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Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture

Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture

A pioneering analysis of Moche visual iconography that sheds new light on this ancient Peruvian society's beliefs about sex, death, and the afterlife.

July 2006
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272 pages | 7 x 10 | 259 b&w illus., 24 color photos in 16 page section |

The Moche people who inhabited the north coast of Peru between approximately 100 and 800 AD were perhaps the first ancient Andean society to attain state-level social complexity. Although they had no written language, the Moche created the most elaborate system of iconographic representation of any ancient Peruvian culture. Amazingly realistic figures of humans, animals, and beings with supernatural attributes adorn Moche pottery, metal and wooden objects, textiles, and murals. These actors, which may have represented both living individuals and mythological beings, appear in scenes depicting ritual warfare, human sacrifice, the partaking of human blood, funerary rites, and explicit sexual activities.

In this pathfinding book, Steve Bourget raises the analysis of Moche iconography to a new level through an in-depth study of visual representations of rituals involving sex, death, and sacrifice. He begins by drawing connections between the scenes and individuals depicted on Moche pottery and other objects and the archaeological remains of human sacrifice and burial rituals. He then builds a convincing case for Moche iconography recording both actual ritual activities and Moche religious beliefs regarding the worlds of the living, the dead, and the afterlife. Offering a pioneering interpretation of the Moche worldview, Bourget argues that the use of symbolic dualities linking life and death, humans and beings with supernatural attributes, and fertility and social reproduction allowed the Moche to create a complex system of reciprocity between the world of the living and the afterworld. He concludes with an innovative model of how Moche cosmological beliefs played out in the realms of rulership and political authority.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: More Questions than Answers
    • Moche Visual Culture
    • Subjects, Themes, and Narratives
    • Iconography, Archaeology, and Identity
      • Presentation Theme
      • Wrinkle Face and Iguana
      • Ritual Runners
      • Ceremonial Badminton
      • Coca-Taking Ceremony
      • Prisoners and Portrait-Head Vessels
      • Copulation with Wrinkle Face
    • Summary
    • Context and Methodology
      • A Dualist System
      • A Tripartite Organization?
  • Chapter 2: Eros
    • Previous Contributions
      • Rafael Larco Hoyle
      • Anne Marie Hocquenghem
      • Susan Bergh
    • Diachronic versus Synchrony
    • Sodomy
      • Ritual Paraphernalia
      • Presence of Children in Scenes of Sodomy
      • Sodomy and Individual with Fangs
    • Masturbation
    • Fellatio
    • Sexual Depictions on Libation Vases
      • Skeletal Beings and Erections
      • Anthropomorphic Genitals
      • Women and Blood
    • Inverted Fertilities
    • Vaginal Copulation
      • Copulation between Animals
      • Copulation between Animals and Women
      • Copulation between Wrinkle Face and Women
      • Eventual Sacrificial Victims
      • Sacrificial Victims and Vaginal Copulation
    • Summary
  • Chapter 3: Eros and Thanatos
  • Chapter 4: Thanatos
    • Organization of the Narrative
      • The Awakening
      • The Exit
      • The Reinstatement
      • Sacrifice and Capture
    • Strombus Seashells
    • Archaeological Evidence of an Afterworld
    • Summary
  • Chapter 5: Dualities, Liminalities, and Rulership
    • Dualities
      • Sipán
      • Huacas de Moche Site and El Brujo Complex
      • Iconography
      • Asymmetry and Duality
    • Liminalities
    • On the Structure of Moche Rulership
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Steve Bourget is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin.


The Moche inhabited what is now the Peruvian north coast for nearly seven hundred years, between the first and the eighth centuries of our common era. Their origin, their history, and the nature of their political and religious structure are still a matter of debate. But greater advances than ever before have been made in the past two decades or so, and the picture of a complex and fascinating society is slowly emerging from their sand-covered sites and from the shelves of museums where thousands upon thousands of their exquisitely modeled and painted ceramics are waiting to be rediscovered. Thanks to a number of large-scale excavations and long-term archaeological projects, we now know that this ancient Andean society, perhaps the first one to attain the level of social complexity of a state, constructed cities with elaborate monumental edifices; specialized centers for the production of textiles, metallic objects, and ceramics; sectors for the elite and for the commoners; and numerous cemeteries.


These people, following a long tradition of irrigation engineering, diverted the flow of rivers into canals and reclaimed arable land from the arid coast. They developed a subsistence economy based on the agriculture of maize, beans, yucca, potatoes, camote, peanuts, squash, chili peppers, and a host of other plants of lesser importance. Various kinds of significant crops such as cotton and gourds were grown for the production of fishing nets. They very successfully exploited nearby marine and freshwater resources such as crustacean, mollusks, and fish. This bounty accounted for an important part of their dietary proteins. They raised ducks and guinea pigs and used domesticated animals such as dogs and llamas. They also hunted wild game such as deer and sea lions and collected other natural resources such as land snails and wild plants for food.


