MO-chay) people. The civilization's rulers, who controlled the north coast of Peru from A.D. 100 to 800, probably reserved this spot for a king or a great warrior. What valuable treasures would lie inside this leader's tomb?


The Mummy Unwrapped

Finally, after weeks of careful digging, the scientists peered through the ancient dust. In front of them lay one of the world's largest and best-preserved mummies. As they unwrapped the bundled layers, hundreds of treasures were revealed, including gold nose rings and necklaces, sparkling crowns, and huge war clubs usually reserved for the Moche's greatest warriors.

But when archaeologists lifted a gold bowl covering the mummy's face, they found the biggest surprise yet. The mummy wasn't a king or a male warrior; it was a young Moche woman—and she was covered in mysterious tattoos!

The Moche Way

Until now research had shown that only men ruled Moche society—a warrior culture in which prisoners were captured in battle and sacrificed in bloody rituals atop this very pyramid. Where did this 20-something woman fit in? Was she a queen? A high priestess? A warrior princess?

One thing's for sure: This Moche VIP would have received star treatment. When visiting her people, servants would have carried her high above the crowds on a litter, a special platform reserved for only the most elite figures. Says anthropologist John Verano: "Her gold objects would have shimmered so brightly you could have seen them from miles away."

Twenty Questions

Today this mystery woman is making headlines again. Her well-sealed tomb helped preserve hundreds of ancient artifacts—even her dresses and braided hair. "It's like going back in a time machine to A.D. 450 and seeing her just as she was," says Verano. But now the scientists have unearthed more questions than answers.

What did the mummy's elaborate tattoos mean? With drawings of snakes, spiders, crabs, and imaginary animals crawling along her arms, legs, and feet, she has more body art than any known Moche mummy. No one knows for sure what these creatures mean, but the Moche may have believed the animals would bring healthy harvests.

And why was the mummy buried with 23 spear throwers? Even the most powerful male leaders were buried with only one or two. Did her bodyguards leave the weapons to protect her in the afterlife?

Most important, why did this adored woman die at such a young age? The skeleton showed no sign of disease or injury. Some experts think she may have died while giving birth, but researchers are still uncertain.


Tomb Be Continued

Whoever this woman was, it’s clear from her elaborate burial that she was a star among her people. And now the ancient heroine’s tomb is helping experts re-create her life and the world of the Moche people.