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(il)literate engagement: a case study of a Moche strombus galeatus stirrup-spout vessel from the Museo Larco collection.


"... naturalism is always a possibility if there is a cultural need and desire for it." (2)--Esther Pasztory

The Moche were a coastal society located in northern Peru dating from about 100 to about 800 AD. (3) Despite the thousands of years that separate the execution of their ceramic craft from today's museumgoer, the superb stylistic naturalism embodied by Moche modeled vessels permits immediate accessibility for the modern viewing audience. In an enormous corpus of works that range from smiling portrait heads to accurate portrayals of specific animal species, Moche modeled images are easy to identify with little room for misunderstanding what is represented. The stirrup spout vessel of a conch shell from the Museo Larco collection serves as an archetypal example (Figs, 1a-1d). It is an elegant depiction of the shell of the strombus galeatus, a large Eastern Pacific sea snail found in the warm coastal waters of Ecuador. The vessel chamber is shaped entirely in the form of a cream slip strombus shell with the most inflated portion of the body resting on a modest ring base painted in a rusty brown. Though the ring base is sculpturally attached to the vessel chamber, its placement visually suggests the shell is organically balanced with the rounded weight of its body dipping into the open space the ring would provide. In the upper part of the chamber the outer lip of the shell sharply flares up at about a forty-five degree angle. The thickness of the ceramic clay slab that composes the lip accurately mimics the natural thickness of the strombus. Meanwhile, the scalloped surface of the lip travels down the body of the shell to depict rhythmically undulating ridges in the form of modeled incisions that abruptly stop in the top center of the vessel chamber. (4) The smooth underside of the lip sweeps down to meet the body of the shell, closing the space where the shell aperture would normally be located. This is a practical adjustment that closes the chamber of the vessel. The naturalism of the strombus vessel continues through the smooth surface of the body, which reveals subtle contours that create gentle swells and imperfections across the sides where similar variation can be found in nature. Balance is maintained in the sculpture where the large whorled spire tilts slightly higher than the opposite end that terminates in a narrower, more rounded tip without a scroll. Finally, the rusty brown stirrup spout organically emerges from the body and opposite, ridged lip of the shell to complete the Moche vessel and artistically balance its earthy slip pigmentation.

In consideration of such an elegant and masterful presentation of Moche naturalism in the Larco shell vessel, this study begins by questioning why the Moche employed such a precise naturalistic style and why for a conch shell. The beautifully and artistically composed representational elements found in the Moche modeled ceramic corpus and depicted in the Larco example lull the modern audience into a comfortable sense of understanding. The naturalistic accuracy with which the Moche craftsman modeled the shell vessel might lead to the conclusion that his or her absolute intentions were limited to creating a realistic presentation of appearances. In fart, archaeological material uncovered at Moche sites has helped confirm the level of realism, suggesting that everything depicted is an accurate representation of objects and events from the period. (5) Rebecca Stone warns, however, that what seems to be merely a representation of daily life is actually "deeply symbolic." (6) In other words, though realistic presentation was indeed the objective, the naturalism contributes to a meaning and value of the object that extends beyond the visible.

This analysis uses the Larco shell vessel, an object until now yet to be examined in the scholarship, as a case study for others that are stylistically and iconographically similar. While they are attributed to the Moche, no shell vessel in any collection has a specific date or site, leaving extremely limited archaeological data. (7) The current investigation thus takes an art historical approach that focuses on specific artistic traits of the object and combines the theories and approaches set forth primarily by Margaret Jackson, Garth Bawden, Christopher Donnan, Jeffery Quilter, and Luis Jaime Castillo. (8) With the perspectives on the communicative capability of Moche portable arts, the structural paradox, and themeology formulated by these scholars in consideration, this study aims to uncover the purpose of the naturalistic style for the Moche and the symbolism of the strombus galeatus.

