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Moche Iconography


The Moche culture (200–900 CE) is recognized as one of the first complex societies of the desert North Coast of Peru. The Moche created monumental ritual temples, expansive irrigation systems, and a prolific art tradition that found expression in various media, including painted and molded ceramic vessels. Although they did not practice a system of writing, Moche fineline art was rendered in a realistic style, offering insight into Pre-Columbian daily life, narrative myth, and ritual tradition.

An essential step in the study of Moche iconography has involved the rendering of the imagery wrapped around vessels into two-dimensional images or “rollout” drawings. Between 1968 and the early 2000s, Christopher B. Donnan photographed vessels with fineline painting from over two hundred museums and collections. While slowly rotating the vessel, Donnan photographed the entire surface from a set focal point. Donna McClelland then worked from the photographs to create rollout drawings of the iconography; these 752 drawings form a key part of the Moche Archive, which is held by the Dumbarton Oaks Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. The Moche Archive has formed the basis of a body of scholarly work that, in combination with the archaeological record, advances an understanding of the Moche world, including the rites, rituals, flora, fauna, foodways, and practices of this ancient Peruvian culture.

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Donnan and McClelland established categories for each of the drawings according to the content and recognized figures in the images. Our cataloging of the drawings maintains the original categorization, but also includes terms and identifications from other well-known publications. Tyler fellow Ari Caramanica (2016–2018) authored the descriptive text for this research portal, developed the thematic groupings, and cataloged the line drawings.

0151d~ b

Vessel Forms

Fineline painting is found on several types of vessel forms in the Moche world.

0168d~ b

Daily Life

Moche artists painted aspects of their daily lives and routines; several of these drawings demonstrate how even seemingly mundane activities could take on ritual meaning.

0087d~ b

The Natural World

Central to Moche art was the realistic rendering of the natural world, including plants, animals, and crops they would have encountered in their surroundings.


The Supernatural

The ability of human figures to move between the natural and cultural realms was an important organizing principle of the Moche world.


Narrative Themes

The Moche routinely portrayed several scenes involving specific figures and settings.

Preferred citation: “Moche Archive, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.”