Moche Society

(1) White, squarish vessel depicting a lord, probably in his audience chamber, PM 46-77-30/5007
(2) Red stirrup pot, representing a noble's dwelling or a mortuary facility, PM 46-77-30/5411
(3) Red and white stirrup pot, PM 46-77-30/5037
(4) Ceramic vessel depicting a dwarf, PM 46-77-30/4962
(5) Stirrup spout bottle. Seated drummer, possibly blind, PM 47-63-30/5645
(6) Water bottle in human form depicting woman with young child, PM 09-3-30/75604.2
(7) Straight spouted vessel, woman with a tumpline around her head carrying a burden, PM 968-14-30/8608
(8) Straight spouted vessel depicting woman with long shawls staring straight ahead, PM 968-14-30/8607
(9) Ceramic bottle, stirrup spout, effigy, woman with painted face, PM 09-3-30/75622.1
(10) Stirrup spout bottle with figure of owl-shaman woman and equipment, PM 16-62-30/F728
(11) Ceramic bottle, stirrup spout, human effigies, engraved bodies entwined, PM 58-51-30/8165
(12) Ceramic vessel with flat base, depicting figures with funeral bundle, PM 16-62-30/F724
(13) Single spout bottle depicting "Dance of the Dead", PM 46-77-30/5002
(14) Ceramic stirrup spout bottle, moulded human-like figures depicting "Dance of the Dead", PM 46-77-30/3940
(15) Stirrup-spout bottle depicting Moche god presiding over the dead, PM
(16, 17) Ceramic mold for making human effigy figurine, PM 21-38-30/F382
(18) Mochica finely polished slip stirrup vessel, PM 979-14-30/10147
(19) Vase depicting human head, PM 09-3-30/75620
(19) Side view of vase depicting human head, PM 09-3-30/75620
(20) Black and white stirrup pot with lizard, PM 46-77-30/4951
(21) Stirrup-spout jar depicting lizards, PM 968-14-30/8576
(22) Broken gourd with shell inlays, PM 46-77-30/6878
(23) Wooden animal figurine, PM 46-77-30/6325
(24) Wooden object (earspool) inlaid with shell and stone, PM 12-63-30/87724
(25) Bone spatula with shell inlays, PM 46-77-30/5853
(26) Border fragment of Moche textile, PM 42-12-30/3589

We know little of the lives of Moche commoners because the art tends mostly to depict lords and priests and religious subjects. A white vessel made of kaolin clay (1) may be early Moche or from the neighboring Recuay culture. It depicts a lord inside a structure, probably his audience chamber. The house-shaped vessel (2) may represent a noble’s dwelling or a mortuary facility.

Some Moche vessels do appear to show men of low rank because figures do not display obvious signs of status like fancy headdresses (3), or they are depicted carrying vessels or performing other apparently mundane chores. So too, people with handicaps or illnesses are sometimes portrayed, as in the examples here of a dwarf (4) and a blind man (5). Again, these figures may have symbolic meanings that we cannot yet decipher.

Women contributed significantly to Moche culture yet were infrequently depicted themselves. When shown, some appear engaged in everyday activities, such as a woman carrying her young child (6) or another with a tumpline around her head  supporting a burden behind her (7). A frequent image is of a seated woman with a long shawl, staring straight ahead (8). A similar figure (9) has a painted face. A third figure (10) is completely transformed into an anthropomorphic bird and appears to be treating a sick person lying before her. All seated women with shawls may, thus, depict female shaman-curers.

Moche art is well known for erotic vessels. The couple discreetly shown under a blanket here (11) is tame compared to many other examples of the genre. Themes of death are frequent because so many of these vessels were tomb offerings. One (12) shows the preparation of a corpse. Two vessels (13, 14) depict a “dance of the dead” and imply a belief in an afterlife. A fourth one (15) may show a god presiding over the underworld.

The Moche developed technologies of mass production. To enable the creation of multiple vessels, they pressed clay into separate molds (16, 17). Joining the sections with wet clay allowed for the addition of variations, such as adding a stirrup spout in one case (18) or leaving a space to create an open vessel in another (19). Use of molds increased the speed at which pottery could be made, as shown in the example of two similar stirrup spouts decorated with lizards (20, 21).

Because the aridity of the desert coast preserves objects that disintegrate in other climates, we have examples of the wide range of material culture once made and used, such as a shell-inlaid gourd (22), carved wooden animal (23), and inlaid earspool (24). This bone spatula (25) may have been used for ritual drug consumption. The long border (26) of what must have once been a very large textile is a rare example of Moche weavers’ art.