As discussed above, the heightened naturalism of the Larco vessel offers an elevated degree of accessibility that draws any viewer into the image. However, the meaning of the image remains unclear due to the lack of iconographic context inherent in stand-alone icons. Considering the fundamental communicative function of Moche iconography and the fact that no Moche figures are simply decorative or created to depict "realism," this vessel likely carries symbolic relevance acting as a metonym or "pictorial abbreviation" for a larger theme. (9) With a wide array of themes that depict various versions of the strombus galeatus shell, the vessel cannot be fully understood or "read" without outside knowledge of the significance of the shell in Moche ideology and the specific theme for which it acts as an index. This necessity of outside knowledge is supported by Margaret Jackson's argument that there was a strong likelihood that some degree of oral communication was required to inform the Moche graphic system. (10) In terms of semiotics, while the naturalistic style allowed for a more unified, holistic identification of the signifier, only a select audience in a more individualized capacity would understand the signified.

As has been widely noted by previous scholars, Moche society was heterogeneous and highly stratified. Garth Bawden argues that art worked in this stratified system as a structure of material symbols that played active roles in the Moche political process. This political process, he explains, was one in which elite individuals mediated the paradox between exclusive power and the holistic Andean social structure. (11) I propose, therefore, that the simultaneity of clarity and obscurity embodied by the naturalistic depiction of the shell allowed for a social engagement with the vessel that subtly distinguished the literate from the illiterate. Within such a hierarchical society, the elite likely occupied the position of the former as those who possessed exclusive, esoteric knowledge. Thus the style of the strombus galeatus stirrup-spout vessel took on a socio-religious role. It participated in a paradoxical visual system that promoted equality and social balance through the immediate accessibility of the icon while also reinforcing the elite position in the hierarchical society as a strata composed of select individuals privileged with the knowledge of the vessel's complete meaning. In the end, though the precision of the naturalism ensured Moche art's accessibility, it did not necessarily signal egalitarianism. (12) As Pre-Columbian art historian Esther Pasztory suggests, the use of naturalism was the result of both a cultural need and desire for the style. For the Moche, that need was on behalf of the ruling elite. In what follows, this study will illustrate the socio-religious relevance of ceramic style for the Moche elite and identify the themes for which the Larco shell vessel could have acted as a signifier.

Moche Art and Communication

The Larco vessel was used in a very in a specific Moche viewing experience. Both viewers and art objects engaged in a visual system that functioned to communicate ideas. In her 2008 book Moche Art and Visual Culture, Margaret Jackson explores the communicative nature of Moche art by examining its linguistic potential. In her investigation of the standardization of signs through mold technology, semiotic analogies to the Muchic language, and the syntax of signs and pictorial elements, Jackson ultimately illustrates that, while not a reiteration of spoken language, the Moche graphic system "was capable of communicating relatively specific information." (13) She thus aligns the Moche pictorial scheme with Gary Urton's concept of writing defined as "the communication of specific ideas in a highly conventionalized, standardized manner by means of permanent, visible signs." (14) Jackson establishes that Moche iconography was governed by an internal logic she describes as semasiographic in which notational forms might not directly reflect speech, but are capable of representing ideas directly and can be understood outside of language, "once one understands the concepts that drive and order them." (15) In the case of the Moche, Christopher Donnan identified these "concepts" as specific "themes," the most widely discussed of which is the Presentation Theme. (16) As the Jackson quotation suggests, inherent to the semasiographic system is understanding. An informed viewer that is familiar with the themes and overarching narrative structures to which the notational forms refer is necessary for successful and complete communication. (17) In other words, although the notations of the Moche graphic system are not alphabetically defined, the readability of Moche art and the success of its communication are highly dependent upon the literacy of the reader/viewer.