They possessed neither a writing system nor a clearly defined market economy. They actively, however, participated in long-distance exchange relations for the import of luxury goods seemingly crucial for their craft activities, sumptuary regalia, and rituals. The goods imported probably included lapis lazuli from the south; Strombus, conus, and Spondylus seashells from the warm seas to the north around the gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador. From the Amazonian lowlands may have come parrot feathers, certain plants, and seeds. Yet many of these techniques and exchange systems were already well in place long before the Moche culture emerged in Peruvian prehistory.


The Moche themselves are most often remembered for their elaborate ritual ceramic vessels and for the creation of outstanding depictions of humans, animals, and beings with supernatural attributes. Larco was the first investigator to divide Moche ritual ceramics into phases (1948). His five-phase chronology (Phase I-V) is based on morpho-stylistic changes and overall decoration noted on ritual ceramics, especially the stirrup spout bottles. Although, the beginning of this seriation remains to be clearly defined, the sequential nature of Phase III and Phase IV has been firmly established at the Huacas de Moche site (Chapdelaine 2003). For these two phases the calibrated dates obtained at the site range from AD 250 to AD 700. Although the stylistic sequence established by Larco presents problems, especially with regard to the first two phases, Moche scholars still utilize it as the established chronology for fineware vessels (Donnan and McClelland 1999). Moche scholars still utilize it as the established chronology for fineware vessels (Donnan and McClelland 1999). If we disregard the Burial Theme representations, which are exclusively from Phase V, 90 percent of the examples used in this essay belongs to the Phase IV stylistic period.


Moche Visual Culture


Moche iconography is certainly one of the most intriguing and dynamic systems of representation from ancient Peru. With their striking iconography replete with a realism never surpassed in the Andean world, the Moche have inhabited our mindscape for more than a century. During this period, this system of representation has been perceived as a portal to their way of life, their customs, and their religious beliefs. This perception has probably more to do with the degree of realism of their beautifully painted and modeled ceramic vessels than with the very nature of the representations. Until recently, very little archaeological research had been done, and these highly suggestive and evocative scenes were one of the only sources of knowledge about the Moche culture itself.


The archaeology on the Moche is relatively recent. Notwithstanding the pioneering work of Max Uhle at the Huacas de Moche site in 1899, field investigations really began only after World War II (Kroeber 1925; Uhle 1913). Since the landmark discovery of high-ranking burials at the site of Sipán in 1987 (Alva 1988, 2001; Alva and Donnan 1993), a number of other long-term projects have been or are still being carried out at Moche sites such as the Huacas de Moche (Uceda et al. 1997, 1998, 2000), Huaca Cao Viejo (Franco et al. 1994), Dos Cabezas (Donnan 2001a, 2003a), and San José de Moro (Castillo 1996, 2001; Donnan and Castillo 1994) (figure 1.1). These contributions are providing us with a wealth of information concerning the Moche social and political organization, their urbanism, their economy, and, perhaps more importantly for the present study, their rituals, and religion.


As early as the beginning of the twentieth century, publications appeared on the subject of Moche iconography. Since then, dozens of contributions have been published on subjects as wide ranging as warfare, human sacrifice, craft activities, way of life, folk healing and shamanic practices, agricultural calendar, funerary practices, and rituals. The methods of analysis and the resulting interpretations of the material are almost as diverse as the number of authors and the seemingly infinite variety of representations. Indeed, not only our approaches were in some cases radically different but also our interpretations of the same scenes were sometimes situated at opposite ends of a distorted spectrum. The main reason for these discrepancies is possibly that Moche figurative pottery presents at the same time a seductive invitation to the analyst and a formidable challenge.


The complexity and the diversity of the representations, especially the fineline paintings, often make it possible to tackle a given image from a staggering variety of different and often divergent angles. For example, a scene representing warriors leading nude males (figure 1.2) has been interpreted as a depiction of Moche martial activities geared towards the expansion of their state-level society (Wilson 1988: 335) or, alternatively, as the outcome of ritualized battles leading eventually to rituals involving the sacrifice of the defeated Moche warriors (Bourget 2001a). How can it be? Is one of us wrong and the other one right? Can Moche iconography operate simultaneously at symbolic and political levels? Before even attempting to answer these issues of methodology and interpretation, some general and agreed-upon notions regarding the structure of this system of representation must be presented.


The main objectives of this essay are to explore concepts related to death, fertility, liminality, and afterlife in Moche funerary rituals and iconography. To do so, I will concentrate mostly on two broad subjects: the sexual representations and the scenes seemingly related to funerary rituals, commonly known as the Burial Theme (Donnan and McClelland 1979). Customary within the Moche iconographic system, specific subjects such as those found in the Burial Theme tend to have multiple roles and relate to more than one activity. To obtain a better idea of the subject's multiple roles, it becomes necessary to explore all avenues to document more thoroughly the subject under scrutiny. Therefore, I will touch upon a number of representations pertaining to other domains such as sacrificial rituals and maritime activities. Yet I hasten to say that these secondary subjects will not be examined in great detail. They will be used primarily to document better the themes and the subjects of the present study.


