Ancient visitors to the great city of Chan Chan on Peru’s north coast were confronted with a maze of massive mud-brick walls designed to make a mystery of the spaces within them. Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimú kingdom from ca. AD 850 to 1470. It contains ten major compounds, or ciudadelas, which served as royal palaces and centers of administration.
Chan Chan’s splendor and dominant role in the broader cultural landscape of the north coast of Peru have inspired numerous archaeological and photographic expeditions since the 1920s. Aerial views of the ciudadelas reveal what was invisible to all but a few of Chan Chan’s thirty thousand inhabitants: complex arrangements of corridors, audience chambers, and storerooms that reflect how Chimú rulers organized and controlled the social, political, and economic life of the city.
By comparing photographs from expeditions and projects conducted by amateur archaeologist Otto Holstein (1925–26), Harvard-trained geologist and pilot Robert Shippee and aviator George R. Johnson (1931), and Harvard archaeologist Michael Moseley (1969–75), we can better understand the nature and history of Chan Chan, which was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986. Moreover, as environmental change and urban development increasingly threaten Chan Chan’s remains, these images, stored in the Peabody Museum's archives, are an invaluable record of what has been lost in the collision between cities of the past and present.