History Podcasts

Moche Vessel

Moche Vessel

Peabody Museum

We know little of the lives of Moche commoners because the art tends mostly to depict lords and priests and religious subjects. A white vessel made of kaolin clay (1) may be early Moche or from the neighboring Recuay culture. It depicts a lord inside a structure, probably his audience chamber. The house-shaped vessel (2) may represent a noble’s dwelling or a mortuary facility.

Some Moche vessels do appear to show men of low rank because figures do not display obvious signs of status like fancy headdresses (3), or they are depicted carrying vessels or performing other apparently mundane chores. So too, people with handicaps or illnesses are sometimes portrayed, as in the examples here of a dwarf (4) and a blind man (5). Again, these figures may have symbolic meanings that we cannot yet decipher.

Women contributed significantly to Moche culture yet were infrequently depicted themselves. When shown, some appear engaged in everyday activities, such as a woman carrying her young child (6) or another with a tumpline around her head supporting a burden behind her (7). A frequent image is of a seated woman with a long shawl, staring straight ahead (8). A similar figure (9) has a painted face. A third figure (10) is completely transformed into an anthropomorphic bird and appears to be treating a sick person lying before her. All seated women with shawls may, thus, depict female shaman-curers.

Moche art is well known for erotic vessels. The couple discreetly shown under a blanket here (11) is tame compared to many other examples of the genre. Themes of death are frequent because so many of these vessels were tomb offerings. One (12) shows the preparation of a corpse. Two vessels (13, 14) depict a “dance of the dead” and imply a belief in an afterlife. A fourth one (15) may show a god presiding over the underworld.

The Moche developed technologies of mass production. To enable the creation of multiple vessels, they pressed clay into separate molds (16, 17). Joining the sections with wet clay allowed for the addition of variations, such as adding a stirrup spout in one case (18) or leaving a space to create an open vessel in another (19). Use of molds increased the speed at which pottery could be made, as shown in the example of two similar stirrup spouts decorated with lizards (20, 21).

Because the aridity of the desert coast preserves objects that disintegrate in other climates, we have examples of the wide range of material culture once made and used, such as a shell-inlaid gourd (22), carved wooden animal (23), and inlaid earspool (24). This bone spatula (25) may have been used for ritual drug consumption. The long border (26) of what must have once been a very large textile is a rare example of Moche weavers’ art.

More Moche Animals

We could talk about my very favorite ceramics makers…but their nation is still prominent in the world (indeed they are the world’s most populous nation), so we will talk about Chinese porcelain some other day. For now, let’s instead concentrate on my second favorite ceramics artists—the astonishing and mysterious Moche people of Peru. Ferrebeekeeper has tried to explain the nature of Moche culture (as archaeologists currently understand it to have been) and we have also tried to put up some galleries of their exquisite waterfowl and their amazing bats (which I think are the best bat artworks extant).

For tonight though I am going to present a gallery of Moche ceramic vessels in the shape of animals without any comment. This is partly because I want you to experience the exquisite form of the ancient clay without any distractions and…it is partly because I got started working on Christmas projects and didn’t get around to writing this post until the middle of the night. I think you will agree as you look at this collection of vessels, that the Moche were astonishing at conveying animals in a way which was streamlined and simple yet also brings out the beauty and the personality of the creatures. These are not Walt Disney-esque cartoon animals of unnatural sweetness and broad comedy…and yet they are also animals which have distinctive emotional resonance and convey the distinctive character, intelligence, and temperament of these South American animals. It is a hard balance to get right, and yet I feel that the unknown potters and sculptors of long ago have done a superb job at bringing out what was real and what was magical in these creatures. I am not explaining this the way I wish, but just try sculpting some animals and you will soon see what I mean.

Moche Faces from the Past

The faces of our ancient ancestors are fascinating. From artistic renderings created thousands of years ago, to modern reconstructions by artists based on cranial anatomy (or more recently, genomic sequences from ancient DNA), I imagine these images provide a glimpse into the person’s soul. Decades ago, in a dusty and dimly-lit room in Cairo, I viewed the stunning gold death mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, the Egyptian boy king. The finely chiseled features of this face are mesmerizing. Now, not surprisingly, I am awed by the fabulous representational art of the ancient Andeans. This art includes portrait head vessels of high-status men created by the Moche culture that flourished along the north coast of Peru some 2,000 years ago.

Believed to be true portraits, these ceramic images convey personality in depictions of emotions such as happiness, sadness, and anger. There is careful rendering of nose shapes, chins and other distinctive details of appearance. Abnormalities and flaws are also shown, including an image of a man who is paralyzed, below. Many of the vessels are a distinctively Andean pottery style known as stirrup-spout pottery. Intended to hold liquids, this distinctive style has a cylindrical upright spout that splits into two curved ones that join a rounded vessel, effectively combining the handle and the spout.

A few remarkable series of portrait vessels have been found, including one of over 45 portraits created over much of the life of an individual who had a distinctive scar on his lip. Other chilling sequences depict important men who are later shown as captives with ropes around their necks, likely prior to sacrifice. These images provide a window into the shifting and volatile political powers of the Moche world, as well as to the individuals who lived so long ago.