Subjects, Themes, and Narratives


Even if a cursory look gives the impression that this iconography is comprised of an infinite number of subjects and activities, that is not the case. Preliminary analyses reveal that there are relatively limited numbers of scenes and actors. The most complex activities usually consist of elaborately painted scenes often involving numerous individuals in sets of recurring actions such as the scene of warriors escorting eventual sacrificial victims already mentioned (figure 1.2).


Christopher Donnan (1975) initially developed the thematic approach. By tackling one of the most complex scenes, which he labeled "The Presentation Theme," he demonstrated that, in some cases, this representation can be shown in its entirety (figure 1.2), or parts of it can be depicted alone or in various combinations. As one example, he argued that the bird impersonator in the Presentation Theme, individual B in figure 1.4, can also appears as a separate subject in a sculptural form. This realization led him to recommend that "present-day researchers should be encouraged to go beyond a simple explanation of a given piece and to search for a basic theme to which it belongs" (Donnan 1975: 162).


With the scant archaeological record currently available to us, it remains unclear why certain elements of a given complex theme are susceptible to being singled out and represented on their own on an individual vessel. When isolated, the subjects are commonly treated in a three-dimensional form. Were such isolated units of a given theme then reunited in a single tomb? Or were they distributed among different but related burials? Could just one element standing on its own, such as the bird impersonator, have been sufficient to trigger the memory of the whole scene? Because of the extensive looting suffered by Moche temples and cemeteries, we may never be able to answer these questions properly. As it will rapidly become apparent, however, the internal system of relations between the diverse elements depicted in the iconography attest its high degree of cohesiveness.


Although there seems to be a certain degree of arbitrariness as to what constitutes a given theme when we compare it to another, to date I have identified about forty-five complex themes or scenes (Bourget 1994a). This number probably arose from a concern for exhaustiveness, since slightly fewer than twenty basic themes are generally recognized (Hocquenghem 1989: 21). The main reason for this discrepancy arises because specific themes are sometimes created in relation to the investigator's own objectives and methodology. For example, the sexual representations are usually organized in only one or two great ensembles; in the context of this study and for the sake of clarity, however, I have separated them into eight distinct groups: sodomy, masturbation, fellatio, sexual depictions on libation vases, anthropomorphic genitals, copulation between animals, copulation between animals and women, and copulation between Wrinkle Face and women. Regardless of this problem of definition, it appears true that a fairly restricted number of subjects are involved in specific sets of recurring activities. Furthermore, the separations between certain themes become less definitive than it would seem. For example, particularly during the terminal stylistic phase (Phase V), more than one theme might be depicted in an unusually complex fineline representation (figure 1.5). Moreover, what at first appear to represent unrelated themes may appear on distinct parts of a single vessel, especially on Phase IV ceramics.


These additions and juxtapositions suggest that some themes may represent parts of a much greater and elaborate story or narrative. These narratives are perhaps the most difficult aspect to investigate and to demonstrate convincingly. They offer the possibility that many complex representations may not just depict a posture or an activity frozen in time but may recount a lengthy ritual, an elaborate myth, or both at the same time. In some cases, such as in the complex scenes of vaginal copulation and the Burial Theme, a sequence of actions appears to have been represented, one frame at a time, almost like a storyboard. In other situations, it is also possible the story may have been conflated so that actions taking place at different moments within the sequence are depicted all together in a single representation. These are important aspects that will be explored in much greater detail later, because they will provide insight into the interconnections between themes as well as some methodological grounding for the resulting interpretations. Although opinions differ as to what constitutes a narrative or what any given narrative may represent, most investigators acknowledge their existence.


Even though these scenes and themes have often been studied in isolation, the reality is that they form part of a complete symbolic project. As briefly mentioned earlier, in the most complex scenes, recurring sets of actors appear performing different tasks. For example, in the Presentation Theme (figure 1.3), a number of subjects Donnan (1975) labeled individuals A, B, C, D, and E are also depicted in scenes of warfare, carried on litters, or standing in reed boats, indicating that these actions formed part of their realm of activities or that these scenes may be depicting the crucial moments of a more complex narrative.


Apart from the subjects depicted in the Presentation Theme, there seems to exist at least two other important groups of actors. The first group, a pair usually represented together, is comprised of an individual with a wrinkled face, possessing prominent fangs in his mouth and wearing a snake belt that terminates in fox heads (figure 1.6). He is often seen wearing a tunic with a step motif and an elaborate headdress made of a semicircular fan with long feathers and adorned with an animal effigy, usually a spotted feline or a fox. His companion takes the guise of an anthropomorphic iguana. Iguana generally sports a long tunic, a bulging cloth tied around the waist or the neck, and a headdress made with long feathers and a bird effigy, usually a condor (figure 1.6). Both are consistently depicted in the scenes of vaginal copulation and in the Burial Theme. In most scenes where the pair is depicted together, Iguana seems to be subservient to Wrinkle Face, and as such, he has usually been perceived as his assistant. The second group, perhaps as frequently shown as the first, contains skeletal beings and individuals with their lips and nose missing (figure 1.7). These subjects also constitute an integral part of the themes explored here.


