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Spectacles of Death

Posted On May 16, 2018 | 13:50 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
Luis Muro Ynoñán studies Moche funerary rituals at Huaca La Capilla

Luis Muro Ynoñán, a PhD candidate in archaeology at Stanford University, is a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. His recent research report, “Tracing the Moche Spectacles of Death: Performance, Corporeality, and Political Power in Ancient Peru,” examined Huaca La Capilla, a monumental structure in the Moche cemetery of San José de Moro in northern Peru.

Q&A with Luis Muro Ynoñán

Give a summary of how these rituals might have affected Moche sociopolitical organization in the Jequetepeque Valley, where San José de Moro is.

To understand the effects of what I called “the Moche funerary spectacles,” it’s important to consider the socio-political panorama of the Jequetepeque Valley in the Late Moche period, from about AD 650 to 850. The archaeological evidence suggests the valley was politically fragmented, with various Moche settlements locked in a permanent struggle for access to water and arable land. Paradoxically, though, these settlements sporadically established alliances for the celebration of large-scale rituals at communal ceremonial centers. San José de Moro, which is an elite cemetery located on the northern bank of the Jequetepeque Valley, appears to have been one of these centers.

The burials of Moche political and religious leaders in San José de Moro were true ritual spectacles, charged with dramatics and theatricality, and participation in these burials could have constituted the centripetal force that brought together communities from all around the Jequetepeque Valley. So these burials not only played an important role in the religious life of the ancient Moche, but also in their sociopolitical organization. These encounters became opportunities for the negotiation of new political alliances, new rules delineating the usage of resources, and new religious rights over cult centers, all of which was mediated by the revitalizing force of their leaders, now converted into powerful ancestors.


How has your research benefited from working with the Moche Archive at Dumbarton Oaks, specifically the fine-line drawings of iconography found on Moche vessels?

Working with the Moche Archive has been crucial to my research. Of the infinite collection of images in the archive, I´ve drawn particular attention to the scenes of narrative art, many of which depict incredibly abstract and fantastic actions—for example, the “Burial Theme.” My analysis has focused on examining the architectural spaces represented in these scenes, aiming to identify features that parallel real-world architecture. The similarities between the represented spaces in the art and the real spaces documented in my excavations in Huaca La Capilla are outstanding: painted platforms under gabled roofs, walls decorated with niches and windows, stairways, stages, and other features.

This is one of those strange and fascinating case studies where art meets archaeology, or vice versa. It wouldn’t be surprising that the patios and plazas of Huaca La Capilla inspired Moche artists to paint these representations on fine vessels. As a prehistoric archaeologist, I´ve been trained to deal with the material culture of past societies, but as a Moche scholar, I’ve had to push myself beyond material culture, toward the world of representation, visual arts, and even performative arts. This is precisely why investigating the ancient Moche is so fascinating.


Towards the end of your talk you brought up two different groups of bodies, and how they were treated differently. Talk more about that.

In my dissertation I argue that the ornamented spaces recently discovered in Huaca La Capilla were used to celebrate rites related to the preparation of elite corpses. These rites could have occurred at specific moments in a ritual cyclical calendar. I also argue that these rites involved the transformation of bodies, not only at a physical level but also, and essentially, at a metaphysical level. In this sense, the bodies were being prepared for their transition to the afterlife, and subsequent conversion into semi-divine entities—that is, ancestors. All this is achieved through the transformative and agential power of the huaca itself. Moche narrative art contains particularly suggestive scenes related to this process: corpses being adorned and placed in funerary coffins, and coffins being carried in processions.

But not all the bodies at the site seem to have been subjected to a privileged treatment. The bodies of eight women who appear to have been sacrificed were found in the architectural fills of Huaca La Capilla. The remains of ropes were registered around their necks and hands, suggesting they could have been strangled, and then, in at least two cases, decapitated. And that, obviously, marks a very different conception of the body. As opposed to the Christian-Western corporeal ontology, the ancient Moche seem to have conceptualized the body as a fractal, relational, and ever-transforming entity.