Northern and Southern Moche: The Stylistic Distinctions of Face-Neck Vessels Across Regions

This essay is an investigation of stylistic differences in the ceramic production of “face-neck” vessels from the Middle Moche Period (400-600 CE) of the Northern and Southern Moche regions. These face-neck vessels are also referred to as effigy vessels or cántaros cara gollete in Andean ceramic classifications. Face-neck vessels take the shape of human bodies where the torso and limbs have been condensed into a large globular mass on the neck (the spout of the vessel) appears a human face in relief. In this paper, I focus on fineware face-necks rather than utilitarian wares since the majority of the vessels in this discussion originate from monumental funerary complexes for the elite. Face-neck vessels were commonly used to holds liquids like corn beer, which was consumed in ceremonial practices. By comparing vessels produced contemporaneously by Northern and Southern Moche polities, I have developed a set of distinctions in form, surface decoration, and finishing techniques that appear to distinguish each group. Using these distinctions, I argue that two face-neck vessels from the Harn Museum of Art, which have an unknown provenience, originate from the Southern Moche region between stages III and IV in the Moche ceramic sequence. In the process, I discuss burial practices, the concept of dualism in Moche culture, and the significance of mold technology (with implications for Moche funerary practice). While my research relies heavily on external observation of effigy vessels, I integrate my knowledge and experience as a ceramicist to provide insight on production processes.

Author Biography


(Alva, Walter, Nathalie Bondil, Ulla Holmquist, and Natalia Majluf. 2013. The Symbolic Language of Ancient Peruvian art. In Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon., eds. Victor Pimentel, Luis Eduardo Wuffarden. [English edition]. ed., 66-73. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Milan, Italy New York: Distributed in the United States and Canada by Harry N. Abrams Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 5 Continents Editions, http://www.ilibri.casalini.it/toc/1310103X.pdf.

Alva, Walter, and Museo Brüning. 1994. Sipán. Lima, Peru: Cervecería Backus & Johnston.

Bawden, Garth. 1996. The Moche. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell.

Bernier, Hélène. 2010. Craft Specialists at Moche: Organizations, Affiliations, and Identities. Latin American Antiquity 21 (1): 22-43.

Bourget, Steve. 2006. Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture. 1st ed. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Castillo, Luis Jaime, and Christopher B. Donnan. 1994. “Los mochicas del norte y los mochicas del sur.” Vicus: 142-181.

Chicoine, David. 2011. Death and Religion in the Southern Moche Periphery: Funerary Practices at Huambaco, Nepeña Valley, Peru. Latin American Antiquity 22 (4): 525-548.

Donnan, Christopher B. 2003. Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Donnan, Christopher B. 1978. Moche Art of Peru: Pre-columbian Symbolic Communication. Rev. ed. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California.

Donnan, Christopher B., and Luis Jaime Castillo 1992 Finding the Tomb of a Moche Priestess. Archaeology 45(6):38-42.

Donnan, Christopher B., and Carol J. Mackey. 1978. Ancient Burial Patterns of the Moche Valley, Peru. Austin: University of

Jackson, Margaret A. 2008. Funerary contexts. In Moche Art and Visual Culture in Ancient Peru., 39-40. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Koons, Michele. 2012. Moche Geopolitical Networks and the Dynamic Role of Licapa II, Chicama Valley, Peru. PhD Diss. Harvard University.

Millaire, Jean François. 2002. Moche Burial Patterns: An Investigation into Prehispanic Social Structure. Oxford, England: Archaeopress.

Moche Vessel - History

The Moche culture dominated the north coast of Peru during the Classic Period (250-900 CE). Moche lords held sway over each river valley from ceremonial and administrative centers built of unfired clay brick, which understandable have not survived the ravages of time and weather. The Moche were influenced artistically by the preceedcing Cupisnique and Tembladora cultures. The vessel is representative of Moche pottery in several ways. First is the unique and distinctive stirrup spout at the rear of the piece. It serves as both a handle and a pouring spout. The Moche also used polychrome slips on their coil built or molded ceramic objects. White, brick, and black are typical colors. Here a Moche lord is seated atop a raised platform, possibly a throne, wearing an elaborate headdress with a chin strap and large earplugs. His face is painted in a manner typical of what is seen in depictions of rulers. His upper body is painted with a design representing a hinged tunic. He strokes the head of a cat or a jaguar cub, the jaguar being a tractional symbol of power. Vessels of this kind were used in Moche rituals, and were treasured as luxury items, and buried in large quantities with individuals of high status.

A central theme of Moche art is the sacrificial ceremony in which prisoners who were captured in battle are sacrificed and several elaborately dressed figures drink their blood. The central figure was the warrior priest, a role assumed by the ruling lord.

Moche stirrup spout vessel with seated lord, from the Moche Valley, North Coastal Peru

Narrative Themes

The art of the Moche frequently depicts a combination of their natural and supernatural worlds. In addition, the Moche routinely portrayed several scenes involving specific figures and settings. These scenes were repeatedly painted over a long period of time by multiple artists and are referred to as “themes.” Evidence from archaeological excavations tie the figures from these themes to real individuals and several scenes can be linked in narrative sequence. These themes have been the object of extensive scholarly study and offer an extraordinary window into the practices and ritual activities of the Moche.

The Burial Theme

The Burial Theme depicts the interment of an individual of high status, including the preparatory rituals and the presentation of offerings that accompany the body. The scene is often split into the three parts: a presentation of conch (Strombus gigas) shells to elite personages, at times human and at times anthropomorphic the sacrifice of a nude female and the lowering of a masked coffin by rope through multiple layers of animal and vessel offerings.

