Iconography of the Moche

Unraveling the Mystery of the Warrior-Priest

The Sipan Tomb was being excavated and its contents cataloged, one question kept recurring to all who participated: "Who was this person?". Analysis of the bones indicated an adult male about 35 years of age. The elaborate tomb, rich its unusual plank coffin, accompanying male and female burials, and the quantity and quality of grave goods, attested to an individual of high status a member of the nobility. But a more precise identification of this noble and the role he played in Moche society was possible through a careful study of Moche art. The Moche civilization flourished, on the north coast of Peru between A.D. 100 and 700. The Moche people had no writing system, but they left a vivid artistic record in beautiful ceramic vessels that were modeIed with three-dimensional sculpture or painted with line drawings. These illustrate their architecture, implements, supernatural beings, elaborate ceremonies, activities such as hunting, paving, and combat.

Some tomb objects resemble in size and form those worn by the seated figure depicted in the ceramic vessel at left. Such vessels demonstrate not only how the tomb objects were worn, but also which objects would have been appropriately worn together. There is the exquisite pair of gold-and-turquoise ear ornaments with standing figures. The central figure is a warrior holding a typical Moche war club. His crescent shaped headdress ornament, nose ornament, and bells that hang from his belt are identical with objects found in the coffin, indicating that they were worn as part of a warrior's costume. The two large backflaps found in the tomb, one of gold and the other of copper, further support the warrior role. In Moche art these are worn only by warriors, who often have one hanging from the back of the belt. Similarly the darts in the lower part of the coffin are identical with those portrayed in scenes of Moche combat. The club and shield, represented by the miniature copper version found near the darts.

The gold rattle with copper handle that was grasped in the noble's right hand. The top and sides of the rattle chamber depict an elaborately dressed warrior holding a crouching figure by the hair while hitting him with his war club. The tomb's multiple sets of combat objects, their exquisite craftsmanship, and the fact that they are made of gold and silver indicate that this warrior was of unusually high status and possessed special qualities.

Moche art provides numerous depictions of military equipment, warriors, and warrior activity. Some scenes show warriors parading as though in preparation for war. Others depict combat: warriors hurling slingstones and atlatl darts at the enemy from a distance and using war clubs at close range

The primary purpose of Moche warfare was to capture enemy warriors. Once they were taken prisoner, their weapons and clothing were removed and hung from the war clubs of their captors. With ropes around their necks, the prisoners were paraded, formally presented in courtly scenes, and ultimately sacrificed. The killing of captured warriors occurred at a special ceremony in which their throats were cut and their blood presented in tall goblets to elegantly dressed individuals. The ceremony involved a specific cast of participants. One Moche ceramic bottle bears a highly detailed depiction of the sacrifice ceremony, painted in fine-line drawing around its chamber. There are two captured warriors sitting cross-legged, their hands tied and their throats being cut by figures standing beside them. In the upper part of the scene a warrior-priest receives a tall goblet from a bird warrior.

'The warrior priest, with rays emanating from his head and shoulders, is the primary figure at the sacrifice ceremony. He is normally accompanied by a spotted dog. In addition to his conical helmet, he always wears a crescent-shaped headdress ornament, large circular car ornaments, large bracelets, and a warrior backflap, and is frequently shown wearing a crescent-shaped nose ornament. Beneath the warriorpriest in the scene below is his litter, with rays projecting from the backrest. A rattle like the one found in the tomb lies horizontally above the front of the litter, with its chamber on the left and handle on the right.

Lord of the Sipan


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