Temples and Tombs

Reconstruction of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, excavated by Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva.  Photo by J. Quilter
Reconstruction of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, excavated by Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva. Photo by J. Quilter

Moche temples were made of millions of adobes. Builders covered older temples with layers of new adobes, encasing the earlier structures in new construction. Although details vary at different sites, a common temple form was a series of platforms, smaller ones stacked on top of larger ones, echoing the pattern of agricultural terraces on the sides of the valleys and mountains. In front, a large walled plaza held crowds of pilgrims, while a ramp on one side was used by priests and high-ranking visitors to reach the temple summit, where sacrificial rites were held.

Smooth plastered layers of adobe on temple walls were decorated in brilliantly colored murals and friezes. Many of the designs repeated the face of the Decapitator God, and some were abstract and geometric.

Temples served both the living and the dead. Bricks were removed from floors to create chambers for the entombment of Moche lords, their retinues, sacrificial victims, and burial offerings. Where the highest-ranking Moche who were buried in temples lived is uncertain; perhaps they lived in rural estates or in the buildings and rooms flanking the main temple. Temple complexes were often surrounded by single-storied buildings, streets, and compounds, which held residences and artisan workshops. Most people occupying these adjacent precincts were buried under the floors of the places where they lived and worked, along with graves and offerings more or less elaborate, depending on their rank.