The Presentation Theme

The Presentation Theme, also referred to as the Sacrifice Ceremony, occurs on multiple vessels and even metal and stone objects in both fineline painting and relief, and in both abridged and extended formats. Four central figures are featured and are designated in scholarship as Figures A, B, C, and D. Figure A is known as the “Rayed Deity,” the “Warrior Priest,” “Ai Apaec,” or the “Fanged Deity,” while Figures B and C are known as the “Owl” and the “Priestess,” respectively. Other figures in the scene are depicted preparing prisoners for bloodletting and, ultimately, the presentation of a cup or goblet to Figure A.

This theme is particularly important in the history of Moche research because of its role in identifying archaeological remains. In 1988, excavation at the site of Sipan revealed elite personages with accompanying objects and elements of dress identical to those represented with Figure A in the fineline paintings meanwhile at the site of Ucupe and San Jose de Moro, The Owl and The Priestess personages were discovered. Finally, at the site of Huaca de Cao, an elite female burial known as the Señora de Cao contained the objects and dress of Figure D. Moreover, elements of architecture and evidence of human sacrifice at the Huaca de la Luna directly correspond to iconography repeated in this theme. The Presentation Theme, therefore, has played a crucial role in scholarship to link iconographic representation and practice in ancient Moche society.

The Revolt of the Objects

The Revolt of the Objects Theme involves figures that appear in other themes of Moche fineline art, such as the Presentation Theme. A Priestess figure, identifiable by her double tassel headdress and long braids, and an anthropomorphized Owl Deity seem to preside over the chaos of the scene. Weapons such as clubs, maces, and slingshots have developed human heads and limbs and attack their human masters. The scene references a long-held concept in the Andes of “pachacuti,” a Quechua term that refers to a social upheaval or cataclysm. Scholars have identified congruencies between the Moche vessel imagery and colonial accounts of local legends in both the Andes and Mesoamerica. These legends are also referenced in the sixteenth-century Quechua-language Huarochirí Manuscript and the Popol Vuh narrative of the Mayan K’iche’ people, which was first written down in the eighteenth century.

The Tule Boat Theme

Tule, reed, balsa, or totora boats appear in fineline painting in varying degrees of abstraction. In a typical Tule Boat Theme scene, two reed boats are depicted and separated by a marine animal. In one boat, a figure is bent at the knee seems to be paddling, while in the other boat, a female figure holds an object, possibly a bag. In some iterations of the theme, tule boats are rendered simply as a crescent shape or not at all, instead using the angles of the vessel to stand in for the boat. Additionally, the scene is thought to have lunar symbolism due to an apparent mutability between the female figure and the Lunar or Crested Animal, a feline-like creature often depicted in a crescent shape.

The Bean and Stick Ceremony

The Bean and Stick Ceremony features two figures, at times human and at times anthropomorphic, typically seated or lying across a stepped dais and holding stick-like objects while surrounded by patterned beans. The scene has also been described as a bean divination.

Ceremonial Badminton/Water Lily Ritual

Ceremonial Badminton refers to scenes that feature a multitude of figures, variously human, anthropomorphic, or supernatural, engaged in what appears to be a ritual competition that involves launching spears at a feathered object that is occasionally tied to string. We do not yet understand the motivation or rules of engagement for this activity. Other interpretations of this scene describe the imagery as depicting a “water lily ritual.”

Runner Theme

Human, anthropomorphic animals, or beans are depicted running and carrying bags. The runners tend to wear alternating disk or trapezoidal headdresses, ulluchu-fruit belts, and are often shirtless. Beans are often depicted in the background. Ethnohistoric accounts of Inca messengers who traveled on foot across the empire, known in Quechua as Chasqui or Chaski, have been used as analogies for these earlier Moche representations of runners.


Coca (Erythroxylum coca, E. novogranatense var. truxillense) has played an important role in Andean ritual through time. In Moche fineline art, coca scenes depict two or more figures, usually wearing shrouds or cloaks, seated beneath a bicephalous arc. The figures each hold a gourd and a spatula used to ingest lime, which helps release the alkaloid properties of the leaf. The background is filled with large filled circles, which may allude to a starry night.

Moche Vessel - History

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  • Visual Studies

Juliet B. Wiersema’s Architectural Vessels of the Moche: Ceramic Diagrams of Sacred Space in Ancient Peru is a significant contribution to the field of art history for two reasons. The first is the subject matter: she addresses the relationship between architecture and its representation through an examination and comparison of ceramic vessels that represent architectural spaces and archaeologically recovered architectural remains from the Moche culture of the Peruvian north coast (ca. 100–900 CE), a topic that has not been closely researched prior to this volume. The second is how she confronts the complications that come from studying objects without provenience, from cultures without writing, where scholars are left with objects that must be “decoded.” Wiersema frames the discussion of architectural reality and ceramic representation as an exploration of how to derive meaning from such cultural remains. She stresses the need for an art history that creates an understanding of objects and structures that come with no words attached—as she describes them, “largely silenced.”

