Dont’ Call Him Indiana Jones! : How a Low-Key UCLA Professor, Handy With a .38, Helped Unearth the Tomb of a Warrior-Priest
Christopher Donnan likes to think of himself as a “dirt archeologist,” by which he means he’s just a humble, no-frills field investigator who is never happier than when he’s snuffling about in field boots and Levi’s in an ancient Indian grave somewhere in Peru.
He comes across as a low-key, straight-forward, completely unassuming person and seems utterly honest when he says his happiest moments are when he is alone in his research lab.
“I’m a very private kind of person,” he says. “My favorite weekend is staying home and never leaving the property line from Friday night after work till Monday.”
Something of a Surprise
So it comes as something of a surprise to hear the UCLA professor affectionately, even passionately describing his specialty, the ancient Moche Indian culture of Peru. He enthusiastically details its “presentation ceremony,” in which soldiers slit their enemies’ throats and present their blood to a warrior-priest to drink from a golden cup.
As the low-key bearded professor speaks, it’s even more surprising to consider that former students describe Donnan almost in awe as they tell of the time he single-handedly held off a band of Peruvian grave robbers with a .38.
More surprising still is to find Donnan in the glare of the international spotlight, where he was cast last week when the National Georgraphic Society held a press conference to announce the discovery of a Peruvian pre-Columbian King Tut, the long-sought grave of an ancient Indaian warrior-priest.
“It’s not normally like this,” explains Donnan, as he sits behind his desk at the UCLA Museum of Cultural History with an arc of pink phone messages splayed out before him like a game of solitare. In three days, he has given 20 radio and newspaper interviews and appeared on television four times to discuss his role in the remarkable discovery.
Life Dramatically Changed
But later that afternoon, as he sits in a Hollywood television studio preparing to tape a segment for Larry King at the Cable News Network, it’s clear that at least for the moment his quiet life has dramatically changed. For even as Donnan falls back into his academic persona, there’s the almost irresistible impulse to remake him into some kind of latter-day Indiana Jones.
“So,” says the CNN makeup artist, a young woman named Yvette dressed in ratted hair, high heels and black and white horizontally striped pants as she dusts Donnan’s forehead with powder, “this was a mystical thing or what?’
“He was what you call a warrior-priest,” Donnan says. “He was a very important person at a sacrifice ceremony where they sacrificed prisoners of war and drank their blood.”
“Hmmm,” says Yvette, stepping back to appraise her handiwork. “And he was in charge of building it?”
“He was in charge of the ceremony of sacrificing these prisoners. He is usually shown holding a cup full of their blood.”
“So you don’t think he is from outer space or anything--like the Mayan?”
“No. Even the Mayan weren’t from outer space.”
Despite his humility, or perhaps in part because of it, Donnan is widely recognized as perhaps world’s leading authority on the culture of the ancient Moche Indians with many major discoveries to his credit. He’s the director of UCLA’s Museum of Cultural History, which next spring will move into a $20 million, 100,000-square-foot building now under construction.
John Verano, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution who once studied under Donnan, observes of him: “He constantly downplays his own accomplishments” in favor of promoting others on his staff. “He genuinely is a very humble person” who has succeeded without ever lusting after success.
Some archeologists consider Donnan unusually lucky because he has made so many serendipitous finds. Donnan, says Verano, does play his hunches: “He’s someone who goes out there and flies by the seat of his pants. He’s the Chuck Yeager of archeology.”
His colleagues add that he is completely professional, relentlessly enthusiastic, hard working but flexible enough to change all his plans on the spot if he spots a promising archeological lead.
In short, he’s exactly the sort of field archeologist any investigator would want to have on a difficult, dangerous and complicated dig, which was one reason Walter Alva was so happy to have Donnan’s help in excavating Alva’s find: the grave of a warrior-priest.
Donnan has been spent eight of the last 25 years excavating Moche archeological sites on the north coastal river valleys of northern Peru. In April 1987, he set aside two weeks to fly to Lima to try to expedite his summer digging permit. Donnan called a Peruvian friend when he got to Lima.
