Bottle with portrait head

Moche artist(s)

Not on view

The Moche (also known as the Mochicas) flourished on Peru’s North Coast from 200 to 800 CE, centuries before the rise of the Incas. Over the course of some six centuries, the Moche built thriving regional centers from the Nepeña River Valley in the south to perhaps as far north as the Piura River, near the modern border with Ecuador, developing coastal deserts into rich farmlands and drawing upon the abundant maritime resources of the Pacific Ocean’s Humboldt Current. Although the precise nature of Moche political organization is a subject of debate, these centers shared unifying cultural traits such as religious practices (Donnan, 2010).

Moche potters produced tens of thousands of modeled and painted ceramic vessels over the course of some six centuries, and these were used in specific rituals; many, but not all, were ultimately placed in tombs. Portrait heads—so-called for their apparent striking resemblance to specific individuals—are a subset of this larger corpus. Their production was limited in time and space: they have been found only in the southern Moche region—south of the Pampa de Paiján, in the Chicama, Moche, and Virú valleys—and the most lifelike examples date to the later part of the Moche period, Phases III and IV (Donnan, 2001; 2004).

Created with molds—multiple vessels were made using a single mold or matrix—the bottles were then painted with cream and red slip in distinctive ways. The individual depicted here wears a headcloth, painted in a cream slip, over his hair and tied under the chin, and a headband decorated with undulating serpents and stepped designs painted in red. Tubular earspools were modeled on each side of the head while the ears remained hidden under the head cloth. The pierced septum may have originally been adorned with a nose ornament, likely made of metal.

The stirrup-spout vessel—the shape of the spout recalls the stirrup on a horse's saddle—was a much-favored form on Peru's North Coast for about 2,500 years, from at least the beginning of the first millennium BCE through the early colonial period. The double-branch-single-spout configuration may have had practical advantages, as an ingenious handle, but it was also surely symbolic. As there was no tradition of writing in this region before the sixteenth century, however, the specific meanings of the shape remain unknown. The Moche shaped stirrup-spout bottles into a wide range of forms, including human figures, animals, plants, and combinations of these.

It is difficult to state with certainty how portrait vessels were viewed in the past. Based on a comprehensive study of some 900 portrait heads and related archaeological data, Christopher Donnan (2001, 2004) has argued that they represented prominent individuals who would have been known by members of their community. Other scholars have emphasized their final contexts in burials, suggesting that such vessels are literal representations of decapitated heads, acts of reverence, or devotion by kin (Weismantel, 2015). Interestingly, certain animals were depicted in ways akin to humans (see 63.226.6).

Joanne Pillsbury, Andrall E. Pearson Curator, Arts of the Ancient Americas

Hugo C. Ikehara-Tsukayama, Senior Research Associate, Arts of the Ancient Americas


References and further reading

Castillo, Luis Jaime, Cecilia Pardo, and Julio Rucabado. Moche y sus vecinos: Reconstruyendo identidades. Lima: Museo de Arte de Lima, 2016.

Donnan, Christopher B. "Moche State Religion," in New Perspectives on Moche Political Organization, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Luis Jaime Castillo, pp. 47-69. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010.

Donnan, Christopher B. Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Donnan, Christopher B. "Moche Ceramic Portraits," in Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, pp. 126-139. Washington, D.C., New Haven: National Gallery of Art; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2001.

Donnan, Christopher B., and Donna McClelland. Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1999.

Donnan, Christopher B. Ceramics of Ancient Peru. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992.

Ikehara-Tsukayama Hugo C., Dawn Kriss, and Joanne Pillsbury. "Containing the Divine: Ancient Peruvian Pots." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 80, no 4 (Spring 2023).

Joanne Pillsbury. "Moche Portrait Vessels." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Trever, Lisa. "A Moche Riddle in Clay: Object Knowledge and Art Work in Ancient Peru." The Art Bulletin Vol 101, No 4 (2019): 18-38.

Weismantel, Mary. "Many Heads are Better than One: Mortuary Practice and Ceramic Art in Moche Society," in Living with the Dead in the Andes, edited by Izumi Shimada and James L. Fitzsimmons, pp. 76-99. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2015.

Wołoszyn, Janusz Z., and Francisco Javier Villaverde Gonzaìlez. Los rostros silenciosos: Los huacos retrato de la cultura moche. Lima, Peru: Fondo Editorial, Pontificia Universidad Catoìlica del Peruì, 2008.

Bottle with portrait head, Moche artist(s), Ceramic, slip, Moche

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