Runner Bottle, 4th–7th century
Ceramic; H. 12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm), Diam. 6 1/8 in. (15.6 cm)
Gift of Nathan Cummings, 1967 (67.167.3)
A large number of Moche stirrup spout bottles represent men or anthropomorphized creatures running in line in a desert environment. These ritual runners have been interpreted as messengers traveling from one site or one valley to another. Most runners wear loincloths or short skirts with a decorated belt, as well as distinctive headdresses composed of a turban with a large disk or trapezoidal element on the front and long ribbons down the back. They also carry bags in their hands. While about half of ritual runners are human, others take the shape of anthropomorphized birds, snakes, bats, lizards, centipedes, or scorpions. Runners are often surrounded by desert plants, or beans that seem to float in the background. One ritual running scene involves a long line of anthropomorphized beans that become increasingly human as they reach the top of the vessel. It has been suggested that the message carried by the runner is encoded in beans contained in the bags they are holding. At the site of Moche, archaeologists discovered tombs of men wearing headdresses composed of a copper disk with embossed circles similar to those worn by ritual runners. Perhaps these men were affiliated with ritual running activities during their lifetime, although no bags or beans were found in the burials.