The Moche Pyramids

Every now and again, I go and find something which is way out of my usual, just to enable me to keep a sense of perspective and reality and all that.  Ok, so maybe I’m a little lost on the reality mark, but I try anyway… In my wanderings I came across this, which I thought I would share.

“In the time of paganism of the Indians [it] was one of the most important sanctuaries that existed in that kingdom. People came in pilgrimage from many parts and to carry out their vows and promises and to pay homage and make offerings.” Antonio Vasquez de Espinoza 1628

From c.AD100 – 700 a group of people called the Moche held sway over a series of valleys along the northern desert coast of Peru. They built massive, terraced adobe (mud brick)  pyramids such as the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna which were the largest of their time in the Americas.  Collectively the pyramids are sometimes known as the Huaca de Moche, or the Moche pyramids.

Huaca del Sol (southeast)

Huaca del Sol (southeast)

Cerro Blanco and Huaca de la Luna

Cerro Blanco and Huaca de la Luna

Look good for their age, don’t they?  Well, you’ll just have to use your imagination ;p  Once embellished with murals and friezes depicting gods and rituals, some pyramids contained burials of Moche nobles. Skilled Moche craftspeople created stunning works of art in pottery, cloth and metal, much of it destined to accompany Moche Lords in the afterlife. Most Moche tombs have long since been looted, but intact elite tombs have been excavated at Sipan and their breathtaking range of burial goods and precious objects gives us some idea of what other Moche tombs might have once contained.

Sited at the political and ceremonial centre of the Moche valley, construction of the Huaca del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and the Huaca de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) began around AD100. Destruction brought by centuries of looting, flooding, invading sand dunes and intense but sporadic rainfall makes it hard to day to envisage the thriving community that resided there. At its height, some 10,000 people may have lived and produced a wide array of crafts in the plain between the two Huacas.  Thats 10,000 lives right there in that empty dustbowl.  A whole city was there and now isn’t.  Somewhere the equivalent of the population of Ashbourne, or twice the current size of Bakewell has been reduced to foundations and sand.

The Huaca del Sol:

Originally the Huaca del Sol measured some 345m in length, 160m wide and rose some 40m above the valley floor. Little remains of its original grandeur, because in 1602 Spanish treasure hunters diverted the waters of the Moche River, washing away most of the Huaca. The approach to the summit of the roughly cross-shaped and terraced Huaca may have been via a ramp on its largely destroyed north side. Much of the monument was once painted red, and perhaps other colours. The Huaca del Sol may have served as the residence of the Moche leadership, or had an administrative function, while the Huaca de la Luna, which it faced, may have had a religious role.

Archaeologists have identified eight stages in the construction of Huaca del Sol, with most of it completed before AD450. Its builders used some 143 million mould-made adobes (sun-dried mud bricks) arranged in tall column-like segments. Adobes in some segments share so called makers’ marks – curious markings ranging from hand and footprints, or circles and squiggles – impressed on each brick. More than 100 of these marks have been identified and they may have served to distinguish bricks made by different groups as their labour obligation to the Moche leadership.

The Huaca de la Luna

Built at the foot of Cerro Blanco, a low hill of granite banded with diorite, the Huaca de la Luna is an adobe structure measuring 290m from north to south and 210m from east to west and rising some 32m above the plain. Excavations have recorded at least six construction phases, spanning almost 600 years. Corridors and ramps connected the structure’s three platforms and four plazas, some of which were roofed. A huge looters’ pit made in colonial times destroyed more than two thirds of the uppermost platform.

Builders employed an estimated 50 million adobes in its construction, filling earlier plazas to create platforms for new constructions. This careful sealing of earlier structures was accompanied by the burials of priests who officiated over the rituals that took place at Huaca de la Luna. Murals and friezes decorated many courtyards, while some exterior walls were painted in white, red and yellow ochre. Many of the murals and friezes feature the Decapitator, a fanged half-human deity often shown holding a ceremonial crescent-shaped knife in one hand and a severed human head in the other, connected to ceremonies of human sacrifice. The Huaca de la Luna served as a setting for ceremonies of human sacrifice and also for burial rites that commemorated the sealing of earlier structures and heralded new building episodes. Evidence for human sacrifice comes from an enclosure at the back of the Huaca de la Luna, where excavators found the remains of more than 40 men, ranging from 15-30. Their scattered bones lie buried in thick layers of sediment, suggesting that they had been sacrificed during the heavy rains that accompanied a Niño event (the periodic reversal of the Pacific Ocean currents associated with adverse weather). The men were apparently beaten with maces and pushed from a stone outcrop in the enclosure. Some skeletons are splayed as if they had been tied to stakes, a few had their femurs forcibly torn from pelvis joints, and many of the bones have cut marks. Several victims were decapitated and had their lower jaws removed. This was perhaps not an ordinary Niño event, but a Mega Niño that only occurs about once every century. Some victims may have been sacrificed to the gods in a bid to stop the rains, while others were perhaps sacrificed after the rains had ended.

Sipán

In 1910 looters discovered a rich tomb at the foot of Huaca de la Luna that yielded several gold masks, suggesting that members of the elite or even its leaders were buried there. Unfortunately, looting at Huaca de la Luna has been so intense that it is impossible to determine what its adjacent tombs originally contained. But at Sipán, a Moche site some 60 miles north of Huaca de la Luna, excavations have uncovered a wonderful and complete record of the contents of the tombs of the Moche Lords. In a platform at the foot of Sipáns larger adobe mound several royal tombs have yielded a wealth of gold and silver ornaments. Many of the objects and their imagery link Spain with Moche sacrificial ceremonies. The evidence from both Huaca de la Luna and the Sipán artifacts shows that human sacrifice was a key ritual in Moche religion, and the ceremony or ritual connected to it.  Still, they did make rather wonderfully shiny things:

Moche lord mask
Moche lord mask
Moche mask
Moche mask
Moche gold mask
Moche gold mask
Moche earring
Moche earring

There’s also a recent burial discovery, reported in the National Geographic, complete with maces and tattoos 🙂

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