No matter the visual system, literacy is concerned with looking and decoding. (18) The crucial role of the viewer in the decoding process is underscored by the fact that Moche themes are portrayed to varying degrees of completeness. As Luis Jaime Castillo explains, the amount of variation between portrayals of a single theme on different ceramics makes it nearly impossible to know when a theme is complete. (19) It is thus best to regard themes in terms of degrees of elaboration. (20) Scholars have used a themeological approach as an interpretive tool to identify primary and secondary characters in attempts to distinguish different themes throughout Moche iconography. (21) In the case of the Presentation Theme, for example, Christopher Donnan uses his identification of major and minor symbolic elements and figures in a fineline depiction of the scene to reconstruct what the complete depiction might have been of a mural with similar characters at Panamarca. (22) The themeological approach is essential for interacting with the Moche semasiographic system. The more familiar a viewer was with the many symbolic elements and figures of a certain theme, the more capable that viewer was of understanding the idea or concept presented. Familiarity with these symbolic elements, or texts, created textual communities in which the text was a foundation for a "common cultural matrix." (23) These communities learned, read, and interpreted texts together. This in turn created a foundation upon which to unite and divide groups of people.




Jackson states that the standardization and consistency of Moche artistic canons over time allowed for thematic cohesion and "the recognition of thematic contexts and specific icons." (24) While this may be true, recognizing a theme or icon does not imply understanding it. The viewer would need to not only be familiar with, but knowledgeable of an entire thematic system to achieve understanding. The fragmentary nature of ceramic vessels as portable arts would have innately prevented such a holistic, consolidated comprehension of the Moche iconographic corpus. Knowledge of the entire thematic system would have likely been acquired elsewhere. Therefore, the general audience might be familiar with the specific icons that composed certain themes aided by the consistent style used to portray them, as well as the potentially high volume of ceramics that passed through their lives, but this did not guarantee the vessel's successful communication of ideas. Instead, outside knowledge of the complete theme was required of the viewer, or community of viewers, for complete communication. This is especially germane for stand-alone icons such as the Larco shell vessel. The theme to which the shell vessel refers has been reduced to a single modeled element, the strombus galeatus. The vessel serves as an abbreviation or "abstract iconic signifier" of that unidentified theme and thus has a more passive communication in which effort is required of the viewer to construct meaning. (25) As will be demonstrated in the next section of this paper, the many themes in which the strombus galeatus shell appears means that the viewer would have been required to know of and decipher all of these themes for which the vessel acted as a specific index.

Although my focus on style and literacy refers specifically to the naturalistic approach to three-dimensional, modeled vessels in the Moche corpus, it is worth noting that the tension between legibility and illegibility is reiterated in fineline drawings on vessels. In the case of fineline depictions, the obscurity of meaning is compounded by the relatively reduced visual readability of the image. While they provide more information through a combination of many visual elements and characters, only Donna McClelland's skilled rollout drawings offer the near absolute clarity by which to read them in a flattened two-dimensional image. To our knowledge, such rollout drawings did not exist except in the limited--both in quantity and physical accessibility--form of murals. On a vessel, the complete scheme of the two-dimensional drawing is often complicated when it disappears on the narrower upper and lower regions as the spherical shape of the vessel chamber sharply slopes inward toward the handle and base. In addition, the fact that the drawings lack direct frontality by encircling the entire chamber forces the viewer to physically engage with the vessel by turning it to see the entire image. Physically engaging with the vessel, however, does not guarantee a complete understanding of every scene because they are frequently without a clear beginning and ending point, which makes knowing where an image begins and where it ends, if such a narrative reading is intended, very difficult. Again, outside knowledge would be required. In short, as will be demonstrated in the following section, the tension between clarity and obscurity is upheld throughout the Moche visual arts, which would have made relying on fineline drawings, even with their additional characters and symbolic elements, of limited use in determining meaning.

