Walter A. Alva was born on June 28, 1951, in Contumazá Province, Peru. A trained archaeologist, at 35 years old he was already the Director of the Brüning National Archaeological Museum in Lambayeque, Peru. He was a recognisable figure to the public because he often spoke in the media and to local schools against the looting of archaeological sites and the importance of preservation.
In the middle of the night on February 25, 1987, Dr. Alva received a telephone call from the Peruvian Investigative Police of the city of Chiclayo. They requested that Dr. Alva drive down and examine what was thought to be twenty-three looted artefacts from the archaeological site of Huaca Rajada. Although sick with bronchitis and wary that the items were fakes, Dr. Alva agreed to help. Huaca Rajada was a site made up of three ancient and eroded pyramids, thought to be of Chimu origin. However, the objects seized by police told a different story. A human mask found at the site, crafted from hammered gold with silver and cobalt-blue stone eyes, was certainly not Chimu in origin. It was in fact from the Moche civilisation, far before the Chimu. This and the other objects suddenly proved archaeologists wrong about the conception of Huaca Rajada.
The looting of Huaca Rajada had started a few weeks previously by Emil Bernal, his brother, and their team. Due to the overwhelming poverty of the area, and the lack of employment opportunities, soon after the villagers of Sipán also joined in. Bernal found the artefacts in question in the crypt of an ancient Moche Lord in the ceiling of the pyramid. However, disagreements in the team about the share of the spoils erupted almost immediately, leading to one member being killed and other going to the police. Ernil’s home was raided, however the twenty-three artefacts they found were just the minority of his cache. The rest had already been sold on the black market and shipped across the world.
When Dr. Alva arrived at the site, he made the decision to start excavations immediately. Once the story of the gold artefacts had started circulating, locals and looters descended on the site to find something for themselves. The immediate start to the excavation meant however that Dr. Alva had no funding and permission, and very little police support, but the preservation of the site was of tantamount importance to him. He managed to hire two men from the local area to help him with his excavations and had only two police officers standing guard. Slowly they worked their way into the pyramid, and under the collapsed roof of a chamber found a royal Moche tomb. Inside a coffin Dr. Alva found the body of a Moche Lord crowned with a crescent-shaped headdress of gold and wearing a gold mask and gold necklace.
Tensions outside the tomb were high, with Dr. Alva and his team sometimes sleeping in tunnels to avoid the violence of the crowd. The locals believed the tombs were their “ancestor’s inheritance” and should not be taken to a museum. Later Dr. Alva was so vilified that he could not return to Sipán without a police escort. His findings at Huaca Rajada revolutionised the understanding of the Moche people and their world. In 2002 Dr. Alva opened the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, where he became Director, while the pyramids are a popular tourist attraction.