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A Gold Moche Headdress portraying a Sea Goddess

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.

A Sculpture of Ai Apaec, the Decapitator (Gold, copper, and polished stone)

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.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background.

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.

A Frog-shaped Moche Vessel (Ceramic with earth glaze)

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.

An octopus or squid theme jar from the Knossos Palace in Crete (ca. 1500 BC)

Since the last two posts concerning mollusks have also involved the classical Mediterranean world (where cuttlefish ink was used for writing/drawing and murex mucous was employed as a costly dye), I am going to continue the theme by presenting a gallery of octopus vessels from ancient Greece.

A Mycenaean Octopus Vase (from beyondbooks.com)

Most of these vessels are from the Minoan culture which flourished from 2700 BC -1500 BC or from the Mycenaean city states which were most successful between 2000 BC and 1100 BC (when an incursion of mysterious aggressive “sea people” apparently destroyed the great palace kingdoms). Such vases and jars were made by trained craftsmen and were prized throughout the Levant.

Stirrup jar with octopus, (ca. 1200–1100 b.c.; Late Helladic IIIC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Vase of the Late Minoan I Period (about 1600-1100 B. C.) found on Gournia, Crete Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art."

Minoan "Palace style," vessel (ca. 15th century BCE, Athens National Museum)

Because we only know tantalizing fragments about life in ancient Crete or in the Mycenaean palace states, the artifacts from that age have been subject to much conjecture and speculation.  These lovely octopus vases have led some thinkers into believing that Minoans worshipped the sea and the creatures therein.  Other scholars have conjectured that the ancient Cretans looked to octopus tentacles as inspiration for that characteristic Minoan architectural conceit, the labyrinth.  The real symbolic or ritual purpose of the octopus motif remains unclear and probably always will.  What is certain is that the vases, drinking vessels, and jars are quite lovely.  The octopus motif originated around 1500 BC and by the Minoan period the so-called “marine style” of decorating pottery had become even more prevalent and diverse.  Some ceramics were covered with fish, octopuses, dolphins, and crabs.  In fact there was even a vessel covered with murexes. Perhaps these people simply liked octopuses and sea creatures. I can certainly understand that motivation!

Terracotta rhyton painted in "Marine Style" with murexes (Zakros, Late Minoan IB, ca. 1525/1500-1450 B.C.) (Courtesy Onassis Public Benefit Foundation)

Rhyton, drinking vessel with painted octopus (From the Aegean, found in Ugarit "Minet-el-Beida", Syria. Late Bronze. Terracotta)

Minoan Amphora w Octopus Motif , New Palace Period , Knossos , Crete

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