Moche Themes and the Larco Shell Vessel

Found in intertidal tropical waters close to the shore, the strombus galeatus is featured prominently in Pre-Columbian art and iconography across many different cultures. (26) While archaeological remains and iconography reveal that the shell was present in ancient Peru, including Moche sites, it is not found in nature south of Ecuador's Gulf of Guayaquil. (27) The prized shell was therefore traded from Ecuador down to the more southern territories by land and by sea, though it is not known exactly how the trade was organized. (28)

The reason for the prominence of the strombus remains slightly enigmatic. Allison Paulsen suggests its special status can be attributed to its exotic provenance and natural properties. (29) One such property was its ability to be modified and used as a trumpet, called a pututo, which often functioned to punctuate rituals. (30) In fact, pututos were sacred in many Pre-Columbian cultures and are still widely used in the Andes to announce or punctuate a rite or event today. (31) These conch shell trumpets have been found at Moche sites and Moche potters commonly made ceramic replicas. (32) Evidence of this particular use of the strombus shell in Moche culture is also present in the art. Participants in what scholars have identified as a Moche coca-chewing rite, for example, are shown with strombus trumpets (Figs. 2a-2b). The fact that ground up shell was sometimes used for lime in the mastication of coca leaves may serve as an additional explanation for the ritual significance of the trumpet in this Moche rite as well as another use of its natural properties. (33) An alternative explanation for its prominence could be its symbolic demonstration of animism. The hard, house-like, and inanimate shell being moved by a living creature may have appeared significant to the Moche. (34) Finally, strombus shells appear in Moche burial scenes and offering caches, perhaps evoking the sea and fecundity. (35) In the end, all of these qualities could have combined in the Moche conception of the shell's meaning. While the exact origin of the importance of the strombus galeatus shell is not evident, its pervasive iconographic presence in Moche art illustrates its sustained significance.


The Larco shell vessel is an example among many that portrays ambiguous iconographic significance. Ranging from extremely naturalistic to moderately stylized, the strombus shell is depicted as a stand-alone image in both two- and three-dimensional renderings on stirrup-spout vessels and cups. (36) Elizabeth Benson states that Moche realistic depictions often parallel otherworldly ones. (37) Without more iconographic context in the image, it is impossible to know the otherworldly reference the Larco vessel and other strombus representations make. The following provides a categorization of the various depictions of the conch shell in Moche art in an attempt to identify the theme to which the Larco shell vessel potentially refers. The categories are organized according to the position of the strombus shell within the image on what Jackson identifies as the horizontal or vertical axis. These axes indicate the directional distribution of information. The vertical axis compresses or "telescopes" the distribution of information down into a single element while the horizontal axis has a linear progression in the narrative sequence that moves horizontally, across the illustration. On the vertical axis, the shell acts as a pictorial abbreviation of a wider idea or theme outside of the narrative being directly portrayed. The Larco vessel serves as an example of this type of pictorial involvement. Meanwhile, on the horizontal axis, the shell actively participates in the communication of the narrative of the individual scene. (38)

There are two occasions in which the strombus shell participates in the horizontal axis. The first is identified by a recurring anthropomorphized supernatural creature: the Strombus Monster. This creature appears in both zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms. In the former, it resembles a large reptilian animal with clawed feet, a long tail that often ends in a snakehead, perhaps feline-like spots, a large dragon-like head with sharp teeth, unusual antennae that protrude from the snout and upper cranium, and a large strombus shell that rests on its back (Fig. 3a-3b). The latter is strikingly different. The creature that emerges from the large strombus shell appears more human, though no less ferocious (Fig. 4). In this version, two tails terminate in feline heads with forked tongues, and a similar tail-like serpentine body emerges from the front of the shell where the human form begins. Human arms and legs are visible, and the figure wears a black tunic with a white stepped motif at the neck. The figure also wears a large headdress in the form of a feline with a snarling face and protruding tongue. This snarl is imitated in the human figure's black face, revealing sharp teeth. Finally, the figure holds a tumi knife in one hand and a weapons bundle in the other. The zoomorphic version appears only in fineline drawings, while the anthropomorphic also appears in three-dimensional form. (39)

