The Moche capital on the outskirts of modern Trujillo in Peru is a vast site that has revealed many spectacular finds since its discovery at the end of the 19th century. This year, however, has proved particularly revealing: three tombs belonging to the city’s elite, and crammed with bizarre symbols of wealth and power, were found beside a ceremonial dais that is architecturally unique. Who were these three individuals? Why were they buried here? And what part did they play in this ritualistic society that disappeared more than 1,000 years ago?
The Huacas de Moche, or Pyramids of the Moche, lie about 5km from the city of Trujillo in the northern regions of Peru along its Pacific coastline. It is an enormous site, covering about 100 hectares and divided into three sections, bookended by two huge pyramids – the Huaca del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) to the north-west and the Huaca de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) to the south-east – with a sprawling urban centre in between.
Excavations under the aegis of the Huaca de la Luna Project began here in 1991, directed by Dr Santiago Uceda Castillo and Dr Ricardo Moreles of the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo in Peru. Now, after nearly two decades of continual investigation, they are giving us a glimpse into the mysterious world of this sophisticated society, which formed the continent’s first empire almost 800 years before the rise of the mighty Incas. The Moche had no written language, and their culture disappeared long before the arrival of adventurers from the Old World. So, with no historical sources, their story can be told only through the archaeological record. Now that record is revealing an extraordinary and long-lived civilisation whose huge monumental structures, complex irrigation systems, and bizarre, bloody-thirsty rituals endured for centuries before eventually succumbing to unpredictable but punishing climate change and overwhelming external political forces.
With no written language, there are no inscriptions to tell us the original name for the site we now call the Huacas de Moche; but we do know that it was a centre of considerable importance, and the best candidate for capital of the centralised Southern Moche state from about the 1st to 9th centuries AD. The location is propitious: it sits at the base of the Cerro Blanco – the white mountain – whose mountain god provided the water that brought life to the valley.
The site was established at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD, when the valleys were ruled by individual chiefdoms, and both the Huaca de la Luna and the Huaca del Sol were built at the end of the 3rd century AD. These early structures were small, simple, whitewashed affairs, undecorated and unadorned. The Huaca del Sol, an adobe structure just 6m high and 120m long, was a secular complex on the north and west side of the settlement. Located 500m away, on the opposite side of the city, is the Huaca de la Luna, where religious functions were held, with the oldest of its two temples dating to the earliest days of the Moche culture.
A simple platform was used for public ceremonies but, at just 40m square and no higher than 12m, it accommodated only limited numbers. During the 4th century AD, the role of the priests was paramount. These elite figures not only officiated at public ceremonies, but also asserted the highest political control over the populace. A progamme of architectural aggrandisement reflects this emergent theocracy, and the Huaca de la Luna was rebuilt on a larger scale, and its principal façade and internal spaces were decorated with distinct high-relief images depicting the mountain god. For the next 400 years, the temple at the Huaca de la Luna remained the most-important building of the Moche, and its priests held the highest power. The pyramid was regularly ritually buried so that a new, larger and higher platform could be built over the top, incorporating the rich burials of its religious elite, and eventually becoming a huge complex of temples and plazas for religious performances.
As individual polities in neighbouring valley locations were amalgamated and subsumed into a single Moche identity, the site at Huaca del Moche emerged as the regional seat of power, ruled by the priests. Now those leaders began to look further afield: military campaigns to the south extended their territorial control first across the Viru and Chao valleys, and then on through the Santa and Nepeña valleys.
Until about AD 600, control remained in the hands of the religious elite, who developed a cult of personality, playing the role of gods in different ceremonies, and officiating during rituals of human sacrifice. Colourful architectural reliefs depicting such grim scenes, as well as the pantheon of Moche deities, adorn the public spaces and buildings where these activities took place.
But now the axis of power shifts from the priests at the Huaca de la Luna to the secular authorities residing in the Huaca del Sol on the opposite side of the city, whose population had swollen to between 15,000 and 25,000. This palace complex with administrative buildings and lavish tombs belonging to the imperial elite, was the largest construction in pre-Colonial South America. Sadly, when the Spanish arrived, impatient to discover what treasure lay within, they diverted the nearby Rio Moche to rip through the mud bricks, washing away much of the Huaca del Sol – along with the western section of the city.
