Thursday, 24 March 2016




Since it is the end of the school year and quite a busy time, I'll end the semester with a tale.

Huaco Retrato Mochica, Museo Larco. Source.  Catalogue Record.

It was the first full day we had in Peru and I had just met (most of) everyone. Tomorrow we were off to Pacasmayo and the start of the field season. 

But first, the Museo Larco!

Groggy and jet-lagged after three plane trips, my mind was still on tea, casemate walls, old friends in Madaba, and the new ones here. In the back of my mind, the spectre of the uncertain job hunt that awaited after undergrad loomed large. This was the final hurrah before graduation and the happiest summer of my life so far.

So, sufficed to say when I arrived in Lima in 2014, I was a tad off guard as I stepped into a room full of faces. It's not often that one gets to meet the faces of the distant past, so to speak. 

I'd read of them, but still didn't expected it then and there (or at least, not so many).

Storage Gallery, Larco Museum. Lyndsay Ruell

At the Museo Larco were rows and rows of cases ten feet high of lifelike faces molded on clay vessels and most had tubes that joined to a spout at the top. Some were old others were young and ranged from calm, genial to grim  At somewhere only marginally over five feet, I could only squint at the top shelves and couldn't begin to figure out how to see them all.

These were the portrait vessels of the Moche (100-800 CE/A.D.) of North Coast Peru who lived long before the Inca dominated the Andes. 

Out of Context?

But most of these portrait vessels unfortunately came from unknown places. By Dr. Christopher Donnan's estimate, 95 percent of all the portrait vessels in existing collections came from unknown contexts. 

The sites they came from were unknown, let alone their location within them in the ground spatially or even temporally. The related burials, middens or structures and related finds they belonged to is not completely clear. Portrait vessels in collections were recovered from second hands- huaceros (looters), old antiquarians or archaeologists of a bygone era. They have been organized more generally into phases though based on the form of their stirrups (the long tubes/ spouts) which they share with other types of "stirrup vessels" that do have their archaeological context intact.

Though one can analyze an object in many ways, it could easily be in many inaccurate ways without understanding their context in the world of the people who created them, used them and left them behind. We are the ones calling them "portraits".

Larco Collection in the earlier days. Source.

Still, progress on research has been made.


Most depictions of the Moche are in a highly stylized forms on ceramic vessels that make it difficult to identify or imagine the people depicted in life or to parse the varied real or stylized elements.

Conch Shell Transfer Scene, rollout drawing. Donnan and Mclellan 1979. Source

Conch Shell Transfer. Source.

But from these life lifelike portraits, we have a clearer visualization of the headdresses (headcloths, head rings, feathers and tassels), ear ornaments (ear spools, tubes and discs), nose ornament, face paint and occasionally, necklaces being worn. We also see a variety of symbolic and decorative elements.

Of course, whether they represented the large majority is another matter.

The Same Persons Throughout Their Lifetimes?

One of the most amazing things is that the extant collections, along with full figured (head and body) versions, seem to show that there is a pattern of the same person being replicated at different times in their life. Not one for each period in life, but multiples.

A few of them (all nicknames of course):  "Bigote" (moustache), "Long Nose" and "Black Stripe" tell stories of their lives from warriors in full regalia to ceremonial sacrifices with nooses around their necks.

Another, called "Cut Lip" based on the scar on his upper left lip seems to be an entire category that spans from his youth into his thirties with different ornamentation.

Who and how well known were they?

Their exact stories are unknown, just as their exact locations often are.

Time will tell perhaps.

Of course, there was yet another surprise at the Larco, but that's for another time...

If you are still interested, here's a lecture by Donnan:

                     Moche Portraits From Ancient Peru, UCLA Faculty Research Lectures (Link) 
Just a picture, not embedded!

Works Consulted:

Donnan, C. (2004). Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru. University of Texas Press.

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