Aging in the ageless Moche portrait vessels

Aging in the ageless Moche portrait vessels

“Artistically, the Moche were the most remarkable civilization of the Americas. There’s no other civilization in the America’s that came up with the quality of sculpture and the recognizable portraits of individuals, the ability to create true portraiture … There are hundreds of portrait vessels that are so extraordinarily well made that you almost sense the individual personality of these people.”

— Christopher Donnan,  Professor Emeritus, Ph.D., UC Berkeley Archaeology

Among the 45,000 pieces in the collection of the Larco Museum in Lima are thousands of ceramic portraits crafted by the artisans of the Moche civilization (C.E. 100 to 800).

Amid these amazingly detailed works of art, one can discern not only individual features, but multiple portraits of the same subject at different stages of life.

That’s right, the same person getting older.

In his book Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru, renowned archaeologist Christopher B. Donnan concludes that these snapshot-like vessels depict high-ranking members of the elite in Moche society — from their youths within familial hierarchies, through later age as mature leaders.
The use of molds to manufacture these portraits has stirred debate about their function in Moche culture. Most scientists agree the portrait vessels were churned out in mass reproduction.

Their small, portable size and frequent utility as stirrup handled drinking vessels for chicha corn beer only stirs the imagination.

Recent excavations of residential areas in the Moche Valley
, adjacent to the Temples of the Moon and Sun, reveal that these vessels were not produced exclusively as funerary offerings for the Moche’s elite, but rather were common household items for domestic use.

Moche portrait vessels: age progression

That could suggest the portraits were distributed by Moche rulers to the common people to show who was in charge. Or perhaps they were traded between communities to depict elite figures — something akin to a celebrity endorsement on a can of beer?

Moche iconography: Personajes A, B, C & D

If you’re interested in a tour of the ancient Moche kingdoms of northern Peru, check out our Moche archaeological tour, a four-day, in-depth exploration of this amazing pre-Inca culture.

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Authored by: Rick Vecchio

Rick Vecchio, Fertur’s director of development and marketing, was educated at the New School for Social Research and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He worked for Pacifica Radio WBAI and as a daily reporter for newspapers in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts. Then in 1996, he decided it was time to realize a life-long dream of traveling to Peru. He never went back. While serving as Peru country manager for the South American Explorers from 1997-1999, he fell in love with Fertur's founder, Siduith Ferrer, and they married. Over the next six years, he worked as a correspondent for The Associated Press. Meanwhile, Siduith built the business, which he joined in January 2007. Now he designs custom educational and adventure tour packages for corporate and institutional clients, oversees Fertur’s Internet platform and occasionally leads special trips, always with an eye open for a good story to write about.

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