National Geographic
October 1988, pp. 551-55

Iconography of the Moche: Unraveling the Mystery of the Warrior-Priest

by Christopher B. Donnan
As the Sipan tomb was being excavated and its contents cataloged, one question kept recurring to all who participated:
"Who was this person?"

Analysis of the bones indicated an adult male about 35 years of age.  The elaborate tomb, with its unusual plank coffin,
accompanying male and female burials, and the quantity and quality of grave goods, attested to an individual of high status--a member of the nobility.  But a more precise identification of this noble and the role he played in Moche society was possible through a careful study of Moche art.
The Moche civilization flourished on the north coast of Peru between A.D. 100 and 700.  The Moche people had no writing system, but they left a vivid artistic record in beautiful ceramic vessels that were modeled with three-dimensional sculpture or painted with fine-line drawings.  These illustrate their architecture, implements, supernatural beings, elaborate ceremonies, and
activities such as hunting, weaving, and combat.

During the past 20 years we have developed a major photographic archive of Moche art at the University of California,
Los Angeles.  This archive, containing more than 125,000 photographs from museums and private collections throughout the
world, serves as an important resource for the study of Moche culture. The collection also provides tantalizing clues about the
identity of the noble buried in the tomb at Sipan.

As the tomb was being excavated, photographs of the objects were sent to UCLA for comparative study.  Some tomb objects resemble in size and form those worn by the seated figure depicted in ceramic vessels.  Such vessels demonstrate not only how the tomb objects were worn, but also which objects would have been appropriately worn together.

If we assume that the objects in the plank coffin were worn and used by the man during his lifetime, they indicate strongly
that he was a warrior.  Among them is the exquisite pair of gold-and-turquoise ear ornaments with standing figures.  The central
figure is a warrior holding a typical Moche war club.  His crescent-shaped headdress ornament, nose ornament, and bells that
hang from his belt are identical with objects found in the coffin, indicating that they were worn as part of a warrior's costume.

The two large backflaps found in the tomb, one of gold and the other of copper, further support the warrior role.  In Moche art
these are worn only by warriors, who often have one hanging from the back of the belt.  Similarly the atlatl darts in the lower part of the coffin are identical with those portrayed in scenes of Moche combat.  So too are the club and shield, represented by the miniature copper version found near the darts.

One other object in the tomb underscores the warrior connection--the gold rattle with copper handle that was grasped in
the noble's right hand.  The top and sides of the rattle chamber depict an elaborately dressed warrior holding a crouching figure by the hair while hitting him with his war club.

The tomb's multiple sets of combat objects, their exquisite craftsmanship, and the fact that they are made of gold and silver
indicate that this warrior was of unusually high status and possessed special qualities.  To understand why, it is necessary to
understand the role of warriors and combat in Moche society.

Moche art provides numerous depictions of military equipment, warriors, and warrior activity.  Some scenes show warriors parading as though in preparation for war.  Others depict combat: warriors hurling slingstones and atlatl darts at the enemy from a distance and using war clubs at close range.

The artistic depictions show that a primary purpose of Moche warfare was to capture enemy warriors.  Once they were taken
prisoner, their weapons and clothing were removed and hung from the war clubs of their captors.  With ropes around their necks, the prisoners were paraded, formally presented in courtly scenes, and ultimately sacrificed.

The killing of captured warriors occurred at a special ceremony in which their throats were cut and their blood presented
in tall goblets to elegantly dressed individuals--an event frequently depicted by Moche artists.  The ceremony involved a
specific cast of participants, recognizable by characteristic poses and garments.

One Moche ceramic bottle bears a highly detailed depiction of the sacrifice ceremony, painted in fine-line drawing around its

In the lower right of this scene are two captured warriors sitting cross-legged, their hands tied and their throats being cut
by figures standing beside them.  In the upper part of the scene a warrior-priest receives a tall goblet from a bird warrior.

The warrior-priest, with rays emanating from his head and shoulders, is the primary figure at the sacrifice ceremony.  He is
normally accompanied by a spotted dog.  In addition to his conical helmet, he always wears a crescent-shaped headdress ornament, large circular ear ornaments, large bracelets, and a warrior backflap, and is frequently shown wearing a crescent-shaped nose ornament. Since each of these items was found in the tomb, could it be that the noble was actually the warrior-priest we see participating in the sacrifice ceremony?

One more piece of evidence seems to substantiate this conclusion.  Beneath the warrior-priest in the scene is his litter,
with rays projecting from the backrest.  A rattle like the one found in the tomb lies horizontally above the front of the litter,
with its chamber on the left and handle on the right.  This type of rattle is seldom depicted in Moche art, but existing examples
indicate it was part of the ritual paraphernalia used at the sacrifice ceremony.

The fact that the rattle is tied to the litter in the scene below indicates that it is the property of the warrior-priest.
When we consider that the man in the tomb was buried holding one of these rattles in his right hand, his identification as the warrior-priest seems certain.

This identification is particularly interesting since the royal tomb that was looted at Sipan in February 1987 contained many
objects that are nearly identical with those found in the excavated tomb. These include large beaded bracelets, circular ear
ornaments, a gold knife called a tumi, a crescent-shaped headdress ornament, and gold and silver peanut beads.

The looted tomb also contained crescent-shaped bells and a warrior backflap, all decorated with scenes of a beheading we call the decapitator motif.  Moreover, it contained a gold rattle with silver handle that is nearly identical with the rattle in the
excavated tomb.

This strongly suggests that the looted tomb also contained a noble who enacted the role of a warrior-priest at the sacrifice
ceremony.  Could it be that Sipan was the designated burial place for these priests?  As additional tombs are excavated in the burial platform, this question may be answered.

The royal tombs at Sipan have provided an extraordinary opportunity to correlate ancient artifacts with what is depicted in
Moche art.  Perhaps the greatest treasure in these tombs is the priceless information they contain--information that is helping to
reconstruct the ancient civilization of Moche.