Ideally, because of the interrelationships between these two broad themes and the rest of the iconography, they cannot and should not be isolated from the rest of the corpus to be studied productively and understood correctly, as this would run the risk of obscuring the meaning of these scenes and rendering the resulting analyses misleading. It would thus appear that selecting one or two themes and treating them somewhat separately would constitute if not an impossible project, most probably a fruitless one. Keeping this caveat in mind, I would nevertheless propose that the cluster of scenes loosely associated with sexual representations, and the second one apparently depicting funerary activities, can be studied together. Indeed, their analysis will show that these scenes often portray similar actors and activities, suggesting that they may have been perceived as conceptually and cognitively related.


Iconography, Archaeology, and Identity


The problem of determining if the activities depicted in Moche iconography were the representations of rituals or myths has been one of the major subjects of research. The main question is, Were these the representations of activities that really existed, or were these scenes relating to supernatural subjects and activities? Hocquenghem (1989) and Makowski (2000) suggested that in some cases, two types of representations were present, some of them depicting real people performing specific rituals, and others depicting deities or beings with supernatural attributes involved in some kind of mythical activities (Hocquenghem 1989; Makowski 2000). Of course, to discern what may have really taken place and what may have been part of a mythical realm is of critical importance to bring this iconography into the social sphere. At this stage of the investigation, I do not think that it is possible to clearly delimit these boundaries or even their existence. Nevertheless, important progress has recently been made in the field of archaeology, especially concerning the identity and reality of some of the most important subjects and rituals of the iconography.


Since the 1950s and especially over the past twenty years, a series of propositions have been made concerning the identity of a number of high-ranking burials and the possibility that the individuals buried in these elaborate tombs could have been the real-life counterparts of some of the people depicted in the iconography. I will review, albeit briefly, these identifications and the basis for them. The aim of this section is not to resolve the issue of the interrelations existing between real people and representations; that would take us on a different path than the one being pursued. Nevertheless, the section will provide the conceptual framework needed to explore in the present essay what roles the main subjects perform.


Presentation Theme


In 1987, the chance seizure of golden artifacts looted from the site of Sipán led to the discovery and excavation of extremely complex Moche burials (figure 1.1). Due to the periodic appearance of exquisite Moche metal artifacts in the illicit antiquities market, archaeologists had long suspected that such funerary contexts existed; until then, however, looters and antiquity dealers had always beaten the archaeologists to the finishing line. Over a period of about twelve years, Walter Alva and his crew unearthed in a small platform the tombs of at least ten high-ranking individuals buried with a retinue of people and numerous ceremonial artifacts (Alva 1990, 1994, 2001; Alva and Donnan 1993). On the basis of the corresponding objects such as headdresses, bells, golden backflaps and scepters, two of the buried individuals, both male, Donnan eventually identified them as the main protagonists, A and B, of the Presentation Theme (figure 1.32; Alva and Donnan 1993).


The association is particularly convincing between individual A the person in Tomb 1, an adult male between 35 and 45 years of age, who was found with similar golden crescent headdress, circular earspools, and numerous crescent-shaped backflaps (figure 1.32, A; Alva and Donnan 1993: 55-125). The relative size of the objects even matched those depicted on the individual in the representation of the Presentation Theme. Furthermore, a metallic rattle terminating in a sharp chisel and found in the right hand of the buried male is very similar to the object depicted just above the litter in the lower section of the scene (figure 1.3, a). This litter can be assigned to individual A, given the close resemblance between its decoration of rays terminating in animal heads and those that surround him. The low-relief scenes etched around the four trapezoidal faces and the top section of the golden rattle found in the burial depict the same subject. They illustrate an elaborately garbed warrior bringing down an opponent with a blow to the face. The vanquished is already shown as a prisoner, with his hands tied behind his back. This depiction may be part of a conflated narrative, representing in a single scene a ritual battle between two opponents, the capture of the defeated warrior, the removal of the opponent's clothing, and finally the display of the vanquished, with his hands tied behind his back. Each of these actions is usually found on distinct scenes, and Donnan has convincingly demonstrated that they belonged to a very precise sequence of events:


Once captured, some or all of the opponent's clothing was removed, a rope was placed around his neck, and his hands were sometimes tied behind his back. The victor then held the rope tied to the prisoner's neck and marched him off the field of battle. The prisoners were taken to a place where they were formally arraigned. One scene shows them being brought into a ceremonial precinct, defined by large pyramids with temple structures at their summits [figure 1.7]. Following arraignment, there was a ceremony in which the prisoners were sacrificed. Their throats were cut, and their blood was consumed in tall goblets. (1997: 52-53)


Although the description of the sequence Donnan suggested is likely, most scenes depicting warriors leading nude males do not represent them as captured prisoners in this way. They usually depict them with a rope around their necks but with their hands doing specific, highly ritualized gestures, such as a raised fist or with the defeated warrior pointing in the direction of his captor (figures 1.2, 1.8). Such gestures are often associated with rituals of sacrifice, suggesting that the eventual sacrifice of the warrior may already be embedded, or conflated, in the parading of these defeated warriors. The conflation of narratives is thus an important device used to convey complex stories in a single representation.


