Moche murals revealed

Archaeologists working at the Moche site of Pañamarca, which is in western Peru, have uncovered intriguing depictions of a two-faced figure among the murals of its pillared hall.

The lower two-faced figure painted on the pillar at the Moche site of Pañamarca, holding a fan in the right hand, which appears to be moving.

This building, which archaeologists believe may have been the most important at the site, was partially excavated in 2010, and has more recently been investigated by the Paisajes Arqueológicos de Pañamarca (‘archaeological landscapes of Pañamarca’) project, led by Jessica Ortiz Zevallos, Lisa Trever (Columbia University), and Michele Koons (Denver Museum of Nature & Science). The building contained up to six pillars, covered in mud plaster and polychrome murals. It was on one of these pillars that, during the 2022 excavation season, the international team revealed a mural with two figures of a two-faced man, one above the other.

Pedro Neciosup Gómez’s pencil and watercolour illustration of the pillar.

Pañamarca is thought to have been built between AD 550 and 800. It sits on a rocky outcrop in the lower Nepeña valley, part of the southern Moche world. And yet its murals present a fascinating departure from the norms of Moche art. Jessica Ortiz Zevallos explained, ‘The pictorial representations of Pañamarca are totally unusual in relation to what we know as Moche art. Moche art is characterised by depicting their daily and cosmological life in different types of support: mainly in ceramics. However, in Pañamarca something very particular happens: painted architecture is the artistic focus. Almost all the architectural elements were covered with mural paintings, with scenes never seen before in the Moche iconographic repertoire.’

The figure at the top of the pillar holds an object resembling a fan with red and yellow feathers in his left hand and, in his right, a goblet from which four hummingbirds feed. The one beneath has the same fan, this time in his right hand and seemingly in motion, and a stick in his left. Both wear golden headdresses. We could be seeing Moche artists experimenting with capturing movement and depicting the same person at different moments.

Ortiz notes that there is a similarity with the Aya uma (or Diablo Huma) from the Ecuadorian highlands, as suggested by one of her North American colleagues. Aya uma is linked to ritual dances. ‘We might speculate, then, that the character with two faces in movement in the mural of Pañamarca is performing a type of dance. This has led us to undertake a new branch of research in ethnohistory and exhaustive reading of colonial-era chronicles.’

As the two faces look in opposite directions, they could be linked to the duality of time, the past and the future, in Andean ideology.

So far only about 15% of the building has been excavated, but the team have found the remains of green feathers from tropical birds, possibly parrots, which may once have been worn in the clothing of high-status figures. Textile fragments have also been recovered. These were made using materials and techniques from the Peruvian highlands, pointing to links between this region and the coastal valley.

Images: Lisa Trever; Pedro Neciosup Gómez