The book’s introduction outlines the issues involved in the project, as well as sets the stage with summaries of Moche art-historical studies, Moche architecture, and the basic nature of the architectural vessels to be examined. The cavalcade of questions that come with a largely unprovenienced corpus are acknowledged, and revisited in the conclusion. Wiersema notes the early twentieth-century roots of her inquiry, tracing the limited study of architectural vessels to the present day. She then discusses the relative youth of Pre-Columbian art history in general and its inextricable ties to archaeology, especially in Moche studies. Her remark that the traditional concerns of art history (“connoisseurship . . . detailed analysis of style, patronage, artistic influence, and the reconstruction and interpretation of decorative programs” 7) are not often the same concerns as the archaeologists who have written the majority of studies of Moche art is a critical observation. She advocates for a move beyond the oft-used Erwin Panofsky as a default decryptor of “wordless” art, reminding readers that Heinrich Wöllflin and Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s approaches are equally important in the study of groups of objects dispersed over space and time. She shows that the connections between architecture and identity can be explored on both archaeological and art-historical levels to better understand the heterogeneity of what was once considered to be a unified Moche culture.

The introduction’s overview leads into chapters 1 and 2, which deal with the nature of the architectural vessels and some of the concepts that have developed to interpret them. Wiersema introduces the reader to her use of art-historical and visual theory in the interpretation of architecture and the multiple possibilities for envisioning and representing architecture. The relationship between full-scale architectural spaces and small-scale replicas is explored multiculturally, giving breadth to the discussion of visual styles. This is another important aspect of this book, as it reaches beyond comparison with other Andean traditions and looks at the Moche as part of a worldwide artistic tradition. While this may not seem particularly revolutionary, it is part of a still-new movement away from a reductive impulse to frame the Moche as simply an aspect of lo andino, and instead aims to engage Moche visual studies in a larger art-historical dialogue. After the discussion of visual possibilities, Wiersema demonstrates how the vessels can be read in light of these possibilities, including the complex interaction between two- and three-dimensional elements on a single vessel. Heavily illustrated with examples, readers are shown the relationship between excavated architecture and vessels from the corpus, learning Moche artistic conventions and understanding how to see the vessels as something other than simple, generic models.

Chapter 3 goes into the corpus in depth, providing analytic tables that show the stylistic, thematic, and possible geographic and temporal range of the vessels studied. Here, Wiersema discusses not only Moche artistic output, but also takes into consideration “Moche-esque” vessels, which show interaction with other coastal cultures through time. Keeping these other cultures in consideration situates Moche ceramics within a larger north coastal tradition of architectural representation. She highlights important aspects of style, decoration, and motif in both two and three dimensions, and shows how some elements of excavated architecture are congruent with representations on the vessels. The architecture considered is, as much as possible, balanced between southern and northern Moche sites, which helps to reinforce Wiersema’s argument that architectural vessels are a Moche-wide tradition geographically as well as temporally. The chapter identifies vessel and architectural types and decorative motifs that are exclusive to the Moche, and those that are part of the shared coastal milieu. Using these findings, she is able to put forth preliminary hypotheses about the temporal and spatial popularity of certain structures and vessel styles. These hypotheses are of course dependent on a corpus that has a very small number of provenienced items, an issue that still plagues Moche visual studies (even after half a century of scientific excavation on the north coast), and are also subject to a changing understanding of both relative and absolute dating of Moche ceramics—something Wiersema herself clearly states.

Chapter 4 examines one specific kind of architectural vessel, depicting the “enclosed, gabled type” of structure that numerically dominates the current corpus. This short chapter presents a kind of case study, closely demonstrating the relationship between two- and three-dimensional decoration on multiple vessels, showing how the structure on the vessels may relate to archaeologically recovered architecture, and examining the possible meanings of non-architectural motifs found on the vessels. The chapter echoes the book’s subtitle, “Ceramic Diagrams of Sacred Space,” underlining the fact that architectural vessels in general seem to depict architecture that is ritually important and linked to specific, real architectural types. An analysis of the non-architectural motifs on the vessels points to Moche motifs of sacrifice and bloodletting, making it possible that the structures represented were specifically for the purpose of religious performances of human sacrifice. The full-scale architectural examples discussed are all part of the site of Huaca de la Luna and its surrounds, perhaps indicating that at least some vessels were meant to “commemorate remembered forms of ceremonial architecture” (117). This possibility once more highlights the problem of unprovenienced works, as their distribution geographically could help in further understanding the site’s range of influence.

Chapter 5 follows with an examination of a subset of architectural vessels that produce sound—so-called “whistling vessels.” Whistling mechanisms are not exclusive to Moche architectural vessels, but Wiersema points out that the subject matter associated with sound production seems to indicate themes of liminality, further reinforcing the ritual underpinnings of the vessels and the architecture they represent. The chapter also contrasts the external and internal technological styles of a sub-group of whistling vessels, comparing Moche versions with examples from the overlapping Virú and Vicús cultures. Radiographic analysis reveals how external visual style can be shared even when internal technological elements are culturally dependent, and vice versa. In the case of these vessels, the whistling mechanism is the primary locus of difference. Wiersema shows how the tones produced can be seen as culturally identifying and helpful in classifying vessels that may seem, from their external stylistic elements, to be from disparate areas or cultures. This chapter joins a growing number of studies that explore the experience of sound as a significant cultural element in Andean prehistory.

Chapter 6 moves away from the specific and delves into a cross-cultural comparison with other cultures’ representations of architecture. From Byzantine mosaics to Chinese funerary ceramics, Wiersema explores how cultures have produced and used representations of architecture. She first draws from cultures with a textual tradition, allowing some concepts to be firmly anchored in their artworks. These concepts are then compared with West Mexican house and village models attributed to the Nayarit culture. Many of them represent things that were not visible, but understood as part of the architecture’s importance, similar to the often-hidden whistling mechanisms in Moche vessels. Wiersema notes that all the examples in the chapter represent real, not invented, architecture, and that the structures all had cultural importance. They were anchored in time, place, and ideology, and she shows how some of the examples shifted in meaning and changed in appearance over time as cultures changed socially, politically, and ideologically. She then argues that the Moche vessels should be seen as participating in similar cultural processes.