The identification of individual B with the main person buried in Tomb 2, an adult male also of 35 to 45 years of age, is based on the presence of an owl headdress, a backflap, and a copper cup lying near his right hand (Alva and Donnan 1993: 163). It is thus worth noting that, in this case, a living being has been related to an iconographical subject consistently depicted with supernatural attributes, such as the one possessing the head and the wings of a nocturnal bird (figure 1.3). The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) may have provided the model for this subject. The identification between a bird-being and a real person can have profound consequences for the understanding of representations depicting what have often been perceived as supernatural subjects and their relations with rituals that may have existed.


On the basis of human remains and ritual artifacts found near the burials already mentioned, Alva and Donnan stated that this "Sacrifice Ceremony" had really taken place at the site:


Moreover, the ritual offerings of amputated hands and feet that we excavated on the south platform strongly imply that the Sacrifice Ceremony was actually performed at or near this pyramid, and that the remains resulting from its enactment were ritually buried in the pyramid itself. For the first time, then, we have been able to make a direct correlation between a ceremonial event depicted in Moche art and the individuals who performed that ceremony, the place where it was enacted, and the disposal of ritual remains after the ceremony was completed. (1993: 223)


Although it is not the place here to present the full analysis of Tomb 3, found in the earliest construction phase of the same platform, I would suggest that this burial of a man in his late forties, also known as the Old Lord, may have in fact been the living representative of individual D on the illustrious line-up of the Presentation Theme (figure 1.2). In this case, this individual could be recognized by, among other attributes the animated scepter standing just behind him. This anthropomorphized object is holding a disk (figure 1.3, b [upper right]). The actual object found in the right hand of the Old Lord was a gold rattle that terminates in a chisel (Alva and Donnan 1993: 181, fig. 195).


It is thus interesting to note that individuals A and D would both have been buried with scepters, constituting not only some sort of badge of office but also very efficient tools for human sacrifice. The blades of these chisels are considerably narrower than those of the usual crescent-blade knives, suggesting that they may have been employed during specific sacrificial activities such as cutting arterial veins for collecting blood. The crescent-blade knife, commonly known as tumi, is a rather crude implement that may have been used more extensively for decapitation and dismemberment.


A few years later, at San José de Moro in the Jequetepeque Valley, Donnan and Luis Jaime Castillo (1992, 1994) discovered two elaborate burials of two women, each of whom was eventually linked to individual C of the Presentation Theme (figure 1.3). Since then, they have been known as the priestesses of San José de Moro. Their cane coffins, rectangular boxes made of six cane panels tied together with ropes, had been given anthropomorphic features by the addition of legs, arms, and a sizeable mask, all made of a silver copper alloy. Tassels of the same metal, acting as headdresses, had once been planted on each side of the mask. The general form of these decorations is in many respects almost identical to the serrated-edge extensions or plumes worn by individual C in the Presentation Theme scene (figure 1.3). Furthermore, in the ritual paraphernalia found with the buried women, ceremonial goblets identical in form to the one exchanged between individuals A and B were found. In the tomb of the first priestess, excavated in 1991, the ceramic goblet had been decorated with a fineline painting associated with war and sacrifice. It depicts the procession of a series of anthropomorphized shields and clubs holding a cup in their hands (figure 1.9).


The burial of the second priestess is particularly important to us, as it contained a rare burial scene found in its original context. During the burial, ritual attendants had carefully placed the bottle depicting a Burial Theme into one of the niches of the funerary chamber. We shall return to this burial later and discuss in some detail its contents—especially the spatial organization of some of the artifacts, including this bottle (Chapter 4).


Finally, the reanalysis of a tomb, Burial 10,excavated in 1946 at the site of Huaca de la Cruz in the Virú Valley also permitted the identification of an additional subject of the Presentation Theme (Strong and Evans 1952: 147-149). The burial contained the body of a middle-aged woman in a cane-wrapped bundle with a wooden staff resting upon her pelvis and chest. The staff led Daniel Arsenault (1994) to identify her as individual E, the figure performing a human sacrifice on the lower register of the Presentation Theme scene (figure 1.3). The well-preserved staff measures 71 cm in length and has carved in its upper section a woman sitting on a raised dais (figure 1.10). Her back is resting against a base of the four prongs. Two smaller human figures are seated in front of her knees. Similarly, individual E in the Presentation Theme appears as an anthropomorphized staff drawing blood from a man with bound hands. The four prongs form part of her headdress, and the extremity of the staff can be seen as a sharp point appearing between her legs (figure 1.3, E). This identification is further reinforced by the depiction of a four-prong staff in association with a war club and a shield immediately to the right of individual E (figure 1.3, c). Although it has not been possible to elicit the exact meaning of the buried staff, in the iconography it appears to be clearly associated with the practice of warfare and human sacrifice.


