Moche portrait vessels
The Moche portrait vessels depicted lifelike ceramic portraits of male Moche people beginning from childhood, adulthood, and until death.1 Their sculpture, painting, and ceramics such as portrait vessels were famous which depicted important people in their society.2 Most of portraits were human heads with each vessel portraying the perfect and exact three-dimensional facial features of the individual, which can be recognized easily without texts or symbols accompanied.1
The three-dimensional sculpture and intricate paintings of Moche ceramic vessels were one of the recognizable Peruvian arts. These vessels served as portable containers as bottles, jars, or bowls for liquid such as chicha, a fermented beverage from maize. Other figures depicted include animals, plants, and deities; and activities of Moche people such as hunting, fishing, combat rituals, and ceremonies.1
1. Christopher B. Donnan, Moche Portraits From Ancient Peru (University of TexaPress, 2003) 1-12.
2. K. Kris Hirst, “Moche Portrait Vessel”, (2008) [http://archaeology.about.com/od/northamerica/ig/Ancient-Americas-/Moche-Portrait-Vessel.htm]; available from About.com: Archeology
The Moche portrait head vessel (picture above) depicts a male Moche leader with considerable importance. Most of the eyes of the portrait vessels were inlaid with semi-stucco and precious stones. The vessel portrays a man with neatly-cut hair in neck length and wearing tight cup. Unlike the other portrait vessels, this one does not have any special ornaments such as ear ornaments and exquisite or decorated headdress.4
Moche was among the three ancient civilizations other than the Greeks and the Maya to record as much information in their ceramics. Architecture, metallurgy, weaving, brewing
of chicha, human deformities and disease, and sexual acts are some of the depictions in Moche vessels. Most of these vessels were modeled from Chavin prototypes which were flat-bottomed stirrup-spouted jars decorated with two-color slip. Their continuous refinement of stirrup spouts led to portrait vessels depicting either warrior, ruler, or royal retainer.3 The head vessels, according from Donnan (2003), were most likely to be molded by hand based from the nature of their size; but if the portraits were to be produced in multiple numbers, highly skilled potters could have spent time to make mold matrices. However, among the 750 portrait vessels discovered, those were distinct individuals. Among the thirteen molds found, only one had a matched vessel produced. There were vast portrait head vessels however only a small number were in private collections and museums since most portraits were broken during the use of Moche people, some were included in burials, while others were looted.1
1. Ibid, 161.
3. Helen Gardner, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, (Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 399-400.
4. “Art 198 – History of World Ceramics”, [http://seco.glendale.edu/ceramics/mocheportraithead.html]
One of the vast collections of Peruvian arts and artifacts can be found in Lima, Peru owned by Rafael Larco Hoyle who acquired 600 ceramic vessels among the 45,000 artifacts. He studied well on Moche and linked its artifacts with the socio-cultural structure and mythology Moche people. Head portrait vessels were considered among the epitome of Moche and Peruvian art. Warfare, sacrifice, elite status, nature, transformation, and man’s relationship with the nature were the common theme reflected on Moche art.5 Most of the head portrait vessels were adult males and few children which were buried in graves of the important individuals. It is still not known why the vessels were found in many gravesites but it can be linked to ceremonial functions since graves near temple centers were elegantly furnished. 1
Moche iconography reflected the prevailing religious traditions of Moche people. The artifacts such as the pottery were one of the major source of information about the religion and culture of Moche. The painted portrait vessels and other ceramics accompanied in burials signified the activity and role of each person. The seated figures portrayed in ceramic vessels found in tombs related what and how the tomb objects were worn. In an excavation site in Sipan, Donnan (1988) identified the tomb as a warrior-priest. The ornaments he wore such as the gold-and-turquoise ear ornaments, crescent-shaped ornament, nose ornament, and bells on his belt were part of a Moche warrior’s costume. The Moche war club and shield he was holding were identical with painting depictions of Moche combat. Donnan added that this warrior perhaps possesses a considerable high status in Moche society since the ornaments he was wearing were made of gold and silver.6
1. Ibid, 1-12.
5. Jennifer Williams, “The Spirit of Ancient Peru”, (1997) [http://www.tribalarts.com/feature/peru/index.html].
6. Christopher B. Donnan, National Geographic, (1988) [http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/moche/iconography.htm], 551-555
The paintings in the Moche artifacts depicted military equipment, warriors, capturing enemy warriors, and sacrifice rituals. In sacrificial ceremonies, the captive prisoners were paraded before bringing to the religious ceremony where their throats were slashed and their bloods were presented in a goblet to the warrior-priest. The warrior-priest is the primary figure in the sacrificial ceremony. As depicted in the ceramic arts, he wore a conical helmet, a warrior backflap crescent-shaped headdress, large ear ornaments, and large bracelets. The golden rattle found in his tomb was perhaps used against the captive enemies during the ceremonies. Other noble also acted as warrior-priest as suggested from the royal tombs found in Sipan. The tomb of a warrior-priest found was depicted in many Moche ceramics and murals which led archeologist into concluding that he indeed was an important person. 6
The number of portrait head vessels scattered among Moche sites was explained by Donnan (2003). The portraits might have been distributed by the potters and painters to the powerful individuals, supported by the owner, to establish relationship; or the portraits perhaps were distributed to various ceramic workshops to build affiliation. The design of portraits changed over time as the dominant motifs in Moche arts changed from supernatural figures, supernatural activities, animals, realistic human figures, to activities of high-status adult males (deer hunting, ritual running, combat, bleeding, parading, and prisoner sacrifices) until the production of portrait vessels ended. The sudden stop in the production was related to the drought experienced in the Moche region for thirty-two years where the Moche abandoned their settlements, decrease in high-status male adult representations, and change in Moche society and art functions.1
1. Ibid, 165-166.
6. Ibid, 51-55
“History of World Ceramics.” GCC Ceramics, http://seco.glendale.edu/ceramics/mocheportraithead.html.
Donnan, Christopher. “Iconography of the Moche: Unraveling the Mystery of the Warrior-Priest.” National Geographic 1988, 551-555, http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/moche/iconography.htm.
Donnan, Christopher B. “Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru.” University of Texas Press, 2003, http://books.google.com/books?id=nCT9O5jexQIC&pg=PA193&dq=Moche+Portraits+from+Ancient+Peru&sig=quOyKO7JAkoXsZ9GIB4k_ohA8a4#PPA166,M1
Gardner, Helen, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya. “Gardner’s Art through the Ages.” Thomson Wadsworth 2005, http://books.google.com/books?id=tsBkCy_O7mQC.
Hirst, K. Kris. “Moche Portrait Vessel.” About.com, 2008, http://archaeology.about.com/od/northamerica/ig/Ancient-Americas-/Moche-Portrait-Vessel.htm.
Williams, Jennifer. “The Spirit of Ancient Peru.” Rafael Larco Museum, http://www.tribalarts.com/feature/peru/index.html.