“Oh, I’m glad you were able to get here so quickly,” the friend said.
“What do you mean?” Donnan asked.
“Oh, I wrote to you and said there is some extraordinary Moche material, which is coming from a looted tomb in the north and to get down here as quickly as possible.”
Donnan immediately flew to the Bruning archeological museum in
Chiclayo to see the director, Walter Alva. “Oh, you wouldn’t believe it,” Donnan says Alva told him. “If we don’t start excavating, the grave robbers will tear this thing apart.”
At first, says Donnan, their goal was merely to salvage what still remained in the tomb at Sipan. The villagers, however, were sullen and resentful. As they saw it, the archeologists were merely a higher class of thieves who had come into their own back yard to exploit resources that more properly belong to them.
What made it worse was that Peruvian police, while trying to recover previously stolen artifacts, killed a looter in a midnight raid. Brothers of the slain grave robber (an honorable occupation in the area) shouted curses and death threats. To protect the Sipan site, Alva had to sleep there at night accompanied by a policeman armed with a submachine gun.
Although Donnan had to return to the United States after two weeks, he left all his equipment and all his money with Alva, who had virtually no resources--Peru was in an economic crisis; there was no money for frills like archeology, and Alva was reduced to paying half the workmen’s salaries in big bags of noodles donated by a local pasta company.
Back in the United States, Donnan arranged for a grant from National Geographic to support the dig. Then, at the end of the school year, he returned to Peru to work mornings on his own dig 100 miles to the south in the Jequetepeque river valley; in the afternoons, he worked on Alva’s dig at Sipan, a small village 15 miles east of Chiclayo.
It was a fruitful collaboration, and by late May, it was clear they were on to something. They had found 1,000 decorated clay pots. Then, in late June, 12 feet down, they found the coffin of the warrior-priest.
As excavations continued for nearly a year, National Geographic prepared a major spread on the find for its October 1988 issue. Donnan wrote an article for the issue on the Moche warrior-priest. The only problem, he says, is that he wasn’t yet sure they’d really found the long awaited warrior-priest so extensively and respectfully portrayed on Moche pottery.
A radiocarbon dating put the age of the tomb at 290 A.D. They had found an unprecedented cache of priceless gold and turquoise jewelry, the golden rattle (with a throat-slitting scene in bas relief), numerous attendants and the whip-tailed, Beagle-sized royal dog--all indications of a warrior-priest.
But they hadn’t found the ultimate proof--the ceremonial goblet for drinking blood. Donnan recalls: “I kept saying, ‘There should be a cup. Where’s the cup? We have the dog. We have the rattle but where’s the cup?’ ”
Although they never did find the cup in this tomb--they were digging in a large mud brick platform near two other Moche pyramids--Alva soon found another warrior-priest tomb nearby. And it had the infamous cup.
There are three other nearby tombs still to be excavated. And work will go on for years on what is turning out to be a Moche version of an Arlington National Cemetery for warrior-priests.
It’s obvious from talking to Donnan--who says it right out--that he considers himself the “most fortunate of men for a lot of reasons but one of them is having been so enriched by Peru, its present and its past.”
If the brutality of the ancient Moche troubles him, he does not show it.
“Yes, that’s an interesting perspective,” Donnan says when asked if the Moche were a blood-thirsty lot. “But you have to consider what we watch every day--car wrecks that explode on impact, (real) shoot-outs that kill people. Between the drama of the movies and the violence of the news, this would have been very shocking to the average Moche. . . .”
Besides, even considering the Indians’ ritualistic decapitation and throat-slitting practices, Moche art is astonishingly beautiful and “surpasses practically anything we’ve seen in the New World.”
In his world, he finds it “almost unthinkable” that he “would go a full year of my life without being in Peru for some significant portion of it.”
Every summer for five or the last six years, Donnan has worked on a remote coastal archeological site at Pacatnamu in the Jequetepeque valley. The staff had a little house on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. He talks about it with obvious affection. It’s like living in a “pastoral Renaissance painting,” Donnan says.