Between the two mighty pyramids lies the urban centre, divided by canals and avenues, where the general population lived and worked in multi-functional dwellings. It is here on the north-west side of this sector, exactly midway between the two great monuments, that excavation over the past three years has revealed the remains of two mysterious platforms. Platform 1 is square, measuring 56m², and lies immediately to the east of Platform 2, which is rectangular, measuring 93m (on its north–south axis) by 44m (east to west). Both stand more than 3m high, and both are connected by a common plaza – or courtyard – with ramps. This courtyard, 27m long and 50m wide, runs along the south side of Platform 1 and the western edge of Platform 2. But what is their function? The surprise discoveries made this year may have the answer.
In 2014, the Project’s archaeologists working on Platform 1 came across a unique form of architecture. Though it is portrayed in Moche art, it has no architectural equivalent. It is a raised ceremonial edifice made of adobe bricks, accessed via an ascending spiral ramp. The base was 7.5m in diameter, and it would have stood about 6.5m high. It was built on a platform in the urban centre, halfway between the Huaca de la Luna and its sister-pyramid the Huaca del Sol. The processional ramp spiralled three times around the central core to reach the platform at the top, where there was possibly a canopied throne.
Unfortunately, the remains were badly damaged during investigations in the 1970s, when methods of investigation were less sophisticated, and a team of American archaeologists from Harvard University’s Chan Chan-Moche Valley Project used bulldozers to excavate the site, destroying large sections of this unrecognised architectural feature.
We do not know of other sites where such a structure has been uncovered, but we do know what it would have looked like because there is a ceramic bottle in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that depicts exactly this shape (see illustration on p.20). The vessel is a decorated stirrup-spout bottle, dated to between the 3rd and 5th centuries AD, and depicts a figure, bedecked in regalia symbolising his elite social status, sitting on a covered throne that is perched at the top of a spiral ramp. The sides of the ramp are decorated with images of fierce felines and sculpted snails that ascend in procession towards the dignitary on high.
The figure at the top probably represents a priest or king, who presided over official ceremonies or religious rituals from his throne above the masses, and who received offerings brought to him up the winding processional route.
Which brings us back to the spectacular burials discovered this summer: did the men buried here enjoy such a position of power and authority themselves? All three were found buried within Platform 2 (see the site-plan above), adjacent to this high-rise podium, and all three were surrounded by grave goods that signified persons of high social or religious status.
Symbols of power
The first to be uncovered, Tomb 1, lies close to the north-east corner of the platform, less than a metre below the surface. It contains the remains of a male, about 1.55m tall, and between 30 and 39 years old when he died about 1,500 years ago. He was laid in fully extended supine position, and was surrounded by grave goods made of a copper and gold alloy.
Analysis of the skeletal remains revealed no traces of strong muscle development, which, combined with the lack of bone density, confirms this individual was unaccustomed to hard physical exertion. He did, however, have a painful neck, which showed evidence of arthritis, a condition that surely would not have been helped by wearing the heavy ear-spools found on either side of his skull. These impressive pieces of jewellery are symbols of power that reflect his high status: the large round discs of gilded copper are faced with concentric rings of copper-gilt, with a band of bone and kaolin clay in between, and turquoise at the centre. On both arms, he wore wide bracelets of threaded red, black, and white beads.
The most significant find is a copper sceptre with rattle: five copper panels form the shape of an inverted pyramid, and are soldered with gold. The four lateral copper faces are each engraved with a different image: two depict Moche warriors in typical dress of crescent-shaped headdress, earrings, and gown, bearing traditional weapons, including clubs and shields; a third panel represents a large cat attacking a naked prisoner; and the fourth shows a deity in the form of an owl wearing a feline headdress, and holding a dish in one hand and a severed human head in the other. The top of the rattle is sealed with a decorated embossed panel depicting a sinister feline face.
Intriguingly, four large cat skulls – their species is yet to be identified – were carefully placed beside the man along his left-hand side, and a camelid (probably a llama) lies at his feet. He was covered by a mantle of either wood or textile – long since decayed – to which cat-like claws and eyes of gilded copper had been attached. Finally, ten stirrup-spout bottles in the Moche IV style – dated to about AD 400-600 – were arranged around the body in the grave. Santiago Uceda explains: ‘The sceptre signifies power; the earrings, rank; and the ceramic pieces are typical for a person of elite status.’
