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Books: Moche Mug Shots Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by Colleen Popson

[image] Fifteen hundred years ago, Peru's Moche were molding startlingly lifelike individual portraits on ceramic jars. (Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera, Lima.) [LARGER IMAGE]

They are some of the most evocative portraits ever made. A warrior clenches his jaws and fixes his heavy-lidded gaze on some distant point. Peering down his nose in judgment a disappointed father purses his lips, while a plump older man's eyes sparkle as he smiles.

Christopher Donnan's Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004; $39.95) is crowded with more than 250 stunning color photos of the faces of men who lived on Peru's northern coast some fifteen centuries ago. Molded into ceramic jars and bowls, the subjects' finest facial features and subtlest emotions are expertly rendered. Among the visages are more than twenty portraits of "Long Nose," a man so named by Donnan and his colleagues for his unusually elongated and pointed nose. On some vessels he is depicted as a warrior, proudly sporting a club and wearing elite garb, including ear ornaments and a headdress. In others, he is a captive--naked, with a rope around his neck and his hands tied behind his back, likely awaiting sacrifice.

One of Long Nose's portraits was found in excavations at the pyramids at Moche. Archaeologists have discovered evidence for large-scale sacrifice here, including the mutilated and dismembered remains of some seventy young men. The portrait vessels of Long Nose and others add another dimension, a visual record of the events' participants.

Sadly, this Long Nose portrait is an anomaly. Of the hundreds of vessels Donnan and his team at UCLA have documented from museums and private collections, fewer than 5 percent were excavated archaeologically. The rest were wrenched from graves by looters in their haste to satisfy collectors' desire to own Moche treasures. Apparently, Donnan's approach is: If you can't fight the collectors, you might as well get what you can from them.

Moche Portraits allows readers a rare and at times chilling opportunity to come face to face with living, breathing men from Peru's past.

Colleen Popson is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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