The relation of the feminine gender with sacrifice is further strengthened by the presence of a second burial, Burial 5, situated in the vicinity of Burial 10 (Strong and Evans 1952: 141-145). It contained the cane-wrapped body of an adult female in her twenties, along with a sacrificed llama and sixteen vessels. Among the ceramic offerings, three deserve mention in the context of this research. The first one is the portrait-head vessel of a man wearing tubular ear ornaments and an elaborate headdress or head ring decorated with the heads of two falcons (figure 1.10). The second object is a rattle-pedestal base goblet almost identical to the one found in the tomb of the first priestess at San José de Moro (Strong and Evans 1952: pl. XVI, i). The third is a jar decorated with a fineline painting depicting two anthropomorphic war clubs. The first one, on the left, has a square shield and is holding a white goblet. He is toasting with another war club, to the right, also holding a goblet that is painted red (figure 1.12). The different colors of the cups suggest that one is depicted as empty (white) and the second one as filled perhaps with blood (red). Incidentally, the animated club on the right has a disk in his left hand, indicating that this representation may be part of the Presentation Theme as well.


It is thus possible that the women found in Burials 5 and 10 were intimately connected to rituals of human sacrifice. These two burials belong to Phase IV stylistic period. Moche women, as shown both in the iconography and in the archaeology, may have actively been involved especially with rituals regarding the collection of blood and its presentation, during perhaps the most elaborate ceremonies in which humans were sacrificed. The identity of the two subjects in the Presentation Theme as women is strengthened by the fact that they both wear the same tunic, long braids that terminate in animal heads, and identical facial paintings (figure 1.3). The archaeological contexts from Huaca de la Cruz would thus reinforce previous identifications of the figures as female that were made some years earlier, solely on the basis of the iconographical representations (Hocquenghem and Lyon 1980).


With the discovery of cups in the tombs of the San José de Moro priestesses, and their ubiquitous presence in numerous representations, it became of critical importance to assess if such objects may have been used to contain human blood. To test for the presence of blood, we have had the opportunity to carry out an analysis of two pedestal base cups, one from the Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, and the other from the Museo de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia de la Universidad de Trujillo. The objects, albeit without secure provenience, were tested by immunological analysis, and we found that they once contained human blood (Bourget and Newman 1998). The cup from Berlin is decorated in low relief and depicts a complete sequence of battle, defeat, and capture (figure 1.13). Like the cups discovered in the burials of San José de Moro and Huaca de la Cruz, the representation circumambulating the cup reinforces the strong connection that may have existed between ritual warfare, capture, and blood sacrifice, as mentioned above.


The main question regarding these discoveries thus becomes: Have sacrificial ceremonies similar to those depicted by the iconography taken place anywhere other than at Sipán? One has to acknowledge not only that representations of most of the individuals have been found at various other Moche sites but that many objects that could have been used during these rituals also have been located in situ at other sites or in numerous collections: chisels, cups, circular disks, staffs, and other objects. Furthermore, some of these objects, analyzed by Margaret Newman, tested positive for the presence of human blood (Bourget and Newman 1998). It is thus very likely that ceremonies involving these individuals may have been carried out at spatially and chronologically separated Moche sites.


The burials found at San José de Moro date to the early eighth century, considerably more recent than those of Sipán, which date to around the fourth century. In 1958, a mural depicting the Sacrifice Ceremony was found nearly 300 km to the south of Sipán at Pañamarca in the Nepeña Valley, the southern limit of Moche territory (see, e.g., figure 4.44; Bonavia 1985). Donnan mentions a mural depicting a series of anthropomorphized shields and clubs holding a goblet, located at La Mayanga in the Lambayeque valley (1972; 1978: 173, figure 255). This motif closely resembles the scenes painted on the San José de Moro cup and the jar from Huaca de la Cruz (figures 1.9, 1.12). The images at La Mayanga possibly date to the late Moche V phase (Bonavia 1985: 99-104). The breadth of time and space spanning these representations and associated objects thus confirms that during a period of at least three to four hundred years, the ritual activity depicted in the Presentation Theme may have been regularly enacted all over the region under Moche control by high-ranking individuals wearing similar regalia and using the same paraphernalia. Regarding this striking diachronic and synchronic homogeneity, Alva and Donnan mention that


the fact that the Sacrifice Ceremony was so widespread in both time and space strongly implies that it was part of a state religion, with a priesthood in each part of the kingdom composed of nobles who dressed in prescribed ritual attire. When members of the priesthood died, they were buried at the temple where the Sacrifice Ceremony took place, wearing the objects they had used to perform the ritual. Subsequently, other men and women were chosen to replace them, to dress like them, and to perform the same ceremonial role. (1993: 226)


The remarkable consistency shown both by the iconographical representations and by those acting in the role of these individuals reveals the pervasiveness and the importance of the Presentation Theme. It further implies that ceremonies involving human sacrifice, especially the taking and partaking of human blood, were central to Moche religion and ideology. Such iconographic and ritual conservatism attested in the identifications of high-ranking individuals reinforces the view that Moche iconography maintained a high degree of coherency, providing ample justification for detailed analyses of further related scenes and subjects. Therefore, I will now attempt to establish the physical identity of four other subjects of the iconography within the social world of the Moche.