The short conclusion sums up the book, as expected, but also points to the work that lies ahead and the pitfalls and concerns that beset the next effort. This clear-eyed assessment of the state of the study, as well as the field in general, would be useful in and of itself as a basis for discussion with both graduate and undergraduate students who study Pre-Columbian art, as it highlights some of the unique problems that come from working with art from non-textual societies, as well as emphasizing the need for considering new avenues of exploration (such as the acoustic) in understanding how people interacted with ancient artworks. Architectural Vessels of the Moche will be useful for students of Pre-Columbian art and Andeanists in particular, but is also a beautiful example of how to approach an ancient cultural question from multiple perspectives, and thus also should appeal to anthropologists, archaeologists, and art historians in general.

Sarahh E. M. Scher
Affiliated Faculty, Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College

The Tantra of the Moche

Even “Primary Civilizations” have roots, though ultimately these roots and origins are impossible to determine, moving layer upon layer back in time. But it is reasonable to assume a certain degree of continuity within a greater civilization, such as the civilization of the Andes and Peruvian coast. Thus, the ethnography of today and the “histories,” however questionable in some respects, taken by the Spaniards from the Incas have some import for the understanding of previous cultures, such as the Moche of the Early Intermediate Period. Perhaps the details might not match up perfectly, but the cores of certain cultural and philosophical ideas are probably the same.

Michael Moseley gives a good overview of Incan/Andean concepts in The Incas and Their Ancestors. Three essential levels of organization appear to exist in this system:

  1. responsibility of the ayllu to the greater system or state
  2. responsibility of the moieties to each other within the ayllu
  3. responsibility of the human beast to the rest of creation

Central to these systems of responsibility is the concept of mit’a. (Hereafter, mit’a, ayllu, and any other terms will be acculturated and not italicized.) Mit’a is poorly translatable, but “reciprocation as a matter of course” will do. This includes the reciprocal workings of the three responsibility-structures listed above. The ayllu traditionally gave material and labor taxes to the Incan (and presumably to the Moche) government and in return was supplied with a certain level of staples from central stores one moiety provides a certain service for the other moiety engaged in an equally mutually-beneficial labor and humans must give back to the earth certain adorations and care in return for what the earth provides. Without this reciprocation, which is reflexive rather than reactive, the empire might crumble, the ayllu will be at odds with itself, and creation will fall out of balance and yield disaster. Such ideas are not philosophical concepts but rather matters of basic existential fact. (Moseley, pp. 55, 68, 71-73)

The maintenance of these reciprocal relationships is dependent in ritual, which is led both by hereditary and elected/volunteer elites. The regular maintenance and performance of ritual is a task of monumental importance in order to preserve continuity of the society and creation, and a great deal of power, both “spiritual” and temporal, is acquired by those who successfully maintain the necessary ritual systems. (Bawden, 5.February, 1997)

Based on this, it has been suggested that the Moche culture’s elite ruling class maintained power not by the regular imposition of military force, but rather by the control of the rituals central to their existence. (Bawden, 8.April, 1997) Stemming from this basis of power, the “corporate style” of Moche artwork is steeped heavily in the history/mythology of the culture. Christopher Donnan has done much to decipher these images within their cultural framework and can suggest a corpus of some two dozen or so basic stories or themes that are played out in Moche art. (Moseley, p180)

“…Moche themes were recounted orally, depicted graphically, and acted out as pageants and rituals…Similar to a scene from a play, the characters in a theme are depicted as interacting in a repetitive manner in recurrent settings.” (Moseley, p.180)

So it seems that Moche art very specifically depicts and recounts certain tales or myths, and it may also, integrally, describe greater themes or concepts that are metaphysical or ontological in nature.

The main in-road to examining this aspect of Moche art (and therefore Moche life!) is the huge body of ceramics that has survived in excellent condition, in particular the stirrup-spouted “libation vessels.” Most of Donnan’s themes come from depictions on these vessels, whether in sculptural or line-work forms. But Donnan’s theories lacked much proof of carrying over into actual Moche life until Walter Alva unearthed the royal tombs at Sipan in 1987. The burials yielded people (and costumes, more importantly) that placed the characters of Donnan’s stories into the realm of human reality. (Kirkpatrick, p85)

Found with the Tomb of the Warrior-Priest at Sipan was a scepter, on the head of which was sculpted the Moche feline-snake deity actively penetrating a victim sexually and, it seems, about to devour her. The appearance of this image in such a lavish tomb serves to shake the scholar-imposed stereotypes of a major Moche theme– the “erotic” scenes of men and women, women and gods, and even women and women engaged in various forms of intercourse. Many scholars have left this “erotic” imagery outside of the highly mythological and symbolic body of Moche art, preferring instead to class such images as mundanely narrative or even genre.

“…moreover, one cannot call it pornography, since it’s function…was to chronicle their lives.” (von Hagen, p.51)

But the fact that coitus, fellatio, or anal-sex are actions that can be easily identified by outsiders does not remove the distinct possibility that ”erotic” images in Moche art are as symbollic as the scenes deciphered by Donnan. Sidney Kirkpatrick touches on this possibility: “And yet, as Donnan’s research showed, the Moche limited their portrayals to specific activities and postures that may have had ritualistic or ceremonial significance.” (Kirkpatrick, p.97)

Just as the English language lacks a good translation for “mit’a,” Judeo/Christian culture probably lacks a good iconic or philosophical translation for sexual imagery beyond the simply erotic or pornographic. The Indo-Himalayan cultures and, it would seem, the Moche culture, have well-developed systems of sexual imagery as reflective of a greater system of existence, and perhaps it is then easier and more precise to approach the “erotic” art of the Moche from the point of view of Hindu/Buddhist Tantra. The concept of mit’a lends itself well to this angle of interpretation. The reciprocity between man and creation or god can easily be seen as a sexual relationship. The possibility here is twofold, as humans fertilize the earth which brings forth a plethora of bounties and the earth reciprocally fertilizes humans with these bounties and allows them to bring forth products of their own. The image of the fertilizing/devouring deity on the head of the scepter found at Sipan might indicate such a concept borne in Moche art. The god fertilizes his victim (his consort?) even as he prepares to take her into his own body, to fertilize himself.

Perhaps the comparison is not 1:1, but a similar deity, who fills a similar dual role is present in the religion and tantrik system of the Hindus. Kali (“Time”) is the Great Mother who feeds her children to the point of exhaustion and then consumes the world (in a bloodbath, actually) in order to strengthen herself for the next creation. (Illustration #1) A variation or continuation on this theme is further evident in Moche imagery. Very commonly, a third element is introduced into sexual scenes– a suckling child. The Moche often portrayed men and women performing sexual intercourse while the woman is breast feeding. (Illustration #2) This could well be a different enactment of the reciprocal fertilization discussed above. As the man fertilizes the woman, so she fertilizes their child. This tri-elemental cycle or progression is, again, something found in the art of Hindu Tantra in the image of Chinnamasta, who springs from the “originating couple” of the universe, while simultaneously feeding her children and herself with the blood from her severed head. (Illustration #3)

A great deal of Moche “erotic” art is, however, focused on the depiction of acts not conducive to insemination, namely fellatio and anal sex. But it is quite possible that such forms of intercourse are still symbolically related to fecundity. Both involve the depositing of semen into the digestive tract, whether through the orifice of ingestion or that of elimination. The theme of consumption dealt with earlier may tie in here as well, as the female is “fed” the seed of the male. It is important to note that in Moche images of fellatio, the woman is usually quite active in her sexual role, not simply the passive receptacle of the man. Indeed, the female is often depicted as the active partner as she devours the phallus and the seed of her partner (victim?). (Illustration #4) Perhaps now, in a reversal of the image on the Sipan scepter, the feminine power consumes the male, which could suggest a reciprocal exchange between genders and/or the polar elements or energies that the two genders could imply. If, in fact, the males can be seen as victims of the females in these images, a certain analogy could again be drawn to Hindu Tantra and the stories and icons of Kali, who is often depicted in sexual intercourse with or even trampling the corpse of her husband, Shiva, his penis still erect as he is devoured along with the rest of creation by his insatiable wife. (Illustration #5)

Another common theme in these “erotic” images apparently blends the concepts of death and sexuality or generation. The idea of death preceding or being necessary for birth is not an uncommon one world wide. Observation of agriculture or of the seasons in general provides one with an environmental awareness of this. But the simultaneous pairing of the two images is interesting. Death is indeed the bridegroom, whether shown in active intercourse with a woman or shown being masturbated by a female partner. (Illustration #6) It seems then, that death is not only linked as an origin for regeneration, but that death itself is simultaneous with regeneration. One possibility here is that the images are indicative of an afterlife (a fertile afterlife, perhaps?), a belief in being reborn. The Moche certainly might have held such a belief, and the accouterments of their burials would surely seem to support that. Another possibility exists that might better fit into a tantra-like system. Perhaps “death” in these images is symbolic rather than literal. Death could indicate an initiatic or progressive step in life, whether only personally or within some initiatic cult or religious system. Of the tantrik goddess Durga, who often manifests herself in the skeletal deity Chamunda (Illustrations #7), Swami Chinmayananda writes:

“Invoke the Mother Terrible, to help us annihilate within all negative forces all weaknesses, — all littleness. It is these that have removed us from our own selves.” (Nathan, ed. p.153)

And these Moche images of sex and death again recall the Hindu Kali, ever in intercourse with her husband’s corpse.

Hindu and Buddhist sexual Tantra is not only conceptual but is also actively practiced as a system of lovemaking for those who follow it. There are two essential results of this– first, the acting out of tantrik principles as an act of yogic meditation and second, the increasing of sexual pleasures for the couple. This second, more purely sexual practice in the Hindu tradition deals with a greater belief system of energies, chakras, and other concepts of the subtle body’s construction. There is no evidence at this time that the Moche studied a similar program of the body, though they certainly could have. However, it is known that the peoples on the north coast of Peru did practice these various “non productive” sexual acts with great frequency, much to the chagrin of both the Inca and the Spaniards.

“[The Incas thought] that ‘it is a loss of seed.’ This, if no other, was the reason for the intense reaction of the Incas’ governors, who destroyed masses of yuncas because of this practice: bachelors and sodomists were enemies of the state.” (von Hagen, p51.)

No doubt these practices were pleasurable on the mundane level for the Moche and their successors, but the practice of these sexual acts may have also been in deference to and reflective of the “tantrik” system suggested by this paper, and perhaps this is why it was so difficult for the Incas and the Spaniards to stamp out.