Every morning on the dig, the crew wakes before dawn and drinks fresh coffee by kerosene lamp in the kitchen downstairs while listening to Pavarotti. At seven, they start digging and work straight through till 1:15 p.m. Georgina, the local cook-earth mother then serves a three course lunch. After lunch, researchers work in the lab till 5 or 5:30.
Later, crew members jog on the beach, read in their rooms or take hot showers. There are hors d’oeuvres, cold beer and rum and Cokes before 8 p.m., when Georgina serves a huge dinner, after which people sit around and talk. At bedtime, they fall asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the beach outside.
Such amenities have nothing to do with altruism, Donnan says, noting that it’s far easier to get the most from people when they’re well-fed and rested.
Still, Donnan says he could not imagine a more agreeable life: the winter as an urban academic; the summer traveling to remote parts of the planet where “you get a chance to go out get your feet on the ground and have a more tactile sense of the environment. You work in the earth. You are aware of the weather: the cold, the dust and the sun.” Donnan even likes the satisfying ozone smell of the tombs.
Such a life, he says, “is the greatest.”
Which is not to say that even in this world evil does not exist. Summer 1986 was a bad time in Peru. Maoist guerrilla death squads operated in the southern highlands. The economy was in decline. The rice harvest was poor. There was a rumor that the North American archeologists at Pacatnamu had a yacht anchored offshore and were smuggling onto it the more valuable finds to keep for themselves.
One afternoon in 1986, Donnan, his wife, Sharon (a textile specialist at El Pueblo de Los Angeles), their son Matt, several graduate students, assorted visitors and workers were on the dig at Pacatnamu when a truck raced up to their house. Five men jumped out, some wearing bandannas across their faces and carrying guns.
The people caught outside were held hostages, face down on the ground with guns to their heads. “It was 45 minutes of tremendous terror,” Donnan says. “I was the only person with a gun"--a .38 revolver he kept in his backpack.
The bandits, who may have been free-basing a kind of low-rent cocaine, demanded that everyone in the house surrender; they backed up the demand by blasting out a bedroom window with a shotgun. Donnan, fearing that if he shot the bandits they would retaliate against the hostages, tried to scare them away by shooting in the air. He fired signal flares to attract help from a nearby village.
But one thing he was not about to do was give up his gun: “I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God, there’s no way they are going to get in this house.’ ”
They tried. One bandit broke through the front door, stepped around the corner and fired four shots at Donnan, who calmly waited on the balcony. “It was as if everything was in slow motion,” he says. As bullets ricocheted off the masonry walls around him, Donnan jumped up and emptied his revolver at the intruder, who fled through the door.
“And that was the end of it.”
Sitting in his office talking about the gun fight, Donnan takes great pains to insist that the incident, which so traumatized the crew that he canceled the dig for the rest of the summer, is atypical.
“The life of an archeologist isn’t digging with one hand and shooting (bandits) with the other,” he says, adding that such an incident just as easily could have happened in Los Angeles. “And it does.”
The real adventure of archeology, Donnan says, is intellectual, “working together with Peruvians to tell the story of the past.”
In the future, Donnan hopes to buy the little house in Jequetepeque where he has lived since the robbery attempt, surrounded by a flourishing orchard and garden. “I really love this village.” When he comes roaring into town for his annual three month summer dig in his dusty half-ton pick up, local men quietly drop by and, with their hats off, respectly inquire after the prospects for summer work.
The villagers like to work for him, says Donnan. “I never pay late. I always pay in full and I don’t allow anyone to be high-handed with the workers. I’ve done a lot of manual labor myself and I know what it is to work with someone who doesn’t treat you with respect.”
Despite rumors of problems elsewhere in Peru, in Jequetepeque, says Donnan, he feels very complete and happy. Within 15 minutes of his house there are 50 Moche sites--cemeteries, palaces, pyramids, ancient fishing villages and shell mounds.
“I don’t go fishing. I don’t play golf. This is my recreation and my passion and my pleasure and my job. . . . I can’t imagine not doing it.”