Verisimilitude in Moche Iconography; A different aspect of Anthropology

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The Moche people are one of the greatest, and most organized pre-Incan cultures in the Northern Andes, existing during the Early Intermediate Period, the successor of the lands once ruled by the Chavín culture, until their fall around 700 AD, to the Wari culture. The Moche are well known for many things, from the large territories, and trade routes that they established and upheld, to the drastic and intricate rituals that they held. Most of all, they are probably known for the legacy of art that they left behind. Textiles, pottery, and finer arts are well known to have been produced by the Moche on an almost industrial scale, where there were workshops to produce these artifacts (Quilter, 2013). 

Their fine-line art is some of their most well-known contributions to Andean culture. Their art has mystified and made people wonder since modern eyes were first laid upon them, and many researchers have spent their lifetimes trying to determine just what this art means. Some of it seems easy to understand, acts of daily life, while others are of a more esoteric appearance. In the following papers that were examined, I have come to the following conclusion. The verisimilitude shown in Moche art is very apparent. It is how the iconography is interpreted, that changes the meaning. While it is clear that not everything that occurred during the Moche’s rule is depicted, those of highly ritualistic significance was. We can see from the archaeology, that these depictions are supported by finds such as those at Sipan (Bourget, 2001). But where is the line? We will go over evidence supporting various aspects of Moche iconography to support the hypothesis that Moche iconography has a strong verisimilitude within the ritualistic world that the people of the Moche found themselves in. We have a great amount of archaeological evidence to support the idea that what was being depicted in the fine Moche art, actually has a strong basis in reality, as we will see. 

While many Andean archaeologists like to focus on the warfare aspects of Moche culture, which of course are very important, other aspects can reveal light on the situation. One great example of the use of textiles that are represented in the art, and are found in the archaeology, is what archaeologists found in the multiple tombs at Sïpan, especially the one deemed “The Lord of Sïpan”(Bourget, 2001). With the archaeological aspects of the ceramic pottery were not fully looked into until the archaeological digs began to take place, around one hundred years ago, it becomes clear that “Moche images are not intended to describe, explain, or explore, but to convey lore meaning” (Benson, 2008). 

The textiles that the Moche took part in were of a wide variety, from tunics, stirrup-type pottery and ceramics, icons, and many more types of art. Much of the art depicts various scenes, many of which are grand burial, or sacrificial themes. So detailed are these scenes, that it has made researchers ponder just how real to life they were. Until the finds at Sípan, it was doubted just how accurate these textiles were when it came to what individuals were wearing and doing during these events. But after the tombs were discovered and opened, it is uncanny how accurate the iconographical decisions are when it comes to real-life (Bourget, 2001). The individuals in the tombs were dressed and were in possession of many of the items depicted in the art, whether it be ceramics, textiles, or other forms of art. 

Another aspect of Moche life that has been highly contested, is the place of warfare among them. Some researchers believe that the Moche had one polity and that any warfare occurred in a foreign place, and not within the “empire”. Others, however, are conceived that there was a great amount of inter Moche conflict (Butters, 2014). While the art shows that a great deal of conflict did occur, the evidence for this is not highly available in the archaeological record. We do not have large battlefields, or for that matter, even small ones where there are injured, and slain individuals. It is also important to note, that these warriors, who are so often depicted in the iconography, brave, and scary as some of them seem, do not carry the typical weapons of warfare( Butters, 2014). What we see instead, are weapons that are easy to break, such as ritualistically made clubs, that would not be of any use in an actual battle (Bourget, 2001). 

So what does this mean for the iconography? With so much battle and warfare depicted, sacrifices, death, and gore, why is there no physical evidence for it? Well, the story may not be as simple as that. While the Moche may have grown their empire through various ways, not military-related, such as through trade and relationships with their neighbors. Food and trade played a very important role for the Moche (Jackson, 2021). What is left of all the warfare that we see depicted almost more than anything else? Well, there is a strong possibility, with the discoveries at Huaca de la Luna, that there may have been another purpose for all of these depictions, one that is much more true to reality, and that of Moche life, was it more of a spiritual endeavor than a physical war? There may be evidence to support this idea above any other. 