“Aghast at such ‘waste of seed,’ for loss of children was loss of people, [the Incas] regarded this practice as abominable, and tried to stamp it out by destroying families, even whole tribes. It persisted.” (von Hagen, p.49) And we can assume that the Spaniards made various efforts to end this practice, too.

Conclusion: Lunge, Parry, Thrust

This theory of a tantra-like system of thought in the Moche culture is difficult to pin down as a viable explanation for their “erotic” images. A great deal of work remains to be done in this area, even more so than in other areas of study regarding the Moche and the Andean cultures in general. The intention of this paper is not to suggest any actual connection between South Asian Tantra and the Moche religious complex, but it remains clear that the depiction of these “sexual” acts and circumstances are extremely important in the body of Moche sculpture, ornamentation, and ceramics. The theories of scholars to the effect that these works are mundanely descriptive of the sex life of this artistically and symbolically prolific and complex culture seem woefully inadequate to describe such a powerful body of work. Von Hagen (like many others) slickly downplays “erotic” art as he casually comments that, “…the woman was the sex historian of the tribe…As most Mochica-Chimu pottery was mould-cast, a woman could perform these tasks at home in her spare time.” (von Hagen, p.52) However, contrary to von Hagen’s claims, the evidence suggests that most of the fine-ware of the Moche was produced in centralized shops, usually in close proximity to seats of power. Surely, most of the extant “erotic” ceramic pieces would fit the category of fine-ware, and such an object as the Warrior-Priest’s scepter would be produced in an extremely elite (and probably male) craft environment. (Bawden, 8.April, 1997) Interestingly, von Hagen contradicts himself and supports an elite production view when he states that the only comparison to be made to these pieces outside of the Andean world are the temple sculptures at Khajuraho and Konarak in central and eastern India, respectively. (Von Hagen, p.51) But the connection he posits is one of image only, not of possible similarities in philosophical undercurrents.

Perhaps the possible (if fantastic, admittedly) connection is not made between tantrik systems and Moche “erotica” because the bulk of scholarship has been performed by Westerners. Since the death of Sophia in the early days of Roman Catholic power (aside from the occasional, heretical attempts to exhume her), the idea of procreative mysticism or religion has been largely absent in the Christian world. For this reason, it is important to remember that no single culture can be the measure of all things, despite so many whimpers to the contrary. And so this paper has attempted to step back, circle around, and re-approach Moche “erotic” art from a different standpoint, as far as possible, from the standpoint of a system that could directly relate and sympathize, not just cast off these images as jocular pornography.

Moche Vessel - History

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Ancient Coins & Artifacts:

All of these Pre-Columbian artifacts were legally and ethically acquired, coming from old American and European collections, museum deaccessions and auctions throughout the US and Europe prior to UNESCO and subsequent international trade laws. Every item is painstakingly screened for authenticity and legality. Provenance is not always listed in every item description due to restricted space, but is provided on the certificate of authenticity that accompanies each item. Enjoy!

Chimu, ancient Peru, c. 1100 - 1450 AD. Fantastic Chimu bone figural amulet. In the form of a standing shaman or noble wearing an elaborate headdress adorned with small animals. L: 4 in (10.2 cm). Well-preserved with a beautiful orange patina. Very rare! Ex Robert Dowling Gallery, CA. #PR2321: $475
Chimu, Peru, c. 12th-15th century AD. Interesting carved-bone centerpiece from a balance scale. Nicely decorated with geometric perforations. Repaired at center, 1/3 restored. 104 mm (4 1/16"). Ex-East Coast USA collection. #PR2027: $75
Chimu, Peru, c. 1100-1450 AD. A nicely framed Inca textile, with animals amidst floral elements in vivid colors against a golden yellow ground. The primary character is a feline, likely a jaguar or puma (possibly a feline deity), surrounded by an agricultural/plant motif. The textile is professionally conserved and mounted with the label from the museum on the back side. Textile measures 10 3/4" x 2 3/4" (27.5 x 5.9 cm). The entire frame measures 15 5/8" x 6 1/2" (39.6 x 16.6 cm). Ex Santa Barbara Museum of Art deaccession, with original museum label with donor on back of frame. Museum catalog number donor: "Gift of M/M E. C. Watson". Incorrectly catalogued as Egyptian. Gorgeous! #AE2276: $699 SOLD
A large Chimu phytomorphic bottle from Peru, c. 1100 - 1450 AD. It is 6" high and depicts a lúcuma. This fruit was highly prized and cultivated by ancient Andean cultures and is still widely used in the production of desserts and baked goods. Intact, with heavy mineral deposits. Ex Skinner Auctions – Boston, MA ex-Arte Xibalba, FL. #DJG005: $299
Ancient Peru. Moche, c. 200-700 AD. Fantastic ceramic figural pendant. 27 mm (1 1/16") tall, perforated through the top of the head for suspension. Gorgeous deep red-brown color. ex-Arte Xibalba From the collection of Andrea Sarmiento - Miami, FL Ex Llerena family collection - Miami, FL. #PR2048: $225
A fine Chimu calero from Peru, c. 1100 - 1450 AD, made from a gourd and decorated with a carved neck made from other material. The dipper is carved from dark wood. Caleros were used to store and carry ground lime to chew with coca leaves. L: 6". Intact, with nice patina from usage and just minor insect damage. See: "Inca - Peru," p. 238, for similar examples from the Royal Art Museum in Brussels. A great piece! #0310315: $299

