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Faces of Ancient Peru Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
by Kimberly A. Berry

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, spectacular gold and silver objects recovered from well-furnished tombs at the site of Sipán introduced to the public the Moche culture, which dominated Peru's north coast for much of the first through eighth centuries A.D. Moche pottery is very recognizable, with its highly realistic modeled and painted ceramic vessels; thousands of these portrait vessels have been unearthed by archaeologists and, unfortunately, looters. ("Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru," Reviews, March/April 2004.)

In light of this recent history, it is surprising that the 100 artifacts presented in "The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages," a new exhibition at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (through June 2007), are devoid of provenience or contextual information, though a reference to early researchers in the area intimates that Peruvian archaeologist Rafael Larco Hoyle colluded with looters from the 1930s through 1950s as he collected artifacts at his hacienda. The exhibition also lacks a clear presentation of geographical region or known sites, limiting its archaeological usefulness.

The artifacts are arranged in thematic displays, while signage ringing the perimeter explores Moche culture and ideology. Beautiful examples of figural jars--as well as a few objects composed of shell, wood, metal, or cotton--are grouped by such topics as animal and plant imagery, warriors and weaponry, sacrifices and shamanism, deities and the supernatural, and "portrait head" vessels. Mystical scenes depict the fearsome Decapitator God holding a large knife in one hand and severed human head in the other, while supernatural predatory felines and sea monsters illustrate concerns of an agricultural and seafaring culture.

Despite the thematic grouping, row after row of artifacts are arrayed without a true focal point. And because the explanatory text wraps around the perimeter, museumgoers must literally turn their backs on the artifacts to get information.

The exhibition certainly has some fine Moche artifacts and merits a visit just to see them in person. But a more contextual approach would have been better.

Kimberly A. Berry is a doctoral candidate at Boston University.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America