The site of Huaca de la Luna is impressive, one of the greatest along the northern coast of the Andes. It is also one of the greatest examples of verisimilitude in Moche iconography ( Bourget, 2001). For the most part, until recently all that we have known about Moche iconography is from the iconography itself, and we have been left to interpret it the best we can, with very little archaeological evidence. One of the most complex, and often depicted scenes in fine-line Moche ceramics, is known as the “Sacrifice Ceremony”. In this scene, naked men are being sacrificed, by having their necks slit, and allowing their blood to flow out into Moche-styled bowls that we are very familiar with archaeologically. Sometimes the hearts are also removed and shown in the imagery (Bourget, 2001). Once the bowls are filled with blood, it seems that they are offered either to other humans of more elite status or to supernatural beings themselves. In 1995, the largest single sample of human remains around this time are found at Huaca de la Luna. 

More than seventy individuals were found and sacrificed during at least five different episodes, two of which were closely related to El Niño. ( Bourget, 2001). Some of these individuals had wounds that were healed, but then fatal wounds. This suggests, that it is possible that these men were captured during the battle, and were taken back to the temple and sacrificed. That there is the key point. There is much more evidence in Moche iconography, and within the archaeological record to support the fact that the Moche were not having warfare in the sense that we think of it today. No armies were meeting across battlefields, but rather, as the iconography depicts, there are small scale, even one on one individual, ritualistic battles between individuals. The losers were then sacrificed to the powers at be. With so little evidence of actual/ secular warfare among the Moche, this seems to be a much more appropriate explanation (Bourget, 2001). 

While there is a great deal that we can learn from Moche iconography about the lives they lived, how they dressed how they were buried, and what their lives were like, there is still a great deal of mystery surrounding their lifeways. Especially those aspects that surround death, battle, and sacrifice. But with the archaeological evidence that we do have, as limited as it is, if the iconography is interpreted as a more spiritual and ritualistic scene than that of what happened, then we have a good match of the two. Instead of war, which is not depicted in the art, (we know this once again because they lacked the proper weapons for war) but rather had what was required to pursue ritualized versions of battle, and death. As far as how close Moche art is in general to reality, it is strikingly close. From the clothing and arts that we see in ancient tombs of the elite, and even burials of those of lower classes, to the sacrificial pits of Huaca de la Luna, we can see that the Moche life was diverse in behavior, but generally followed a similar outline of spiritual belief, mixed with reality to form their worldviews. I think we can conclude that Moche art is very high in its rate of verisimilitude.

Recoures Cited 

Benson, Elizabeth

2008 Iconography Meets Archaeology.  In Art and Archaeology of the Moche, edited by Steve Bourget and Kimberly L. Jones, pp. 1-22. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Bourget, Steve

2001 Rituals of Sacrifice: Its Practice at Huaca de la Luna and Its Representation in Moche Iconography. In Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, pp. 89-110. Studies in the History of Art 61, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts Symposium Papers XL, National Gallery of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Castillo Butters, Luis Jaime 

2014 Taming the Moche. In Embattled Bodies, Embattled Places: War in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Andes, edited by Andrew K. Scherer and John W. Verano, pp. 257-282. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

Jackson, Margaret.A. 

2021 The Symbolic Value of Food in Moche Iconography. In Andean Foodways, edited by J.E. Staller, pp 257-279. The Latin American Studies Book Series. Springer,

Quilter, Jefferey. 

2013. “The Early Intermediate” in The Ancient Central Andes. London: Taylor and Francis. Apple Books 

Published by sethchagi

I am a Paleoanthropology Student, so far with two degrees, in Anthropology and Human Behavioral Science, pursuing my B.A and then my PhD I love to read (like a lot) and write, I love my family, and I adore anthropology! Remember, never stop exploring and never stop learning! There is always more to learn!

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