Shield with crab and fish figures

Moche artist(s)

Not on view

This impressive gilded copper disk depicts a crab, surrounded by alternating plain and embossed circular gold bands. The ornament was originally cut from a larger sheet of hammered copper and was subsequently gilded (Schorsch, 1998). Portions of the sheet were removed to create the central figure plus five concentric rings connected by six radiating bands or rays. The first, third and outermost circular bands are unworked, while the second and fourth bands have been embossed to depict six fish in profile. The central repoussé crab is masterfully represented with embossed eye stalks, mouth parts, pinchers, carapace, walking legs and tail. Even the articulation points of the leg joints are indicated. As with the crab, each fish in the inner band has been delicately embossed to indicate the piscine facial anatomy, scales and fins. The fourth circular band depicts spotted catfish illustrated in a dorsal view depicting eyes, fins and scales. The plain surfaces, including the rays and the three plain circular bands, are adorned with gilded dangles affixed to the disk by thin gilded wires attached to the back. The wires that hold the dangles are oriented so that only when the central figure, the crab, is pointing up, do the dangles hang properly. (In any other orientation, some of the disks would hang beyond the borders of the backing.) One can imagine the brilliant effect of sunlight reflecting off the solid and shimmering elements of this object.

In Moche iconography, crabs are one of the major animals featured in the pantheon of anthropomorphic warriors (Donnan and McClelland, 1999). Combatants with crab-like bodies and other crustacean attributes but with human heads are often found on Moche modeled and painted ceramics (see, for example, a ceramic bottle in the Met’s collection, 67.167.5). It is unclear what features elevated this sea creature to one of esteem: Was it the crab’s ability to live both under the water and along the edge of the sea seen as symbolic of a warrior’s ability to transcend realms? Or were the crab’s powerful pinchers seen as metaphors of military might? Or was it some other trait unclear to us but evident to Moche viewers? As there was no tradition of writing in the prehispanic Andes, the specific meanings of such imagery remain elusive.

The technical sophistication required for the creation of objects such as this once led scholars to refer to this period as the Master Craftsmen Era (Bennett and Bird, 1949; Castillo 2017). The technology employed for producing these ornate metal objects, however, is still the subject of study (Lechtman, 1982; Schorsch, 1998).

The function of disks such the present example is unclear. They may have served as shield frontals, attached to a cane backing, but the delicate nature of the design would have limited its protective function in actual battle. Thus, these objects may have been intended for ritual use as symbolic weapon adornments. Alternatively, they may have been attached to textile banners or hangings.

The Moche (also known as the Mochicas) flourished on Peru’s North Coast from 200 - 850 AD, 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 Moche never formed a single centralized political entity, they shared unifying cultural traits such as religious practices (Donnan, 2010).

This object was said to have been found at the burial site of Loma Negra, which was one of the most northern outposts of Moche culture. Loma Negra works in metal share similar iconography with ceramics and metalwork found at Moche sites father to the south, such as Ucupe (Bourget, 2014). The precise relationship between the Loma Negra and the Moche “heartland” remains a subject of debate, however (Kaulicke, 2006).

References and Further Reading
Bennett, Wendell C., and Junius B. Bird. Andean Culture History. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1949.

Bourget, Steve. Les rois mochica: Divinité et pouvoir dans le Pérou ancient. Paris: Somogy éditions d'art; Geneva: MEG, Musée d'ethnographie de Genève, 2014.

Castillo, Luis Jaime. “Masters of the Universe: Moche Artists and Their Patrons.” In Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017, pp. 24-31.

Disselhoff, Hans-Dietrich. "Metallschmuck aus der Loma Negra, Vicus (Nord-Peru)." Antike Welt vol. 3 (1972), pp. 43–53.

Donnan, Christopher B., and Donna McClelland. Moche Fineline Painting. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles; Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999. Donnan, Christopher B. “Moche State Religion.” In New Perspectives on Moche Political Organization, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Luis Jaime Castillo. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, pp. 47-69.

Jones, Julie. "Mochica Works of Art in Metal: A Review." In Pre-Columbian Metallurgy of South America, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1979, pp. 53-104.

Jones, Julie, and Heidi King. "Gold of the Americas." The Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art vol. 59, no. 4 (Spring 2002).

Kaulicke, Peter. “The Vicús-Mochica Relationship.” In Andean Archaeology III, edited by William H. Isbell and Helene H. Silverman. Boston, MA: Springer, 2006, pp. 85-111.

Lechtman, Heather, Antonieta Erling, and Edward J. Barry Jr. "New Perspectives on Moche Metallurgy: Techniques of Gilding Copper at Loma Negra, Northern Peru." American Antiquity vol. 47 (1982), pp. 3-30.

Schorsch, Deborah. "Silver-and-Gold Moche Artifacts from Loma Negra, Peru." Metropolitan Museum Journal vol. 33 (1998), p. 113, fig. 7, 8.

Shield with crab and fish figures, Moche artist(s), Gilded copper, Moche

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