Likely first appearing in Phase IV with a great proliferation of anthropomorphized animals in Moche art, the Strombus Monster continued into Phase V when many anthropomorphized land animals were discontinued. (40) It is frequently portrayed both alone and in a confrontation theme. (41) Using a sample of 255 vessels from the site of San Jose de Moro, Donna McClelland, Donald McClelland, and Christopher Donnan are able to recognize patterns in the theme and conclude that it represents an important marine activity. (42) The confrontation always involves two pairs of supernatural creatures fighting one another with tumi knives, one of which is a marine creature and the other of which is always either the so-called Wrinkle Face or Iguana, perhaps representing terrestrial creatures (Fig. 5). The Strombus Monster is the third most frequently recurring figure on a list of six that the McClellands and Donnan identify within their sample. (43) The Strombus Monster also appears in combat with the Snakebelt God in a scene in which the latter is about to behead the tail of the former. (44) In addition, the creature appears hovering over a small human with traits that Benson identifies as related to the Coca Rite (Fig. 6). (45) In all three figures, the Strombus Monster acts as a primary element, in this case a noun, in the communication of the narrative: strombus monster battles opponent. The overall significance of the theme is unclear, though it seems to refer to a few, perhaps related, Moche experiences including: warfare, given the weapons bundle of figures 4 and 6 and the general act of violent confrontation with tumi knives in figure 5 and others like it; marine activity, according to Donnan and the McClellands; and, perhaps, the Coca Rite given Benson's observation. (46) It seems less likely that the Larco shell vessel refers to the confrontation theme given that standalone icons of the Strombus Monster exist in the Moche corpus in both two- and three-dimensional formats on ceramics and a mural at Panamarca. (47) The Larco vessel could, however, be a more abbreviated reference. Therefore, the Strombus Monster confrontation theme cannot be negated as a wider subject for which the vessel potentially acts as a signifier.





The Burial Theme is a second situation in which the strombus participates on the horizontal axis, however, in a more subordinate role in the creation of the narrative (Fig. 7). There are sixteen known examples of this theme in which a complex burial ceremony is illustrated in four parts identified as the burial, assembly, sacrifice, and conch exchange. (48) In figure 7, an elite individual to the left of the rollout drawing seated in a structure composed of a roof and stepped dais engages in the transfer of the strombus galeatus, clutching one in an outstretched hand. Rather than acting as a primary subject in the narrative such as the Strombus Monster in confrontation, the shell appears as a secondary element. It functions as a direct object to illustrate what the elite figure is in the act of exchanging, thus adding to the narrative but not central to it. It seems quite plausible that the Larco shell vessel refers to this theme. Given the role of the shell in the horizontal axis of both themes, however, it could easily act as a signifier to either the Strombus Monster in confrontation or the Burial Theme.

The vertical role of the strombus is identifiable in several categories. The first refers to a theme mentioned previously, the Coca Rite. This theme appears in fineline renderings on ceramics from Phases I through IV. Although the strombus shell is not explicitly portrayed in fineline depictions of the Coca Rite, Phase IV ceramic vessels commonly connect the pututo to the Coca Rite (Figs. 2 & 8). (49) Figure 2, for example, portrays a man holding a pututo adorned with a rust and cream checkerboard tunic, hanging ear spools, and a coca bag falling against his back. Though the bag alludes more indirectly to the consumption of coca, the tunic and ear spools directly connect this figure to the middle seated figure in the fineline depiction of the ritual in figure 8. While the use of the shell for lime in the consumption of coca may be one link between the pututo and rite, (50) another may be both the conch shell and coca's mutual associations with the sea. (51) Benson proposes that the pututo may have been used to announce a journey through the sea to the other world in the coca rite. Santiago Uceda, however, interprets the rite as being associated with water and fertility. (52) In either case, both scholars emphasize the marine aspect of the theme thus vertically connecting the strombus to the wider, external concept of the sea. The vertical index could additionally refer more specifically to the Strombus Monster Confrontation theme. According to Benson, the principal participants of both are present in an enigmatic interaction in figure 6. In his 1990 article, Steve Bourget connects the Strombus Monster to the pututo by suggesting that the sound emitted from the trumpet was an imitation of the voice of the fantastical creature that inhabited the strombus. (53) The Coca Rite Theme and Strombus Monster, therefore, are perhaps united by the strombus shell perhaps under an overarching Moche narrative that has yet to be elucidated or a general reference to marine life.

