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Uncovering the Moche
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By Christopher B. DonnanPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett

Extravagant grave goods add to the mystery of this ancient people of Peru.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The large copper bowl lay within my grasp, undisturbed for 1,500 years since it had been placed upside down over the dead man’s face. Our team had worked more than a month to reach this point in the excavation of one of the richest and most intriguing tombs ever found in Peru—the tomb of a Moche elite.

The Moche inhabited a series of river valleys along the arid coastal plain of northern Peru from about A.D. 100 to 800. Through farming and fishing, they supported a dense population and highly stratified society that constructed irrigation canals, pyramids, palaces, and temples. Although they had no writing system, the Moche left a vivid artistic record of their activities in beautiful ceramic vessels, elaborately woven textiles, colorful murals, and wondrous objects of gold, silver, and copper.

Finding undisturbed Moche tombs is rare in an area that has been looted for more than four centuries, yet from 1997 to 1999 our team of U.S. and Peruvian researchers discovered three extraordinary tombs at Dos Cabezas, an ancient settlement in the lower Jequetepeque Valley. Outside each burial chamber was a miniature tomb containing a small copper statue meant to represent the tomb’s principal occupant. Each tomb also contained a remarkably tall adult male who would have been a giant among his peers.

Gently lifting the copper bowl, I expected to see a skeletonized face. But
instead, looking up at me with inlaid eyes, was an exquisite gold-and-copper
funerary mask. We were all astonished and knew then how important these
tombs could be to unraveling the mystery of the Moche.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

news update
Were the Moche giants? National Geographic News sizes up the story.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Much of what is known about the Moche has been deciphered from complex illustrations known as fineline paintings that appear on thousands of ceramic vessels. Although nearly half the iconography in these drawings relates to warriors and warrior activities, it does not show the Moche waging war for conquest. Nowhere in Moche art are warriors shown attacking a fortified settlement. Nowhere are warriors shown capturing, killing, or mistreating noncombatants. There is no iconography showing groups of warriors working in a coordinated fashion against another group—what we would think of as army against army.

What these drawings do show appears to be highly stylized ceremonial combat in which warriors fought one-on-one for the purpose of producing a few vanquished prisoners. These unfortunates were needed to fill a central role in the sacrifice ceremony that followed battle. Drawing after drawing shows how the prisoners were first stripped of clothing and battle equipment and then, naked and leashed around the neck with a rope, brought back to a ceremonial center. There the prisoners’ throats were cut, their blood consumed by the ceremony participants, and finally their bodies dismembered. Although the drawings have shown archaeologists how these things were done, the key question—why—is still unanswered.

—Patricia B. Kellogg

El Brujo Archaeological Site
“Virtual Archaeology” at the El Brujo site in Peru, where archaeologists and computer scientists are working together to reconstruct a Moche painted ceiling.

“The Burial Theme in Moche Iconography”
An electronic text file of a paper by Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland, “The Burial Theme in Moche Iconography.” Included is an introduction by the director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. The Pre-Columbian Studies website at www.doaks.org/Pre-Columbian.html contains links to numerous Web sources.

Las Huacas del Sol y de la Luna Archaeological Site
This site highlights work being done at Las Huacas del Sol y de la Luna in Peru’s Moche River Valley and offers an in-depth look at Moche culture and history. Great graphics.

National Marfan Foundation
The website of the National Marfan Foundation offers information on the disease, contacts for support groups, news about Marfan research, and a variety of Web links.


Alva, Walter and Christopher B. Donnan. Royal Tombs of Sipán. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1993.

Donnan, Christopher B. Moche Art of Peru: Pre-Columbian Symbolic Communication. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1978.

Donnan, Christopher B. and Donna McClelland. Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999.

Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and their Ancestors. Thames and Hudson, 1992.


Fagan, Brian. Into the Unknown: Solving Ancient Mysteries. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Alva, Walter. “New Tomb of Royal Splendor,” National Geographic (June 1990), 2-15.

Donnan, Christopher B. “Masterworks of Art Reveal a Remarkable Pre-Inca World,” National Geographic (June 1990), 17-33.

Long, Michael E. “Enduring Echoes of Peru’s Past,” National Geographic (June 1990), 34-49.

Alva, Walter. “Discovering the New World’s Richest Unlooted Tomb,” National Geographic (October 1988), 510-548.

Donnan, Christopher B. “Iconography of the Moche: Unraveling the Mystery of the Warrior-Priest,” National Geographic (October 1988), 551-555.

Strong, William Duncan. “Finding the Tomb of a Warrior-God,” National Geographic (April 1947), 453-482.


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