Campana Hill (Pérou): Pre-Inca Cinnabar Mine Discovered

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The cinnabar used by the Moche to paint tattoos on their skin some 1,600 years ago may have been mined locally, according to recent findings by archaeologist Regulo Franco.

In 2006, Franco and his archaeology team at the El Brujo site on Peru’s north coast discovered the tomb of the Señora de Cao, a young mother who was obviously a ruler, buried around A.D. 400 in 26 layers of fine cloth and flanked by carved spears and clubs as signs of power.  From pots found in the tomb, she is believed to have died after childbirth, possibly from eclampsia.

One of the unique features was that, besides being magnificently decorated in glittering nose rings, crowns and necklaces, her skin was delicately tattooed with drawings of snakes, fish and other figures, which led to her nickname of the Tattooed Lady.

Franco believed the tattoos had been made with cinnabar brought from areas much further south, such as the Andean highlands of Huancavelica.

But his discovery this month of a pre-Inca mine near Trujillo leads him to now believe that the cinnabar or mercury sulfide was obtained locally.

The mine, with malachite crystals and mercury ore and mercury sulfide, is accessible from the western slope of Cerro Portachuelo, within the protected area of Cerro Campana, a hill outside Trujillo considered sacred by the Moche. 

The mine entrance has a first space of some 7 meters before the beginning of a tunnel. The archaeologists have found potsherds and bone fragments that would indicate the mine was used by the Moche. The mine has not been explored further because of the noxious gases.