In 2011, archaeologists in Peru were thrilled to find a tomb in the Lambayeque region containing a pre-Incan priestess and eight other bodies, but as the dig continued, the team found what they’re calling a “basement tomb.” The contents of the tomb are slowly revealing new things about the religious and political structure of the area.
The basement tomb contained four preserved bodies of “waterlogged human remains,” and it’s thought that the tomb was actually created with the intention of flooding. The bodies were stacked inside the tomb, with one particular elite individual decorated with shell and pearl beads, face covered with a copper sheet and wearing a spool-shaped earring bearing a wave design.
These indicators of status seem to denote that the three additional bodies in the tomb were intended to accompany the elite individual into the afterlife.
But the weirdest part is that the basement tomb was intentionally dug beneath the water table—in a region frequently subject to draught in ancient times. Notably, the tomb is part of ceremonial complex that archaeologists are suspecting was used for a cult that worshipped water.
Why would the ancient priests want a tomb to flood? Dig leader Wester La Torre has said that perhaps they thought this would ensure the region’s agricultural fertility for the year ahead—and while the tomb is technically pre-Inca, it may have been a precursor to later beliefs: “The Inca believed that the dead became a seed, which sprouted new life, the way that this was buried suggests the same process of fertilization, in which the seed, the person, is reborn.”
Of course, there are dissenters who point out that there’s no reasonable way to know where the water table was 800 years ago. But regardless of whether the tomb flooded or not, both the burials are important additions to the historical record of a lesser-known period of world history in the region.