The second burial, Tomb 2, lies nearby, and dates to about the same period 1,500 years ago, during the final days of Moche occupation at the site. The grave was partially robbed during the Chimú era, the period immediately following the Moche, so the lower half of the burial and any grave goods placed in that section are long gone.
The burial belongs to a teenaged or young adult male, who was between 15 and 20 years old when he died. He was laid on his back in extravagant ceremonial dress, and wearing a gilded copper nose ornament. He was covered by a mantle similar to that found in Tomb 1. Again, the organic material has not survived, but the gilded copper cat-like claws, its feline ears, eyes, and tongue that were once attached to it were recovered and have been sent to the laboratory for conservation.
His other grave goods included a large feline skull placed beside the body, two spatulas, a sheet of copper, and three stirrup- spout bottles of Moche IV style – one depicting the bizarre so-called ‘crab man’.
The third burial, Tomb 3, is about a century older than the others, dating to the Moche III period. The grave, 1.2m deep, contained the remains of a young man who was about 17 to 19 years old when he died. He, too, was laid extended on his back, surrounded by grave goods that included personal adornments – six small gilded copper nose ornaments – and symbols of office: in his right hand he held a copper spike, and in his left a copper sceptre in the form of a complex, ornate rattle. The rattle section of the sceptre, made using the lost wax technique (see box opposite), depicts a strange scene: a cage-style platform made of cylindrical bars, with an owl-like figure standing on the platform at the top. This strange creature wears a crescent-shaped headdress, and he holds a tumi (ceremonial knife) in one hand, and a severed human head in the other; beneath him is a naked human figure, who is tied to the bars of the platform and flanked either side by a bat and a bird of prey.
As with the later tombs, animal offerings were placed in the tomb: a duck, another as-yet-unidentified bird, and the skull of a large cat. Thirteen stirrup-spout bottles, attributed to the Moche III style, were placed around the body, each one depicting the same character sitting with their hands to the front and carrying a small bag on their back. All the vessels represent the same character, shown sitting with hands to the front and a small bag on the back. Once the teenage dignitary had been placed in the grave, and the grave goods carefully arranged around him, two large sheets of gilded copper were placed over the entire burial, and, finally, a textile blanket over the top.
Honoured in death
Though they lived and died at different times, all three individuals were buried close together, and, significantly, adjacent to the spiral stage in the urban centre, at the mid-point between the two great pyramids of the sun and moon. Grave goods associated with all three burials, along with their proximity to this architectural feature, suggest these men once held positions of wealth and power. The expensive coverings, their sceptres, and personal ornaments clearly demonstrate their roles as dignitaries. Perhaps they were the official representatives of the king, maintaining his influence beyond the Huacas de Moche across the southern regions, and who, on death, were accorded the privilege of being returned to the capital to be buried with honour in this sacred plot within Platform 2, beside the ceremonial stage.
Though we do not know the precise function of these two platforms, we do know from anthropological studies of coastal and highland societies that such prominent central locations within urban areas were used for ancestor worship, thereby establishing the ruler’s authority and the ceremonial processes within the society. Also it is significant that there are two platforms in this location, midway between the two main monuments, as they represent the two spheres of influence on either side of the city, thus linking – and harnessing – both, perhaps under the aegis of one of the deities that ruled the pantheon of gods in the new temple of the Huaca de la Luna. The gory depictions on the pyramid-style sceptre of Tomb 1, and on the intricate bronze sceptre with the owl-figure of Tomb 3 reflect the style and content of such ceremonies. What we are seeing here at the Huacas de Moche, therefore, is evidence for the emergence of a stratified society, which then maintained its hierarchy through warfare and a belief system that invoked the approval of deities through ritual sacrifice.
Lost wax method
This technique is one of the simplest and earliest known methods for casting metal artefacts, and is particularly effective for complex designs. A model of the artefact is carved from solid wax and encased in clay. This is then fired to harden the clay and melt the wax, which is drained off. The mould is inverted, and molten metal is poured into the cavity left by the wax. When the metal has cooled and solidified, the clay mould is smashed to reveal the end product.
