The Masks of the Moche

January 22nd, 2010 Leave a comment Go to 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. 

The Moche seem to be obsessed with certain animal imagery and covered whole tiers of their pyramids with repetitive freezes of octopuses or catfish designs.  Bourget was particularly interesting when he talked about the reasons for this.  He suggested that certain animals were associated with the El Niño phenomenon that was so critical to the Moche, and often caused major climatic disruption, then as now. 

Every six or seven years , a change in Pacific wind-directions causes a build up of much warmer water along Peru’s coast:  initially it is the fishing which suffers;  then the whole climate gets thrown into reverse, with flooding in the deserts and drought in the mountains.  The flooding in the deserts not only causes rivers to burst their banks, but brings a plague of mosquitoes and disease in its wake. 

The phenomenon is now called El Niño (the child)  because it often occurs around Christmas and the infant Jesus is called El Niño Santo. Some El Niños are far worse than others.  The El Niño of 1997-98 created Peru’s second largest lake and caused vicious outbreaks of malaria.  Across the Pacific,  Indonesia and Malaysia were starved of rain and experienced terrible forest fires;  the knock on effects were felt as far away as Europe and Madagascar.   Thousands of people were killed and over 30 billion dollars of damage to property was caused. 

At times of El Niño it seems that octopuses multiply and sea lions disappear, while stingrays, sharks and a certain sort of swimming crab arrive on the coast:  all heavily featured in Moche Art.  They covered themselves with images of these animals, perhaps in some way to ward off such catastrophe – with masks, with elaborate textiles and even, as we know from the discovery of a more conserved body at a place called Cao Viejo, with all-over body tattoos. 

Hardly surprising that the Moche should have paid such attention to the phenomena attending an El Niño disruption, given the huge impact it had on their culture;   indeed it is thought that their civilisation ultimately came to an end in around 700 AD because of climatic change, rather than from the aggression of a competing outside force.  Their courage and creativity displayed in the face of adverse weather conditions was often admirable – a courage that we may similarly have to dig deep to find ourselves as our own climate worsens.



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