Moche society flourished on the north Peruvian coastal desert between the first and the eighth centuries A.D., in valleys irrigated by rivers flowing westward from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. The Moche were innovators on many political, ideological, and artistic levels. They developed a powerful elite and specialized craft production, and instituted labor tribute payments. They elaborated new technologies in metallurgy, pottery, and textile production, and finally, they created an elaborate ideological system and a complex religious iconography.
Moche skilled ceramists produced a great variety of exquisitely decorated vessels. The decoration is sometimes painted on the smooth surface of vessels (67.167.4); other times it is tridimensional, forming the vessel shape itself (82.1.30). Occasionally, the message takes both a painted and sculpted form, one completing the other (1983.546.4; 1987.394.630). Nearly all decorated vessels are slip-painted and bichrome, with red decoration on a white/cream background. White on red and black postfire paint are also present to a lesser extent. While painted motifs are generally simple on three-dimensional vessels, two-dimensional decoration sometimes takes the shape of finely painted, highly complex narrative scenes.
Moche decorated vessels were mold-made and, despite their diversity, reveal standardized shapes and decoration. Nine basic shapes are reported in the literature. Stirrup-spout bottles (1992.60.9) and flaring bowls (63.226.5) are the privileged supports on which artists expressed figurative, complex painted scenes. Other shapes are neck and neckless jars (1983.546.6), dippers (64.228.15), bowls, neck bowls, cups, and crucibles.
Moche ceramic art represents an infinite variety of subjects. Common zoomorphic figures include camelids, deer, felines, foxes, rodents, monkeys, bats, sea lions, as well as a wide array of birds, fish, shells, arachnids, and reptiles. These animals are represented realistically, hybridized, or anthropomorphized (82.1.29). Corn, squash, tubers, and beans are common among a great diversity of plants. Among human and anthropomorphic figures, rulers, warriors, prisoners, priests, healers, and fanged deities are recognizable, as well as deformed and skeletal individuals (1978.412.196). Historical individuals are also represented in realistic, three-dimensional portrait vessels (64.228.21). While animals are often anthropomorphized or hybridized, humans often have supernatural attributes (1978.412.70).
All these figures are either represented alone or interacting in a variety of actions in diverse narrative scenes. Although the possibilities of creating different scenes from all existing Moche figures are almost limitless, major trends can be recognized in narrative art and representations are limited to a small number of recurring and interrelated themes. For example, deer and seal hunts (1978.412.69), sacrifice ceremonies, warriors in battle or moving in processions (67.167.1), and messengers running in line (67.167.3) are common themes in Moche ceramic art.
Scholars do not agree about the various functions of Moche decorated ceramics. Until recently, these works of art were thought to be essentially funerary offerings, as they were documented in a great number of burials. Indeed, fineware is the offering par excellence in burials of any social status as a marker of Moche social identity (64.228.43). Decorated vessels were imbued with a strong funerary dimension. However, many vessels uncovered in Moche burials show traces of abrasion, chipping, or repairs.
Recent excavations in residential areas, notably in the Moche and Santa Valleys in projects carried out by Universidad Nacional de Trujillo and Université de Montréal, revealed that finely decorated pottery is not only present but abundant in Moche domestic compounds. Many decorated vessels were not produced exclusively for a funerary purpose. Whereas many of them were ultimately placed in burials or made especially for the dead, most were produced to be used by the living in everyday life. The access to decorated vessels by the living was not unrestricted; some categories of vessels, as well as depictions of some religious themes, were exclusively destined for burial with the dead or for use in elite ritual performances. However, a great variety of vessels, many of them identical to those found in graves, were destined for domestic use.
Vessels decorated with religious themes were not merely indicators of social status at the site of Moche. They were strategically used at a household level, as tools to further political ambitions and communicate membership within groups. As evidenced by their iconographic content and the location in which they were abandoned, decorated vessels were an integral part of household-level rituals, meetings, and other status-building activities like feasts, where they were displayed, used, accidentally broken, and in some cases given away along with food and corn beer.
Bernier, Hélène. “Moche Decorated Ceramics.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/moch/hd_moch.htm (August 2009)
Donnan, Christopher B. Moche Art of Peru. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1978.
Donnan, Christopher B., and Donna McClelland. Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999.