The Larco shell vessel could therefore potentially refer to specific aspects of both the Coca Rite Theme and the Strombus Monster Confrontation Theme simultaneously. This reference is complicated by that fact that the strombus connection to the Coca Rite is already vertically compressed in the vessel of the Coca Rite participant holding the pututo. (The fineline illustration of the theme does not depict the instrument.) It is potentially unlikely that the Larco shell vessel refers to this theme because it is not explicitly rendered to represent a trumpet. As mentioned above, the Moche produced ceramic replicas of pututos. It was these that likely acted as indexes of the Coca Rite given the trumpet's presence in the scene. Unless the Larco shell vessel acted as an index to the trumpet, granting it an even greater degree of abbreviation and abstracted communication, it seems less probable it refers to the Coca Rite theme. However, it is not impossible.


The shell also appears vertically in the Ceremonial Badminton Theme (Fig. 9). This scene typically depicts one or two major figures standing on daises holding spears and an atlatl with smaller figures following or surrounding them. Some of these scenes include ocean symbols floating around the figures, including the strombus shell. (54) The fineline drawing in figure 9 depicts many shells floating around the entire vessel but in a much simpler style, without an indication of the spire or rounded shape as is depicted in both Burial scenes in figure 7. This particularity in the depiction of the shell could be purposeful to direct the viewer to a specific theme. Given the difference noted from the shells in the Burial theme, it could refer to the Strombus Monster. With the presence of other marine creatures such as sea anemones, it could alternatively simply refer to the sea in general. The Larco shell vessel could thereby abstractly signify the Ceremonial Badminton Theme or the sea in general. Either scenario is possible.

Finally, the shell appears vertically and horizontally in a combination of activities that may or may not be narratives. (55) Donnan and the McClellands identify one as a combination of a Warrior narrative, Sacrifice ceremony, musical processions, animated objects, and possibly the burial theme. (56) Two strombus shells can be found hovering above either side of a gabled roof under which a figure holds a goblet containing an ulluchu, a fruit thought to have been used as an anti-coagulant. (57) It is difficult to know to what those two shells vertically refer. Another scene appears to combine the sacrifice ceremony with animated objects in which human legs, arms, and heads have been added to jars, stacked gourds, headdresses, feathered capes, shells, war clubs, panpipes, a drum, and shells. (58) The animated shells seem to act horizontally in what appears to be a reference to the conch exchange in the left side of the fineline rollout drawing. Similar to the other categories in which the shell participates along horizontal and vertical axes, the Larco shell vessel may or may not refer to these combination themes.

While, as Jackson suggests, the social context in which the vessel was used and by whom would provide clues to its meaning for the audience, the extremely limited thematic elaboration would result in the viewer depending upon the vessel's use and an outside party to physically engage with it. (59) Similarly, Jackson states that oral communication would have likely informed the Moche graphic system to some degree. (60) This is especially relevant for the Larco shell vessel given that, although some are more likely than others, all of the above-mentioned categories are plausible themes to which the vessel refers. In addition, the viewer would need to be able to recognize the vertical versus horizontal pictorial employment of the shell as well as decipher to what it specifically referred. This task is especially complicated in situations of potential thematic overlap such as with the Coca Rite and Strombus Monster Confrontation themes. While anyone might be able to read and understand a general reference to marine life, in the end, someone had to be entirely informed of the specific thematic significance of the shell for the vessel's meaning to be fully communicated. If varying degrees of thematic understanding permeated Moche society, literacy could have been divulged in different ways, limited to individuals or spread across an entire textual community.


