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The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru. Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I'm still tagging this post to that category because...well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice. There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization. Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru. From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.
One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple. Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life. Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying. Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:
Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.
In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.
In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy. Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”
We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves. Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers. They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures. They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation. Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.
The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery. The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century. Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide. It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society. However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD. The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations. Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced. Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.
When I was a child, I had a shell collection. Some of my shells were ordinary things which I picked up on the beach. Others were handsome store-bought shells which were given to me as presents. The most beautiful shells which I had were gifts from my grandparents–world-travelers who had lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia as the cold war played out and colonialism ended. They gave me my favorite shell, a beautiful red spiny oyster shell which I kept on my desk wherever I moved (until it was destroyed, out of spite, by my first lover). Humankind’s fascination with the spiny oyster goes back a long way. To add to the Ferrebeekeeper mollusk thread, here are some pictures and facts about the Spondylidae family (aka the thorny oysters or spiny oysters). These bivalve mollusks are relatives to the scallops, but, like the oysters, they cement themselves to one location. Filter feeders of the reef, all of the various species of Spondylus have ball and socket hinges (whereas most bivalves have toothed hinges). Live Spondylus shellfish are like tiny reefs in their own right supporting a rich community of algaes, hydroids, tubeworms, and other invertebrates on their spiny shells.
To quote CoralMorphologic which films amazing close-up videos of invertebrates and is the source of the thorny oyster eyes photo below, “Unlike most shallow-water oyster species, the thorny oyster is a solitary creature that lives permanently cemented to the deeper coral reef. Its fleshy mantle is adorned with sepia-toned psychedelic camouflage that can vary widely from one individual to the next. The rim of the mantle is lined with dozens of eyes that stare out into the depths. These eyes are quite simple, only detecting changes in light that might suggest an incoming predator. If a threat is detected, the oyster will quickly snap its two shells together, sealing the animal inside with its two powerful adductor muscles.”
The desire to collect spiny oysters is much older than civilization. Bangles made of the shells and were found in Mediterranean archaeological excavations dating from the Mesolithic period. Ornaments made from the shells were found in the Varna necropolis, the burial ground of the the Eneolithic Varna culture located in what is today Bulgaria. Almost 7000 years ago the people of central Europe were trading something for Spondylus shells from the Aegean. That was before Eridu raised up from the mud and civilization got rolling in earnest. Apparently one could trade spiny oyster shells for goods and services before you could buy a beer!
The Moche society which flourished in Ecuador and Northern Peru from 100 AD – 800 AD, made the most extensive ritual use of Spondylus shells in their ceremonies and art. Spondylus shells (and vessels shaped like them) were believed to have held the blood obtained from ritual human sacrifice and torture. Not only did the Moche worship the sea and the creatures therein, one of their principal deities was a spider/crab who thrived on blood sacrifice. The shape and color of the spiny oyster shell seem to have made the shells a favorite material for votive offerings and grave goods for that formidable people.