Martha Zegarra, Executive Director of WMF Peru, looks upon the looted areas of Cerro de Oro.
Blog Post

A Journey Through Cerro de Oro: Challenges and Opportunities

Martha Zegarra, Executive Director of WMF Peru, looks upon the looted areas of Cerro de Oro.

Departing from Lima, the capital city of Peru, an almost two-hour journey by car through the southern Panamericana highway to San Luis de Cañete awaits us. Along the road I feel a mix of excitement and curiosity about the site we are going to visit: Cerro de Oro, a pre-Hispanic archaeological area recently included on the 2018 World Monuments Watch. The site is ancient, dating back to 550-850 A.D. through 1100 of our era, and related to the Wari and Inca cultural periods.

Joining me are Martha Zegarra, WMF Peru Executive Director, and Mariana Correa, WMF Peru Board Trustee. We are thrilled about this visit because the site presents both challenges and opportunities – while Cerro de Oro is presently facing massive looting and encroachment, the archaeologically-significant site has great potential for tourism as well as cultural and community development in the region.

The first shape we see after taking the San Luis detour is a high hill with a little group of mud structures on the top, which breaks the landscape between the Pacific Ocean, crop fields, and the desert coast. But as we get closer to the site entrance, we begin to appreciate the walls of the complex, outlining the shape that this city might once have had.

Francesca Fernandini, Ph.D, has been working as Archaeological Project Director at Cerro de Oro since 2012, and nominated the site to the World Monuments Watch. She welcomes us and begins leading our tour, with a focus on the main threats of the area.

We immediately ascend through a winding path of illegal cattle stockyards, likely the suppliers behind the artisanal ice cream stands we passed on the highway. Francesca tells us that encroachment problems began in 1965, and since then, people have progressively established housing and farming in the outskirts of the site.

After a short walk, Francesca points out a hole in the border of the hill: the entrance to an old gold mine. We begin to speculate how deep it could be and if it has already been exploited. Francesca, however, confirms no minerals remain at the site, though some people arrive from time to time seeking fortune. This was nothing compared to the systematic looting we were about to face just steps ahead.

It was a dramatic landscape. Approximately seven square hectares of scattered human remains combined with fragments of textiles, mud bricks, shells, and rubble. It made us instantly aware of the site’s lack of protection and management, but this was just the beginning. The graves we were looking at were not looted recently. They may have been vandalized during the Peruvian Colony period; the first records of looting here date back to 1925. It is clear that these holes were made by “unexperienced” looters. Fernandini tells us that, because the funerary contexts have been altered, the burials are now useless for research purposes.

As we move closer to the middle of the site, we begin to observe some of the urban and ceremonial structures of this ancient city, including top portions of mud walls that, according to the archaeologist, rise up to three meters under the surface. Thanks to the excavations conducted by Fernandini last year with the support of her students from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, a group of residences were discovered, revealing the distribution and lifestyle of the people who lived in the area. For example, they located the placement of stoves, storerooms, pottery furnaces, and trash. However, due to the lack of investment in site management, it was recovered.

Before our visit concluded, we were routed to a plain featuring a group of four or five new looting holes, some of them surrounded by shelves, bones, and rocks. Francesca tells us these are fresh, maybe from two weeks ago: we are speechless.

Feeling of dismay, however, faded away when a group of three local women approached to us asking us about our plans for the site. The archaeologist explained to them that World Monuments Fund through the 2018 Watch is looking to support the site’s preservation and enrichment. They immediately offer themselves to help and seal it with a picture.

Before we depart, Francesca reminds us that the first step is to help to advocate for proper surveillance and solar lighting to dissuade looters. Beyond those actions, another activity planned for Cerro de Oro will involve workshops with the community to involve them in the site’s preservation, reinforcing bonds with their local cultural heritage and providing training for tourism.

We are excited for the future of this special site and its community.