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Playing with Things

Playing with Things
Engaging the Moche Sex Pots

Challenging common approaches to archaeology and sexuality studies, this book explores, in part by physically interacting with the artifacts, how Moche ceramics reveal ancient Indigenous ways of thinking about and experiencing sex.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment

August 2021
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288 pages | 6 x 9 | 66 b&w photos, 1 b&w map |

More than a thousand years ago on the north coast of Peru, Indigenous Moche artists created a large and significant corpus of sexually explicit ceramic works of art. They depicted a diversity of sex organs and sex acts, and an array of solitary and interconnected human and nonhuman bodies. To the modern eye, these Moche “sex pots,” as Mary Weismantel calls them, are lively and provocative but also enigmatic creations whose import to their original owners seems impossible to grasp.

In Playing with Things, Weismantel shows that there is much to be learned from these ancient artifacts, not merely as inert objects from a long-dead past but as vibrant Indigenous things, alive in their own human temporality. From a new materialist perspective, she fills the gaps left by other analyses of the sex pots in pre-Columbian studies, where sexuality remains marginalized, and in sexuality studies, where non-Western art is largely absent. Taking a decolonial approach toward an archaeology of sexuality and breaking with long-dominant iconographic traditions, this book explores how the “pots play jokes, make babies, give power, and hold water,” considering the sex pots as actual ceramic bodies that interact with fleshly bodies, now and in the ancient past. A beautifully written study that will be welcomed by students as well as specialists, Playing with Things is a model for archaeological and art historical engagement with the liberating power of queer theory and Indigenous studies.


ALAA Book Award, Association for Latin American Art/Arvey Foundation (CAA)

  • List of Illustrations
  • Note to the Reader
  • Introduction: The Moche Sex Pots
  • 1. Modern Moche
  • 2. Pots Play Jokes
  • 3. Pots Make Babies
  • 4. Pots Give Power
  • 5. Pots Hold Water
  • Epilogue: Acolonial Things
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Mary Weismantel is a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, where she has previously served as director of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and as an adjunct curator at the Field Museum of Natural History. She received a PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is the author of two books of ethnographic research in South America, Cholas and Pishtacos: Tales of Race and Sex in the Andes and Food, Gender and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes.


“This book will change the way you look at objects forever. Weismantel brings the world of the Moche alive in exhilarating new ways, offering her authoritative and brilliant insights into the body, gender, sexuality, and ways of seeing. Engaging, intimate and provocative, her text positively sparkles, and reveals much about us along the way.”
Lynn Meskell, Stanford University, author of A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace

“This beautifully written book is without parallel. It demonstrates a methodology to build from museum collections to long-term ecohistory; it demonstrates how to change analyses in light of indigenous and queer theory; and it does all that while also helping us better understand Moche social life. It will be widely read as a model outside of Moche studies, too. ”
Rosemary Joyce, University of California at Berkeley, author of Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives