Studying the Moche

Gordon R. Willey in the Virú Valley, 1946.  Peabody Museum Archives, PM 2004.24.27839
Gordon R. Willey in the Virú Valley, 1946. Peabody Museum Archives, PM 2004.24.27839

The story of the rise and fall of the Moche is the subject of continuing research. Because they did not use writing, we must rely on archaeology, art history, and the study of continuing native traditions to understand their society and its history. Archaeology tells us about changes in Moche culture through time as its influence spread and styles of artifacts changed. Art history interprets their representational art style depicting myths and legends as well as aspects of everyday life. Ethnography reveals lifeways and beliefs continuing from antiquity to the present. Ethnohistory, through the study of early Spanish documents, examines native culture before European influence. Each of these approaches contributes to our understanding of the Moche.

The Inca conquered the Chimu, the successors of the Moche, just before the Spanish arrived, so old lifeways and legends were reported to the Spanish. By the nineteenth century an earlier version of this tradition, called “proto-Chimu,” was recognized, and this later came to be distinguished as Moche. German archaeologist Max Uhle conducted the first excavations at a Moche site in 1890. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Rafael Larco Hoyle collected artifacts at his hacienda in the Chicama Valley and conducted extensive archaeological and art historical studies.

Many scholars continue to study the Moche. Harvard’s Peabody Museum contributed significantly through Gordon Willey’s work on the Virú Valley Project in the mid-1940s, Michael Moseley’s Chan Chan /Moche Valley Project in the 1970s, and Jeffrey Quilter’s recent work at the El Brujo Complex in the Chicama Valley. Elizabeth Benson, at Dumbarton Oaks, conducted important research on symbolism as did Christopher Donnan, at UCLA, who also excavated. Peruvian archaeologists have played increasingly important roles, particularly Walter Alva in his work at the Royal Tombs of Sipán in the late 1980s. Such work is now being continued by scholars such as Luis Jaime Castillo at San José de Moro and the Peruvian team at the El Brujo Complex in the Chicama Valley.