Portraiture was not common in the Americas prior to the sixteenth century, but there are periods and places where the genre was explored in creative and intriguing ways. Well before the rise of the Inca state in the fifteenth century, potters on Peru’s north coast produced great numbers of ceramic bottles in the shapes of humans, animals, plants, and imaginative combinations of these in the ceramic workshops associated with ritual centers between the Nepeña River in the south and the Piura Valley in the north. Many of these are notable for their descriptive accuracy, though we would not designate them as portraits. For a few centuries in the middle of the first millennium A.D., however, artists of the Moche cultures excelled at the creation of “portrait vessels” (64.228.21), so-called for their striking apparent resemblance to specific individuals.
These vessels could take the form of a full body (64.228.43) or simply a head and were shaped into bowls, jars, or, more commonly, bottles. Many of these have a spout in the shape of a stirrup (64.228.22), a favored form for ritual vessels on the north coast of Peru for about 2,500 years, from at least the beginning of the first millennium B.C. through the early colonial period. It is unclear what these vessels once contained, if anything, although it is commonly assumed that they were used to hold chicha, a type of maize beer.
Moche portrait heads are notable for their sensitive renderings of faces, including fleshy cheeks, furrowed brows, and occasionally scars (1976.287.4) or blind eyes (1978.412.72). In some cases, it is possible to recognize what appears to be the same individual represented in different vessels, even at different stages of their lives, from youth to middle age. The close attention to physiognomic detail temptingly hints at living, breathing historical personages—a rare chance to imagine members of a community in a period for which we have no written histories.
In an extensive study of the corpus of some nine hundred known examples of portrait-head vessels, archaeologist Christopher Donnan has shown that 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. The earliest examples of the genre (1979.206.1111; 64.228.24), from Phase I (A.D. 100–200) and II (A.D. 200–300), are hand-modeled, rounded forms that were then painted with slip (a suspension of clay colorants in water) and burnished with a smooth stone or other implement before firing. Some simply represent the head, with minimal detailing beyond slip designs indicating face paint; others include a pair of feet or legs below the head.
The most lifelike portrait-head vessels date to the later part of the Moche period, Phases III (A.D. 300–450) and IV (A.D. 450–550). They become suggestive of specific individuals, with careful attention paid to the fleshy folds of the face, the shape of the nose, or the curve of a brow (82.1.28; 67.167.22). These later portrait heads were created with the use of molds, with multiple vessels made from a single mold or matrix. The vessels were then painted with cream and red slip in distinctive ways, delineating headdresses, headbands, and ear ornaments. Other details such as eyebrows and face painting were sometimes applied after firing, most likely with the use of an organic pigment that was then heated.
Nearly all of the portrait vessels depict adult males; a small percentage may represent children. To date, no women have been identified in the corpus of portrait heads, although we occasionally find vessels in the shape of a complete female figure (64.228.29). The adult male portrait heads often have large, circular ear ornaments and occasionally crescent-shaped nose ornaments (1983.546.5). Some wear head rings—wreathlike headdresses worn over a plain headcloth and featuring the head and paws of a feline or other animal (64.228.25). Moche ceramics painted in a style known as fineline often show warriors wearing such head rings (67.167.4), and they may indicate an affiliation with a specific group, perhaps symbolizing an appropriation of the depicted creature’s power.
From the evidence of use-wear and sherds in trash heaps, it seems likely that Moche portrait vessels were used in life before they were deposited in tombs. Scenes from several fineline vessels suggest that portrait heads were used in ceremonial settings and possibly elite households. All of the portrait vessels found through scientific excavations, however, were recovered from high-status burials, where they were part of larger assemblages with other vessels. As Donnan has noted, there is no evidence to suggest that the portraits represent the entombed individuals, as portraits of men have been found with women, and portraits of the same individual have been found in multiple tombs.
Based on his comprehensive study of the known corpus of portrait heads and related archaeological data, Donnan has argued that they represented prominent individuals who would have been known by members of their community, and that the possession of such a portrait would mark a connection with the individual depicted. Do the portrait heads represent heroic leaders or victorious warriors? Possibly, although seen in another light, the idea of a head as a vessel may be less celebratory than punitive, as colonial accounts of Inca warfare describe the tradition of converting the skulls of enemies into drinking vessels. Furthermore, the formal similarity of the stirrup spout to a rope through a skull—the traditional method by which heads taken in battle were transported—casts a shadow over a heroic reading. Disembodied heads are often depicted in the hands of triumphant warriors and fearsome supernatural figures (64.228.60). Moreover, as Donnan has noted, in some cases a single individual would be shown at the height of his powers and in full regalia on one vessel, only to be shown as a prisoner, stripped of his trappings and a rope around his neck, on another.
Beyond the immediate histories of specific lives, it is worth remembering that the portrait heads were but one component of larger funerary assemblages—assemblages that were occasionally adjusted over time as descendants or others shifted, removed, or added components. Some scholars have emphasized this final context, suggesting that it is possible to see portrait heads as simulacra of the bodies of venerated ancestors. The anthropologist Mary Weismantel, for example, has suggested that such vessels are literal representations of decapitated heads, deployed as acts of reverence or devotion by kin.
Many aspects of Moche portrait vessels remain unknowable. How are we to understand a fox portrait head (63.226.6) or a bottle with a carefully rendered face of a warrior and the body of a vegetable (1979.206.1114)? Can these even be considered portraits? Definitive interpretations of these vessels may remain elusive, but this remarkably inventive exploration of the bottle form provides us with an exceptional view of Moche art and ideas and offers stimulating avenues for further consideration of the idea of portraiture across time and place. After all, we must bear in mind that in many portrait traditions, including that of Western Europe, the success of a project is more dependent on imaginative invention than accurate transcription.