Capturing a Kingdom: A Century of Perspectives on Chan Chan

Built at the behest of successive rulers, each ciudadela is a unique configuration of recurring architectural elements. Seen from the air, these walled monuments tell of Chan Chan's expansion and rising power over time. Source: Georg Gerster, 1995.
An experimental large-format camera aboard the Challenger space shuttle captured this view in 1984. It shows Chan Chan within a landscape of extremes—sea, desert, soaring mountains, and fertile river valleys. Source: NASA, 1984. PM 2010.2.4.79
Despite their impressive scale, the compounds housed only a few privileged members of the nobility. Commoners lived outside, in small wattle-and-daub houses overshadowed by the massive walls. Source: Shippee-Johnson Expedition, 1931.
The sea, lower right, was a source of food and wealth, as well as a route for goods. Next to the coast, a landscape scarred by pits testifies to centuries of looters' efforts. Source: Servicio Aerofotográfico Nacional, 1942. PM 2010.2.4.81
On the edges of this photograph, archaeologist Michael Moseley marked the ancient roads that tied the village to the metropolis. Source: Servicio Aerofotográfico Nacional, 1942. PM 2010.2.4.82
Chan Chan was a hub for trade throughout the central Andes. All but invisible from the ground, faint traces of roads crossing the coastal desert to the site stand out in aerial photographs. Source: Otto Holstein, 1925 or 1926. PM 2004.24.8124
Aerial photograph of desert highways leading to Chan Chan. Source: Servicio Aerofotográfico Nacional, 1942. PM 2010.2.4.80
Chimú farmers built huachaques, or sunken agricultural fields, to grow crops using excess irrigation water that otherwise would have been trapped in the soil. Source: Otto Holstein, 1925 or 1926. PM 2004.24.8144
Aerial photographs can pick up the remnants of abandoned fields and irrigation canals. By studying the distribution of fields and canals, we can draw conclusions about Chimú social organization. Servicio Aerofotográfico Nacional, 1942. PM 2010.2.4.84

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.