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Grim Rites of the Moche Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Colleen P. Popson

Excavations at a pyramid site in northern Peru yield evidence of gruesome ritual sacrifice.

[image] The Moche balanced stylized painting with realistic representations, such as this expressive individual pictured on a large vase found in the tomb of a potter. (Patrick Aventurier/Gamma) [LARGER IMAGE]

On an arid plain in a valley in northern Peru, the site of Moche is dominated by two enormous stepped platforms known as the Huaca de la Luna and the Huaca del Sol, or the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun. As excavators have cleared the exterior and interior walls of the Pyramid of the Moon, they have discovered large painted murals and friezes depicting warfare, ritual decapitation, complex geometric designs, fearsome portraits of Moche deities like the Decapitator--a bulge-eyed, sharp-toothed deity that resembles an octopus--and terrestrial and sea creatures in bright yellow, red, white, and black. The Moche--a culture group occupying the valley of Peru's north coast from about A.D. 100 and known primarily for its advanced agricultural knowledge and masterful pottery and metalwork--clearly dominated the site from about A.D. 150 to 750, during which time it served as the spiritual and political capital of a large territory, incorporating at least the four nearest valleys, about 2,500 square miles.

Excavations of the last decade at the Pyramid of the Moon and the urban area between the two platforms have provided Moche specialists with an abundance of information about the ritual and everyday lives of those they study. Before now, the best evidence for ritual came from extraordinary and often gruesome artwork, primarily depicted on ceramics. Vessels in the form of stirrup-spouted bottles with molded figures and intricate fine-line painting show warrior-priests bedecked in imposing ornate garb orchestrating ritual warfare; slitting captives' throats, drinking their blood, and hanging their defleshed bones from ropes; and participating in acts of sodomy and fellatio, all in a context of structured ceremony. In the absence of archaeological evidence, most scholars found many of the scenes too horrific to take literally, often suggesting they were simply artistic hyperbole, imagery the priestly class used to underscore its coercive power.

The Pyramid of the Moon would have intimidated captives led up its long ramp to meet their fates in ritual sacrifice. The remains of the building's facade and its ramp are in the process of restoration. (Patrick Aventurier/Gamma) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Under the direction of Santiago Uceda of the University of Trujillo, Steve Bourget of the University of Texas at Austin and his colleague John Verano of Tulane University have discovered at the Pyramids at Moche new evidence proving that the shocking scenes depicted in Moche art are faithful representations of actual behavior, if not records of specific events.

Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals--representing several sacrifice events--embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.

In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget's, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies--a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.

[image] This restored Decapitator mural had been left in pieces by looters. (Patrick Aventurier/Gamma) [LARGER IMAGE]

Even with all this new evidence, much remains to be learned about the lives of the people involved in the ritual system, about how the Moche organized themselves into villages and cities in the north coast valleys, how power was won and lost, who was involved in warfare and how they fought, and of course, what ultimately happened to them. Investigations in the urban sector of the site have started to address some of these questions.

Colleen P. Popson, associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY, would like to thank Steve Bourget, Claude Chapdelaine, and John Verano for their gracious assistance in the preparation of this article.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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