National Geographic : 1988 Oct
Iconography of the Moche Unraveling the Mystery of the Warrior-Priest By CHRISTOPHER B. DONNAN DIRECTOR, MUSEUM OF CULTURAL HISTORY UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES A THE SIPAN TOMB was being excavated and its contents cataloged, one question kept recur ring to all who participated: "Who was this person?" Analysis of the bones indicat ed an adult male about 35 years of age. The elaborate tomb, with 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 flour ished 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 mod eled with three-dimensional sculpture (left) or painted with fine-line drawings (center). These illustrate their architec ture, implements, supernatural beings, elaborate ceremonies, and activities such as hunting, weaving, and combat. During the past 20 years we have developed a major photo graphic archive of Moche art at the University of California, Los Angeles. This archive, con taining more than 125,000 pho tographs from museums and ARTIFACTSFROM PRIVATECOLLECTIONS; PHOTOSBY THE AUTHOR(LEFT) AND IRABLOCK private collections throughout the world, serves as an impor tant resource for the study of Moche culture. The collection also provides tantalizing clues about the identity of the noble buried in the tomb at Sipan. As the tomb was being exca vated, photographs of the objects were sent to UCLA for comparative study. Some tomb objects resemble in size and form those worn by the seated figure depicted in the ceramic vessel at left. Such vessels dem onstrate not only how the tomb objects were worn, but also which objects would have been appropriately worn together. If we assume that the objects in the plank coffin were worn and used by the man during his lifetime, they indicate strongly that he was a warrior. Among them is the exquisite pair of gold-and-turquoise ear orna ments with standing figures (pages 516-17). The central fig ure 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 (pages 529-531). 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 atlatl darts in the lower part of the coffin are identical with those portrayed in scenes of Moche combat. So too are the club and shield, repre sented by the miniature copper version found near the darts. One other object in the tomb underscores the warrior connec tion-the gold rattle with cop per 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 fig ure by the hair while hitting him with his war club.