Who were the Moche?
This narrow strip of arid coastal plain stretches along 400km of the Pacific shore in the north of Peru, pierced by river valleys fed by mountain springs that drain into the ocean. These green and fertile belts cut through the inhospitable terrain, providing an environment in which early communities were able to establish remote settlements, interlinked with those in neighbouring valleys. Thus the earliest shoots of the Moche culture emerged as individual polities that became interconnected through a shared religious ideology and artistic style.
Moche society was highly stratified with formal political and religious hierarchies, and an economy reliant on irrigated agricultural practices and aggressive territorial expansion. Their culture developed within two spheres of influence between about AD 200 and 900. One, to the north, was centred in the Lambayeque Valley (see CWA 35 ‘The Tombs of the Lords of Sipán’), and eventually developed into the Lambayeque (or Sicán) culture; the other was to the south, in the Moche and Chicama valleys, with its capital city at Huacas de Moche.
Violence and blood ritual
The Moche have a reputation for brutality and gruesome rituals that involved drinking human blood and sacrifice – an image enhanced by their art, including larger-than-life murals. Archaeological excavation at Huacas de Moche has revealed the remains of sacrificial victims, killed with a knife or clubbed to death, their bodies dismembered, faces flayed, tossed onto a heap or left unburied. But who were these unfortunates? Local people, a chosen elite, or captured warriors?
Ceramics from the early period of Moche civilisation show scenes of ritual combat, suggesting conflict between two rival elites, belonging to culturally similar but politically autonomous communities, may have been played out in this way. And skeletal remains from several sites (including the Huacas de Moche) show evidence of healed trauma-wounds consistent with injuries incurred during warfare, suggesting that these individuals were used to conflict. But this could apply to both enemy warriors captured in battle and elite gladiatorial combatants.
Recent tests of tooth-enamel and bone from burials on the Huaca de la Luna have produced some interesting results. The skeletal remains of two groups of sacrificial victims entombed on two plazas of the pyramid were analysed using strontium-isotope techniques. The results revealed that one group, on Plaza C, all originated in the local area, and were killed over a 400-year period, about AD 200-600; the second group, on Plaza A, are later, and were all killed within a century, between about AD 550 and 650. This second group were not local, but arrived from various locations further afield. Interestingly, some had lived at the Huacas de Moche for several years before being killed. Perhaps they were captured and enslaved, offered in tribute by different regions, or simply were economic migrants selected for sacrifice because they were not born locally.
It is interesting to note that the earlier group belongs to the period when the priests of the Huaca de la Luna exercised supreme authority. The later dates of the group from Plaza A coincide with a period of chaotic weather conditions associated with El Niño, when 30 years of drought were followed by 30 years of heavy rains: flooding wiped out crops and irrigation systems, and destroyed the mud-brick buildings of the city. This century of blood-letting reflects the political and economic turmoil created by these freak weather conditions; religious influence was waning – perhaps a disillusioned populace had lost faith in the priests’ powers of divine intervention – and power was shifting to the secular authorities at the Huaca del Sol.
Finally, the deadly combination of political revolt, external military pressure, and the catastrophic effects of El Niño brought an end to the Moche civilisation. Rising up in its wake was the Chimú culture, which established its capital Chan Chan next to the Huacas de Moche, and pursued a policy of militaristic expansionism that eventually created the largest empire to be conquered by the Incas in the 15th century – when this new power reigned supreme.
Dr Santiago Uceda, National University of Trujillo, Director of the Huaca de la Luna Archaeological Project; and Jorge Meneses, head of archaeological research and Assistant to Dr Uceda.
With thanks to: Enrique Zavaleta, archaeologist responsible for the excavations of platforms 1 and 2, revealing the three tombs and grave goods; Diana Zagastizábal, Martín Gómez, and Lilian Villacorta. Huaca de la Luna Archaeological Project thanks Patronato Huacas del Valle de Moche, Universidad Nacional de Trujillo, and Fundación Backus for their contributions throughout more than 20 years of work.
All photos: Huaca de la Luna Archaeological Project, unless otherwise stated.