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Stanford Report, October 24, 2001

Discovery of shell stash sheds light on ancient society


John Rick arrived in Lima, Peru, this summer with quite a fanfare. Literally.

After a talk at the National Museum in Lima, Rick and a large audience were serenaded with the sounds of 12 Strombus trumpets -- instruments made from large sea-snail shells. But these weren't just any shells. They were nearly 3,000-year-old artifacts that archaeologist Rick and his team had unearthed this summer at the ancient Peruvian center Chavin de Huantar. He describes the sound of people playing the shells as "a quite substantial throaty roar."

"This was not a quiet concert," Rick recalls. "It was a din. It was literally wall-shaking. The large audience was stunned," he says.

Alumnus John Kiewall, undergraduate Parker VanValkenburgh, alumnus Richard Parker and undergraduate Kim Cahill help excavate the circular plaza. Photo courtesy of: John Rick

But surely not as stunned as Rick and his colleagues were when they came across the stash of shells in an underground gallery at Chavin, the seat of a culture that began to gain prominence around 1200 to 1400 B.C. and faded around 400 B.C. This early pre-Columbian site -- whose underground gallery features a huge stone sculpture called the Lanzón -- always has been known to Peruvians, and archaeologists have worked there for decades. But only this July did Rick excavate a room that may have been used for storage of ritual paraphernalia. Rick, associate professor of anthropological sciences who also chairs the department, says he believes the 20 newly discovered shells, which date back to 600 to 1000 B.C, were deposited there deliberately, perhaps as an offering.

Before Rick's discovery, only one other decorated Strombus shell had been unearthed in all of Peru -- from an irrigation ditch. In contrast, many of the shells Rick found have intricate patterns incised onto them. This mother lode of 20 shells, each weighing 3 to 5 pounds and measuring some 10 inches, already has elicited significant interest from the Peruvian press. It was the subject of an article in the Peruvian newspaper Liberación in August.

Other archaeologists also are responding with enthusiasm to Rick's discoveries. "John's work at Chavin has really opened our eyes to a lot of things we never saw before," says Katharina Schreiber, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara and editor of Latin American Antiquities, a leading journal. "The things he's learning about the site are astonishing."

It's obvious the shells were used as musical instruments, Rick says, because they'd had their spires carefully cut off and shaped into mouthpieces. "It's a clear cultural modification with only one reasonable reason," he says. There have been numerous artistic representations found at Chavin of shells being carried and played.

A deeply engraved Strombus shell, discovered by John Rick at Chavin, appears to show trophy heads of sacrifice victims and spear-like weapons. Photo courtesy of: John Rick

There is also a long cultural tradition in Peru of playing shell trumpets that continues to this day.

At the very same time that Rick and his team were pulling the shells out of the dirt, the new president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo -- who holds graduate degrees in education and economics from Stanford -- was traveling to the historic site Machu Picchu for his "cultural investiture." During the ceremony, 20 people played shell trumpets.

"The president used it as a symbol of his ascendancy to power," Rick says. "Its association of authority was being acted out at precisely the time we were finding them."

Rick is floored by this coincidence, because what he finds particularly fascinating about the Chavin site is the way its rituals served to support new forms of religious and political leadership. Archaeologists believe that Chavin inaugurated the image of the authoritative ruler, a priest who was granted powers by nature to govern others. Chavin legitimated the leader's political and spiritual power, in part through fancy use of light and sound -- as evidenced by the trumpets -- as well as image.

"The manipulation of the mind with light, sound and architectural context build this relatively complete picture of what Chavin ritual was like," Rick says. "This was an early use of multimedia."

Another set of discoveries Rick made underscored the visual drama ancient visitors would have experienced. He found several stone reliefs depicting fierce-looking jaguars, probably carved around 800 B.C., Rick says.

"Felines are extremely important to them," he explains. "The Chavin priesthood seems to be drawing on powerful elements of nature, arguing that some people have come into the powers of the natural world."

The animals were found on the south side of a circular plaza that leads to the gallery of the Lanzón. It makes sense, because this probably was the path of the religious procession toward the interior of an ancient temple.

Rick and his group of excavators also solved a mystery. (The group at one point included 52 people -- Peruvian colleagues and workers plus Rick's wife, Rosa, an archaeologist who is curator of anthropological collections at the Cantor Arts Center, 15 Stanford alumni and 15 Stanford undergraduates.)

For years, people had puzzled over whether a human figure in a partially destroyed carving was holding a San Pedro cactus or not. It's significant because that type of cactus contains a psychoactive drug that may have been part of the Chavin ritual. Rick's team found a fragment of a matching carving with its base, where the cactus roots were obvious. The more complete plaque seems to prove it: Members of the exclusive Chavin cult could, indeed, get high.

Do these discoveries change the way archeologists and historians view this ancient culture? Rick says that after dating some materials he excavated, he has revised the timeframe of structures on the site. "We've pushed Chavin back in time," he says, making the argument that the culture was 500 to 800 years older than some believed.

But Rick says that instead of fundamentally altering archaeologists' vision of Chavin, the artifacts he found reinforce what experts already thought they knew. Chavin specialized in convincing people of the power of authority and ritual, he believes. The added sights, sounds and drug experience would have made that "convincing system" all the stronger.

"We get a sense of the mind-shaping importance of these rituals in supporting authority," Rick contends. He adds that new research shows that certain types of sounds -- perhaps including the shell trumpet's roar -- can change brain waves in ways similar to hallucinogens.

How were those ancient shells able to last so long, some may wonder? By lucky coincidence, Rick explains, the soil at Chavin is permeated by calcium carbonate. That is exactly the same material found in the shells, which were preserved almost perfectly -- so much so that these sturdy artifacts could bear a few encore performances.

Professor John Rick blows on a shell horn. Photo: L.A. Cicero