Chan Chan Archaeological Zone
Chan Chan Archaeological Zone
Cultural Peru Latin America And The Caribbean District Of Huanchaco

The planning of Chan Chan, the largest city of pre-Hispanic America and unique testimony to the disappeared Chimu kingdom, is a masterpiece of inhabited space, and hierarchical construction which illustrates a political and social ideal that has rarely been expressed with such clarity.

The Chimu kingdom reached its zenith in the 15th century, not long before falling under the sway of the Incas. In about 1470, after a long war, the Inca Tupac Yupanqui took King Minchancaman in captivity to Cuzco. The king's son, Chumun Caur, governed the kingdom of the north, thereafter weakened and divided, on behalf of the Inca. Some 60 years later, the Spanish conquistadores, favourably welcomed by the Chimus out of hate for the Incas, founded a new capital 5 km from Chan Chan which in 1535 was given the name of Pizarro's home town, Trujillo, when the site of Chan Chan was quickly abandoned. Archaeology which has provided us with data on the Chimu civilization which, around 1200, replaced the Mochica culture on the very location where the latter began developing in the 4th century. It was the Moche valley which was the vital centre of a vast empire stretching from the Gulf of Guayaquíl in the north to the region of Pramonga in the south. In this dry zone the river, which flowed into a canal 80 km long, was used, via an intricate system of irrigation, to supply the entire region that lay close to Chan Chan. It is now difficult to imagine the fertility of this region during the height of the Chimu civilization.

The ruins of Chan Chan, which were plundered by Spanish treasure hunters and which continue to be by their modern counterparts, the 'huaqueros', in spite of protective legislation, very early on attracted the attention of travellers, historians and archaeologists. A simplified plan of the ruins was drawn up between 1755 and 1785 by the Spaniard Baltazar Martinez de Compañon. Even today, in spite of the excellent surveys conducted from 1969 by the Harvard mission headed by Michael E. Moseley, mapping of the site is incomplete and archaeological exploration has only just begun. Yet the rapid and seemingly unstoppable erosion of a particularly vulnerable building material, adobe, constitutes a serious obstacle to in-depth knowledge of the site. Many of the structures excavated and surveyed in the past have entirely disappeared.

What strikes all visitors is the sheer size of Chan Chan and the intense organization of its strictly hierarchical urban space. The city as a whole covers occupies no less than 6 km2. This zone comprises nine large rectangular ensembles delineated by high, thick earthen walls and known as 'citadels' or 'palaces'. Each of these 'palaces' forms a type of independent urban unit which comprises several spaces, built or not as the case may be, around one or more squares, the ceremonial character is in some cases quite obvious. Among them are temples, dwellings, storehouses, kitchens, reservoirs, orchards, gardens, funeral platforms, cemeteries, etc. The cob walls decorated with raised friezes in which abstract motifs, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects add to the exceptional splendours of these large arrays of ruins. Outside these nine rectangular units four industrial sectors were found to the west and south. The main activities appear to have been woodworking, weaving and the working of gold and silver. An area further to the south seems to have been used for farming as witnessed by the remains of an irrigation system, but many temples have been found there as well.