Wrinkle Face and Iguana


Wrinkle Face and Iguana are among the most prominent subjects of Moche iconography (figure 1.6). Apart from the Presentation Theme, they frequently appear in other complex activities. They are of course deeply involved in some of the most important scenes of sexual activity, and their presence is ubiquitous in the Burial Theme. But could these two individuals, consistently represented with supernatural attributes, have real-life counterparts such as the individuals we saw associated with the Presentation Theme? I will begin by assessing their presence at the Huaca de la Cruz site and then turn my attention to the Huacas de Moche (figure 1.1). Huacas de Moche includes the Huaca de la Luna, the Huaca del Sol, and the urban sector.


Huaca de La Cruz


In 1946, during their last day of fieldwork at Huaca de la Cruz, Duncan Strong and Clifford Evans encountered the most complex Moche burial found until the discovery of the Sipán mausoleum some forty years later (1947; 1952). This large burial, Burials 12-16, also known as the Warrior-Priest tomb, contained the remains of five persons, along with a vast array of offerings (Strong and Evans 1952: 150-167). I will describe this tomb in some detail, as it will provide us with a number of elements directly related to the present study.


A digging stick was the first object encountered in the fill during the excavation at 1.75 m below the surface. The archaeologists mentioned that this wooden tool could have been used during the preparation of the burial and discarded afterwards. The whole burial lay directly underneath this stick, at a depth of 2.85 m to 3.4 m. The uppermost burial just on top of the main coffin was that of a strongly built man in his forties. He was resting on his back with his knees and ankles tightly tied together. Copper and cotton offerings had been placed in his mouth and on his wrists. Three ceramic vessels and eight gourd bowls filled with maize, beans, and unspun cotton had been placed alongside the body. At the head of the burial was a flaring bowl containing a bat-effigy cup. A sea lion-effigy jar was also placed nearby.


Wedged in between this first burial and lying right on top of the main burial beneath it were the bones of two decapitated llamas. Their heads were nowhere to be seen. Five vessels were associated with the animals. Two of those are of particular interest. The first one is a second bat-effigy cup almost identical to the first one described above. The second one was the body of a bottle with the stirrup spout missing. It was painted with a depiction of a club and two spears covered by a shield. A bird is standing to the right side of the war implements.


The main coffin in the burial contained the remains of an adolescent boy and the so-called Warrior-Priest, flanked by two women. The first woman, a person in her thirties, was placed in a seated position in the lower right corner. Her back was against the north wall of the tomb. A stirrup spout bottle lay on her lap (figure 1.14). A small figure with legs spread apart and both hands clasped in front of her mouth was modeled on top of the bottle (figure 1.15). As to the woman's cause of death, a cotton sash wound around her neck led the investigators to suggest that she may have been strangled (Strong and Evans 1952: 152).


The second woman, who was also in her thirties, was in a similarly cramped position, but she was situated diagonally across from the previous one, at the head of the main coffin at its left-hand corner. Although her chest was now slumped over her knees, she too originally probably had her back against the wall of the tomb. Three vessels were associated with her. A stirrup spout bottle with an effigy on top of the bottle was resting close to her hands. A portrait vessel and another stirrup spout bottle were nearby. The bottle by her hands depicts a small figure in a seated position on top of the chamber of the vessel, with hands resting on its knees (figure 1.15). The sex of this figure is difficult to ascertain. On the vessel in front of this person, three funerary offerings are painted: two stacked gourd bowls filled with food and a stirrup spout bottle on the right side of the bowls.


The main coffin, a rectangular box made of reed canes lashed together, had been covered with a textile decorated with anthropomorphic bean warriors, each holding a round shield and a club (Strong and Evans 1952: pl. XXIX). Inside the coffin, the corpses and diverse elements had been divided into two levels by a cane platform separating the bodies and some of the offerings (figure 1.17).


Upon the cane platform lay the body of a boy eight to ten years of age. He was covered with a vast array of grave goods such as boxes, feather plumes, ceramics, and a bird headdress. The headdress was a complex artifact made of a ring of split fibres, cloth, and feathers of different colors and of two imitation bird heads, one on each side (figure 1.18). An inverted V-shaped design made of feathers was still well preserved on the front part. As this headdress has been deposited directly on the chest of the child, it is entirely possible that this object belonged to him and had been worn during his lifetime. The headdress with the inverted V-shaped design in the center is similar to the headdress depicted on the portrait vessel found in Burial 5, which contained the body of the woman with the goblet, mentioned above (figure 1.11).


