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The Masks of the Moche

January 22nd, 2010 No comments

Only a few weeks after hearing about the exciting excavations in Mexico, another archaeologist  has been in town to talk about equally exciting work that has been happening in Peru. 

Steve Bourget is a leading expert on the Moche, the ancient Peruvian civilisation who perhaps left the most splendid artefacts behind  – fabulous masks of turquoise and gilded copper, and ceramics of extraordinary variety, depicting pre-Columbian life in all its forms including, most famously, the erotic:  many of their pots are still kept in drawers marked for-the-over -18 only. 

He was describing his recent work at a site called Huaca el Pueblo, where they uncovered a tomb dating from around 300 to 500 AD.  Inside were the remains of four individuals, two men and two women, all in their twenties at the time of death.  Working at frantic speed over the space of five weeks to beat the threat from both the humidity and local looters, his team of archaeologists injected alcohol under the mask of ‘the highest status individual’ – who Bourget has called ‘the Lord of Ucupe’ – to loosen it up for removal from his face in the normal way.  They then used thin slivers of bamboo to lift it, only to discover another mask underneath, like a Russian doll. 

And what masks!  Made from large sheets of gilded copper and fashioned with elaborate Moche iconography:  octopus tentacles, owl-heads and, around one woman’s headdress, a ring of minute dancers. 

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