The Moche civilisation were an advanced agricultural and deeply superstitious people living on the northern coast of Peru, some 500 kilometres north of the capital, Lima. Only in the last decade are scientists discovering and analysing the recent haul of artefacts unearthed from unlooted tombs found near the city of Trujillo.
Previous finds had been heavily vandalised and plundered since the demise of the Moche empire around 800 AD. It was known from their enormous mud brick pyramids, that the Moche were advanced in ceramics and metallurgy, producing many beautifully ornate items that discoverers have labelled “museum quality”. The motifs found have raised more questions than answers surrounding the Moche’s obviously complex beliefs and rituals.
One of the most puzzling icons of the Moche is a recurring symbol featuring an intensely grotesque face represented in mosaics, friezes and ceramics. This fearsome character has become known as the “decapitator” after very recent excavations of the Huaca Cao Viejo at the site known as El Brujo (the Wizard). As the workers carefully dusted the intricate friezes, nightmarish images of brutal sacrifice and carnage emerged.
Featured in glorious colour interpretations by National Geographic magazine, author Peter Gwin let his imagination loose when describing how he imagined the scene in the plaza of “The Temple of Doom”;
For prisoners of the Moche, Huaca Cao Viejo’s elaborate art was likely among the last sights they saw. Naked, bleeding, and bound with nooses, they were led into the ceremonial plaza. Perhaps they heard the Pacific surf rolling onto the beach in the distance; perhaps all they heard was the pounding of their own hearts. Once inside they witnessed one of history’s most gruesome sacrificial rites. A Moche priest adorned in gold slit their throats one by one. Those in line who didn’t turn away or faint saw a priestess catch the blood in a golden goblet for the priest to drink. Scholars know about these ceremonies by studying Moche artwork, like the frieze of naked prisoners discovered on Huaca Cao Viejo’s plaza wall. Bones of sacrifice victims—incorporated into the frieze and buried under the plaza floor—show evidence of extreme torture before the grisly executions.
Frozen in clay—and inspiring dread—life-size depictions of naked men bound with ropes around their necks trudge across a wall of Huaca Cao Viejo’s ceremonial plaza. Scholars have found similar portrayals on Moche ceramics, but don’t know whether the captives were sacrificial victims chosen from among locals or prisoners taken during battle. Human bones showing signs of torture have been found incorporated into this frieze, a hint at the horrors that occurred here. More From National Geographic
Themes of amputation and decapitation feature largely throughout Mochan imagery and sculpture. Scholars continue to debate the significance of these representations. Were they ritual punishment, crude surgery or some other mysterious sacrificial rite? A great many bones have been unearthed with mutilated and truncated limbs, lending support to the theory that this brutal practice was widespread within the culture.
Without a written language, the only clues to the mystery of this long-vanished culture come from their vivid and disturbing art which can be seen (if you dare!) at many of the accessible sites in this archeologically rich region.