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Dumbarton Oaks Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology
The Burial Theme in Moche Iconography
Christopher B. Donnan, Donna McClelland

The Moche, who flourished on the North Coast of Peru between 100 BCE and 700 CE, produced one of the most remarkable art styles of Pre-Columbian America. Although they had no writing system, they left a vivid artistic record of their activities and their environment. Their art illustrates their clothing, architecture, implements, supernatural beings, and a multitude of activities such as warfare, ceremony, and hunting. Although Moche art gives the impression of having an almost infinite variety of subject matter, an analysis of a large sample of the existing corpus has suggested that it is limited to the representation of a small number of specific events, or activities, that are referred to as themes. One of the most provocative of these themes has recently been identified on the basis of an extremely complex and detailed scene, painted on the chambers of six different ceramic bottles. Since the scene painted on each of the bottles depicts a burial, we refer to it as the Burial Theme. The six examples of the Burial Theme are among the most complex representations ever produced by Moche artists. Analysis of these representations provides a number of important insights into the nature of Moche iconography, the development of Moche artistic canons, and various aspects of Moche ritual. Moreover, it generates some rather profound implications about the potential of utilizing ethnohistoric documents to reconstruct the Pre-Columbian past.