The Moche or Mochica (also known, erroneously, as the Early or proto-Chimú) Culture was the dominant power in a series of valleys along the northern desert coast of Peru from approximately AD 0-800 (although there are many discrepancies as to precise dates). An early Intermediate Period (city-state based) society derived from the earlier Salinar (c. 200-50 BC) and Gallinazo (c. 50 BC-AD 300) cultures, their success in expanding their territories was due to their heavily stratified class system and militaristic culture. Subdued regions were linked to the central government by a well-developed network of roads and paths, with fortified garrisons installed to maintain authoritative rule. Situated at the political and ceremonial hub of the Moche Valley (near modern Trujillo), the capital (also named Moche, as it was a city-state) may have been home to a population of around 10,000, although it is now difficult to envisage or prove such a figure as centuries of looting, cultural suppression, flooding, desertification and sporadic (albeit extremely intense) rainfall have, understandably, taken their toll.
Moche craftspeople were highly skilled artisans and produced some rather striking artefacts (including pottery, cloth and metal objects of gold and silver, designed to accompany Moche nobles in the afterlife). Moche pottery was consistent with much of that produced in Peru at the time, as they utilised stirrup-spouted vessels (closed globular jars, featuring both a hollow loop of clay attached to both ends of the body and a vertically-inclined tubular spout). The term ‘Mochica’ (which refers to a dialect spoken in the region at the time of the culture’s rise) has been used interchangeably with ‘Moche’, although it is considered to be a less accurate term. There was no written language, so the surviving remnants of these handicrafts have been of pivotal import in revealing the origins and nature of the civilisation; it is of particular note that (in such a militaristic society) much of the pottery displayed images of daily village life, although the ‘low-born’ were accorded little regard (see below). Sexual activities were realistically depicted (in a number of rather imaginative ways, one might add), as were musical instruments, tools and many surgical operations; some have taken this to mean that pottery was itself an important communication medium.
The identity of the Moche ruler is still a subject of controversy, although it is likely that the graves of Sipán (detailed later) will reveal some information to this end. Indeed, the wealth and opulence of the funerary goods may indicate that the rulers themselves were interred here; the famed ‘Lord of Sipán’ could be one such individual. Further down the strata, priests and warriors were considered to be of far greater importance than any other caste save royalty and pots display the fact that mutilation and death were the punishment for those who refused to submit to their authority. They lived closer to the central authority than craftspeople or farmers and were accorded great honours. Priests are often shown being carried about in litters, bedecked with jewels. The craftspeople were still further down and the lowest classes were - despite the necessity of their role - the fishermen and farmers. One would be vindicated in describing the Moche culture as a militant theocracy, and one which appears to be distinctly patriarchal in nature.
During they heyday of the Moche, many architectural projects were undertaken. Highly advanced in construction and irrigation, they made many buildings of adobe brick and utilised aqueducts to assist farming. Also of significance is the fact that an indeterminate (but presumedly large) number of edifices were constructed, with the assistance of draft labour. The most notable of these were large, terraced adobe pyramids (a structural styling directly derived from previous cultures) such as the Huaca del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and Huaca de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), which were - at the time - the largest structures of their kind in the Americas and monuments of great cultural significance (as recorded by Antonio Vasquez de Espinoza in 1628):
In the time of the paganism of the Indians [the pyramids were] 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.
The Huaca del Sol, completed c. 450 AD, originally measured 345 metres (1130 feet) in length, 160 metres (525 feet) in width and rose 40 metres (130 feet) above the valley floor, containing some 143 million sun-dried mud bricks. This is no longer the case, though, as Spanish treasure-seekers diverted the waters of the Moche River and washed away most of the Huaca in 1602. Entry to the pyramid was probably gained via a ramp on the northern side (perhaps the worst damaged) and the monument was, at least predominantly, originally painted red. It is thought to have been the administrative centre, while the Huaca de la Luna (which it faced) had greater religious connotations. The latter pyramid measured 290 metres (950 feet) from north to south, 210 metres (690 feet) from east to west and stood 32 metres (105 feet) in height, containing a total of 50 million bricks. Interestingly, it took almost 600 years to fully construct, as its structure was markedly more intricate and featured more ornamentation (including many images of ‘the Decapitator’, a nightmarish sacrificial deity; rather characteristic of Moche religion in general).
On that note, evidence for human sacrifice is abundant and, in many cases, rather unnerving (although it does not appear to be a normal practice, but rather one undertaken in moments of extreme duress). Excavators uncovered an enclosure in the back of the Huaca de la Luna which contained the bodies of more than 42 men of ages 15 to 30. Many of the bodies were brutally damaged, with marks indicating that the men were beaten with maces (or similar blunt weapons) and pushed from a stone outcrop in the enclosure. Other bodies are splayed as though they had been tied to stakes, while others still show that bones (including the femurs and lower jaws) were forcibly removed; many have cut marks. It is interesting to note that each was buried in a thick layer of sediment, suggesting that they were sacrificed during a Niño event of particular ferocity - one which probably occurred once per century, at most. It has been concluded that the sacrifices were undertaken in order to halt the rains. This emphasises the importance of religion to the mindset of the Moche.
Frequently decorated with murals, friezes and the like (depicting deific entities and religious rituals), other pyramids (far less ostentatiously proportioned than the Huacas) were used to inter Moche nobles and while most of the richest sites - especially those nearest the central valley - have long since been pillaged (as the first modern discoveries were believed to have been made by looters in 1910), tombs have been found intact at Sipán (which is considered by many to be a microcosmic example of burials in general). The site of Sipán is situated in the Lambayeque Valley on the northern coast. Initially discovered by yet more looters in 1987 (which naturally produced some tense confrontations with the more historically-minded), it was subsequently excavated by Walter Alva and quickly declared to be a richer site than any previously discovered in the Americas. The number of tombs is as yet unknown, but it has been confirmed that all such interments were of high-status (or wealthy) individuals, as many were buried with elaborate funerary goods. Additionally, most of the deceased were garbed in ritual regalia (indicating that they either imitated the figures displayed at the Huacas, or that they were the subjects depicted), further suggesting a powerful religious undercurrent to the society as a whole. Some even hypothesise that those buried at Sipán were in some way connected with the sacrifice scenes displayed in the central valley. The site is, fortunately, open to public perusal.
The downfall of the Moche culture coincided with the rise of the Chimú (c. 800 AD). In much the same way as the concept of the Greek polis became obsolescent, the Moche were unable to adapt and were absorbed.
Sources:Archaeology: the Definitive Guide, various authors.
The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: the Ancient Monuments and How They Were Built, Thames and Hudson.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, Timothy Darvill.
http://www.travelvantage.com/per_moch.html (‘Peru - Moche Culture’)
http://reference.allrefer.com/encyclopedia/M/Moche.html (‘AllRefer Encyclopaedia - Moche (South American Indigenous Peoples’)
http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ranch/6426/10moche.html (‘Moche Culture’)
http://www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/moche.htm (‘The Moche’)