Four vessels were directly associated with this young individual: a flaring bowl, a dipper, and two portrait vessels. The first portrait was that of an adult male, and the second one was that of a child. The latter, a head bottle in the form of a potato, is certainly one of the most intriguing vessels found with him (figure 1.18). The artist has used the natural deformities of the potato to form a childlike portrait. It also has a facial decoration consisting of a cross running through the center of the face, with a protuberance on the forehead, and a dot decorating each corner of a triangular mouth. The "eyes" of the potato have cleverly been used to form the eyes and the mouth of the portrait. Although we can only speculate if the artist was trying to capture the features of the boy in life, it is striking to see that this contorted portrait of a child accompanied a young individual with an equally deformed cranial face:


The skull was deformed, with a pronounced lateral parietal flattening that caused the occipital to bulge out. The supra-orbital ridges, mastoid processes, and teeth were all massive for a child. The upper medial and lateral incisors were prominently grooved and shovel-shaped. The eruption of the second molars was incomplete. The jaw was extremely heavy with a pronounced overbite. (Strong and Evans 1952: 155)


This boy was resting on the lower right side of the main individual, an old man who was also resting on his back. He was covered and surrounded by numerous offerings. Three elaborate wooden staffs lay across his chest. On top of the first, a finely carved owl is standing in an upright position on top of a series of six wave patterns (figure 1.20). The second staff is a bulbous-shaped mace. All around the head of the club there is an elaborately carved scene of ritual warfare leading to the capture of three prisoners (figure 1.21).


The third staff is certainly the most important one in determining the identity of the principal occupant of the tomb. The top of this object depicts Wrinkle Face holding a long staff in his hands and standing on what appears to be a series of furrows (figure 1.22). He seems to be breaking the ground with the stick, while a child standing on his right side is carrying a bag across his chest and is dropping seeds in the furrows. The seeds are made of three small turquoise pieces glued onto the left hand of the child. The tip of this object, with the sculpture on its summit, is made of a flat copper blade, 19 cm in length by 4 cm in width. It is thus likely that this ceremonial digging implement may have been used over many years during agricultural rituals.


In addition to this staff, a number of other elements seemed to connect the principal occupant of the tomb with Wrinkle Face. Near his head, an animal-effigy headdress made of animal bones, fur, and metallic parts was found. It appears that the jawbones of a desert fox (Lycalopex sechurae) had been used to fashion this headdress. Found in association with a sort of round pillow and a fan made of feathers, it is almost identical to the one worn by Wrinkle Face on the third staff. The old man also had a copper disk placed on his face, measuring 16 cm in diameter. This object, embossed with a series of raised circles all around the outer edge of the disk, is identical to those of ritual runners frequently depicted on ceramics (figure 1.23), which Strong and Evans already noted (1952: 160).


Three of the ceramic offerings also represented Wrinkle Face. The first one is the Mountain Sacrifice Ceremony, a well-known activity in which Wrinkle Face and sometimes Iguana are involved in a sacrificial activity that takes place in a mountain setting (figure 1.24). Painted on the body of the second stirrup spout bottle, Wrinkle Face is about to decapitate a long fish with a tumi knife (figure 1.25). A person, also with fangs in his mouth, helps him to secure the fish. On the third example, Wrinkle Face has caught a fish at the end of a fishing line. He now wears the two-pronged headdress associated with individuals involved in marine scenes. Among the other ceramic vessels found within the main burial with the Wrinkle Face ceramic images were a deer-hunting scene, a portrait-head bottle, and a warrior wearing a conical helmet (figure 1.26).


On the basis of numerous similarities noted between the artifacts and the main individual in the tomb, Strong and Evans surmised that the old man may well have been the living representative of the fanged deity so prominently displayed in the iconography:


Thus, from these major artifacts alone, it can be concluded that the old man buried beneath these offerings not only represented in his own person the great tusked deity of the Mochica but that in this incarnation he had to assume the economic roles of an agricultural deity, a priest, a war leader, and a councillor as well. This combination of vital roles, plus many more, for the most-often depicted Mochica deity will surprise no one who has studied the very numerous ceramic and other portrayals of this god gathered together by Larco. However, to find direct evidence of a human being who, in his own lifetime, appears to have assumed these roles in the eyes of his people, makes the record written in ceramics and other portrayals even more vivid. (1952: 199)


I would entirely agree with the authors as to the identification of the male individual as Wrinkle Face. This identification has not been made only on a few elements but on a vast array of artifacts such as headdresses, staffs, ceramics, and other objects. At the time—1952—this came as a bold statement, as no other identification had yet been convincingly established between a living representative of Moche society and iconographical representations. Strong and Evans also hinted not only that this old man may have personified during his life this "Tusked Deity," or "Wrinkle Face" as he is known today, but that this impersonation may have taken its roots in the past during the Early Horizon: "That he represented in his own person the, even then, very ancient lineage of the tusked god seems certain" (Strong and Evans 1952: 198). This is an interesting and important idea, as the facial features of this subject clearly existed before the Moche period and are especially prevalent during the Cupisnique period (500-200 BC; Campana and Morales 1997).


Although as solid a case cannot be made as to the exact identity of the child, I would suggest that he may have been associated with Iguana, the main assistant of Wrinkle Face in most contexts. This identification derives from the presence of the bird headdress resting on the chest of the child (figure 1.18). Iguana always wears bird headdresses, which is by far the most distinctive element of this subject.



“Overall, I find this to be an extraordinary book, filled with excellent observations about Moche iconography and world view.... Bourget's arguments [are] extremely interesting, thought-provoking, and potentially of great importance. They will undoubtedly cause other researchers to look at the material in a new way and to test and refine the observations presented in this volume in the years ahead.”
Christopher B. Donnan, UCLA, author of Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru


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