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A nice Moche figural bottle from Peru, c. AD 400 – 700, depicting an individual adorned with large ear spools and a complex, segmented necklace with matching bracelets. His face is expressive, the arms are molded in relief along the chamber and his mantle is indicated with crisp incising. A very pleasing example and unusually well detailed for the type. 5 1/2". Good mineral deposits and calcification on the rear of the chamber. Ex Gallatin, TX estate. #PR2120: $399 SOLD
Ancient Peru. Moche, c. 400-600 AD. A choice Moche figure from Peru. Stands 4-1/2" high and depicts a musician playing a drum. He is adorned with a segmented necklace and has long incised hair flowing down his back. ex-Arte Xibalba from the collection of Israel Pachenko, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, by descent from the M. San Marco estate, Houston, TX. #PR2088: $499 SOLD
Ancient Peru. Moche, c. 550-700 AD. A rare Northern style Moche V figurine, from Pacatnamu in the Jequetepeque Valley, Peru. This beautiful standing female is 6-7/8" high and is wearing layered clothing with ornamental collar and large ear ornaments. The arms are modeled in his relief and the downturned hands are extending from the body, a rare feature. Great paint and mineral deposits. Rare type. ex-Arte Xibalba from the collection of Israel Pachenko, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, by descent from the M. San Marco estate, Houston, TX. #PR2090: $650 SOLD
Ancient Peru. Chimu, c. 1100 – 1450 AD. Excellent and huge Chimu figural vessel. Depicts a figure wearing a fancy headdress with matching necklace that has large pectoral ornaments dangling. His finely sculpted face is expressive and the arms are molded in relief over the top of the chamber. Nicely burnished, good mineral deposits. H: 197 mm 7-3/4". Choice detail! Acquired at auction from the Elizabeth Cohen Trust. #PR2242: $399 SOLD
Moche, Peru, c 400 - 700 AD. Great standing female figure. Depictes with hands held to chest, wearing long garment. Wide, expressive eyes, nice facial features. H: 5 1/2" (14 cm). Great reddish-orange color. ex-Lost Worlds artifacts. #PR2007: $299 SOLD
Moche, Peru, c. 400 – 700 AD. A choice ceramic Moche maternal figure. She stands 5-3/4" high and depicts a female holding an infant. She is wearing a long dress and is adorned with large ear ornaments and facial décor. Nicely detailed, good paint. From the collection of Mathew Asky - Nottingham, U.K. #PR2295: $1000
Ancient Peru. Moche culture, c. 450 - 550 AD. An excellent Moche IV figure from Peru. Depicting the primary deity Ai Apaec emerging from the Sacred Mountains. He is adorned with a necklace of trophy heads, is holding a shield and is wearing wrist armor on the left forearm. Serpents are coiled around the mountain tops. H: 9 1/8" W: 7 1/4". Intact and well-preserved, with good paint remnants. From the estate of Frank Tapia,
New York, NY. This is a fantastic display piece! #PR2317: $950 SOLD
Chimu, c. 1100-1450 AD. Fantastic shell bead necklace. The colored beads are Spondylus shell, the white clam shell. About 40 inches long, and strung on modern filament. I can re-string on sturdy Softflex jewelry wire with silver clasp for an additional $20 if desired. Ex Oxford, UK private collection. #PR2272: $250 SOLD
Chimu, c. 1100-1450 AD. Fantastic stone and ceramic bead necklace, ranging in color from light tan to grey, brown and black. About 40 inches long, and strung on modern filament. I can re-string on sturdy Softflex jewelry wire with silver clasp for an additional $20 if desired. Ex Oxford, UK private collection. #PR2271: $199 SOLD
Moche, Peru, c. 400 – 700 AD. An excellent Moche figure. He stands 6-1/4" high and depicts a warrior holding a war club and shield. He is adorned with an ornament studded helmet, segmented necklace and fancy mantle. Nicely detailed, good paint. From the collection of Mathew Asky - Nottingham, U.K. #PR2297: $650 SOLD
Chimu, c. 1100-1450 AD. Fantastic shell bead necklace. The colored beads are Spondylus shell, the white clam shell. About 40 inches long, and strung on modern filament. I can re-string on sturdy Softflex jewelry wire with silver clasp for an additional $20 if desired. Ex Oxford, UK private collection. #PR2270: $250 SOLD
Ancient Peru. Chimu, c. AD 1100 - 1450. Large Chimu ceramic human effigy vessel. The upper portion of the vessel stippled above a wide horizontal band, the spout in the form of a human head with arms extending on the shoulders, strap handle behind. H: 8 3/4 in (23 cm), gorgeous dark gray surfaces. Ex St. Paul private collection Ex William Harling, FL, acquired in 2000
Ex collection of Dr. Javier Chiappo. #PR2324: $450 SOLD
Moche, ancient Peru, c. 400 – 700 AD. Excellent large Moche ceramic figure. This choice example is 6-1/2" high and depicts a standing individual with hands held to the chest. He is wearing a long mantle and is adorned with a fancy headdress, broad collar with matching bracelets and large ear ornaments. Intact, strong mineral deposits. ex-Sergio Bravo collection, Los Angeles, CA ex-Arte Xibalba, FL. #PR2329: $450 SOLD

Watch the video: Moche Portrait Vessels (December 2021).