CHICLAYO, PERU -- One warm night earlier this year, fortune hunters climbed down a 35-foot hole that took them weeks to dig and emerged with what experts say is the largest cache of ancient gold objects yet unearthed in this archaeologically rich country.
Only a few of the precious 1,900-year-old artifacts have been recovered from Huaca Rajada, the contemporary name of the ancient burial site.
The rest have probably found their way into private collections in Peru or are headed for the high-priced international market.
The episode has renewed concern here about the plundering of ancient graves, a practice that goes back four centuries to the Spanish conquest and remains out of control in Peru. Other modern nations with roots in antiquity -- Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Italy, India and Mexico -- also continue to lose items stolen from archaeological sites, temple ruins and tombs.
For poor Peruvian families living atop former civilizations, the lure of buried treasure is especially strong. Scavenging the ruins of ancient Indian kingdoms offers both the promise of adventure and the hope of supplementing meager incomes.
For the nation, though, the unrecorded sale, often to foreigners, of centuries-old pots, jewelry and other archaeologically valuable items represents a major cultural loss and complicates efforts to piece together histories of societies stretching as far back as 1100 B.C.
Under a 1929 law, the Peruvian state claims title to all pre-Columbian artifacts uncovered here and prohibits their export without government permission.
But local police, overwhelmed by the demands of combatting leftist insurgents and drug traffickers, lack the resources to enforce the statute.
Government officials, too, tend to turn a blind eye toward most grave robbing, tacitly recognizing the economic benefit the activity brings to rural communities.
Only when a discovery of particular importance occurs, like the one 15 miles east of this coastal town beneath a neglected pyramid of mud bricks, do officials take action. But by then it is usually too late.
Three pyramids, looking like giant mounds of dirt, rise above fields of sugar cane at Huaca Rajada. Peasants had shoveled at the site for years, scouring for artifacts and leaving the area pockmocked with shallow holes.
Grave robbers use slender metal shafts with T-bar handles to poke around suspected burial grounds searching for soft spots.
The earth finally gave way over a grave at Huaca Rajada sometime late last year.
Cutting through layers of mud bricks packed as hard as stone, the excited diggers burrowed night after night past several outer compartments to reach what some experts have concluded was the tomb of a former Moche ruler, warrior or priest.
According to a source who has interviewed the diggers, what they found in the 6-by-6-foot crypt was a skeleton dressed in and surrounded by gold. Among the precious metal vestments and ornaments were: masks of different sizes, some with azure blue eyes made from lapis lazuli stones set in silver; armbands, necklaces and earrings; bells with clappers and a flute; peanuts of various sizes; flowers with the image of a frog in the center of each; and warrior figures in sheet gold.
American and other foreign bidders are already vying for some of the golden vestments and ornaments taken from Huaca Rajada. Archaeologists are mourning the secret dispersion of the spectacular cache, which dates from the 1st or 2nd century A.D. One expert was aghast when he learned recently that some profiteers intend to melt down a number of the objects to facilitate their sale.
Enrico Poli, a Lima collector with detailed knowledge of the sought-after pieces, valued them at more than $10 million.
Christopher Donnan, a U.S. archaeologist, called the discovery priceless for what it reveals about the art and skill of the Moche culture that flourished on the northern coastal plains of present-day Peru from about A.D. 100 to A.D. 700. Donnan, a specialist on the Moche period, has tracked down and viewed, or has had described to him, some of the missing items.
"There's never been an archaeological find to match the quantity and quality of gold dug up at Huaca Rajada," said Donnan, who is director of the Museum of Cultural History at the University of California in Los Angeles. "The craftsmanship is so masterful and lovely. It's phenomenal.
"I also wouldn't be surprised if this one find at least doubles the quantity of known Moche gold in the world," he added.
In an attempt last April to recover what they could of the ancient gold, police raided the house of Carlos Bernal. Several of Bernal's seven sons took part in the find. One of them, 36-year-old Ernil, was shot and killed as he fled out a back door during the police operation.
The incident has enraged local residents, put the police on the defensive and pushed the golden haul further out of reach of the authorities.
Embarrassed by the scandal, the government is now financing a formal excavation of the dirt mound that hid the artifacts.
So far, diggers working under the gaze of police guards have come across the remains of a young Moche warrior who was apparently sacrificed.
They have also found a deposit of more than 1,000 ceramic vessels, an exceptionally large stash, and a ceremonial copper sceptre. But no other golden artifacts have emerged.
"The archaeologists always arrive late, after the graves have been opened," said Alberto Tamayo, a Foreign Ministry official in Lima who heads the office on national patrimony affairs.
Peruvian experts look on in despair. "We simply don't have the money for professional excavations," said Walter Alva, director of the Bruening Museum in nearby Lambayeque.
Foreign-financed digs take place occasionally, although the bureaucratic maze for obtaining requisite permits can be discouraging.
"Archaeological data is a nonrenewable resource, and we're burning through it, squandering it, which means we won't have it to use to reconstruct ancient civilizations," said UCLA's Donnan, who is directing an excavation south of here at Pacatnamu near Pacasmayo. "Peru's cultural heritage is being hemorrhaged out of this country."
Hoping to keep artifacts at least in the country, Peruvian governments have allowed resident collectors to amass large private holdings.
But much still gets out. Customs agents do not search travelers leaving Peru. Border inspectors in foreign countries frequently cannot tell a pre-Columbian artifact from a tourist trinket.
The Reagan administration has taken steps to limit the flow of art illegally transported into the United States, the largest market for such works.