MocheArt and Power

Moche society was hierarchically organized. Claude Chapdelaine's archaeological investigation of households and burial patterns in the urban zone between the Huacas del Sol and de la Luna reiterates this fact. His evidence allowed him to conclude that the Moche population was heterogeneously composed of lower, middle and upper strata in which social status was inherited and, to a limited degree, achieved. (61) As Jackson explains, hierarchic social structures such as that of the Moche intrinsically created a need to reiterate ideology, communicate political legitimation, and maintain the social fabric. (62) Moche art served these ends. In his 2001 article, Jeffery Quilter argues that on a public scale, monumental structures disseminated Moche religious ideology to a wide audience while simultaneously emphasizing the lines drawn between social ranks. (63) Huaca de la Luna, for example, was constructed with entirely visible ramps and flat tops that permitted complete visual accessibility for the public. Large groups of people looked on while only a select few from the uppermost strata of society were granted the power to ascend the ramps toward the temple platform and participate in important religious rituals that emphasized military and sacrificial practices. (64) In this way, religion, esoteric knowledge, and art helped spread an ideology that sustained political inequality. (65)


As portable arts, ceramics served the same elite political ends by transmitting the socio-religious ideology embodied by the architecture of monumental structures to various social strata and geographic locations on a more personal or communal level. (66) In this more individualized capacity, literacy of the iconography in the portable arts replaced the physical barriers of the monumental structures. Because literacy is a set of both visual and oral communicative strategies and practices that require looking and decoding, reading a vessel generated a social formation among the Moche. To read was an act that had to be learned and transmitted. (67) Because ceramic arts served the elite agenda, it was this upper stratum that was most probably endowed with the ability to decode the meanings of each vessel through their complete knowledge of themes. The elites were thus an entire textual community separated from the lower strata in their ability to learn, read, and interpret the visual texts together. The subtle differences in the depictions of the strombus shell through Moche iconography, including potential overlaps in visual allusions to the Coca Rite and Strombus Monster Confrontation, would have likely allowed for varying degrees of literacy and understanding. For example, one textual community comprised of the lowest stratum might recognize the vertical association of the Tarco vessel to marine life. The next textual stratum might then have greater knowledge in their ability to recognize a reference to the Coca Rite. Ultimately, it was the elite textual community that knew the potential connection between the Strombus Monster and Coca Rite and could interpret the subtlety of the Larco shell vessel's meaning in relation to these two themes. The vessel both reinforced and satisfied the social status of each textual community because the literacy of each individual granted him or her the power to read the vessel's meaning while simultaneously preventing or granting the viewer access to the Moche religious ideology. Thus, the style of the vessel and literacy worked together for the elite in a socially strategic visual system of communication.

The process of reading an image on a vessel and socially interacting with it reiterated the lines drawn between social ranks dictated by monumental architecture. The vessels themselves were physically accessible to potentially all levels of society. Meanwhile, general recognition of themes and icons was also attainable, comparable to the complete visual accessibility of Moche religious elites as they ascended temple ramps. Despite this accessibility, only a select textual community would have had the full thematic awareness to complete the idea communicated by the visual graphic notation. Through oral communication, the completeness of elaboration of the theme was manifested in the high degree of literacy of the elites. Thus, they asserted their power through esoteric knowledge, equating their status with that of the select few who were granted access to process to the top of the temple platforms and perform important rituals.

The more personalized social engagement between individuals and ceramic vessels allowed such an assertion to occur not only between social groups, but also within them, carrying the message embodied by temple construction to more subtle divisions in society. It is difficult to know exactly who would have seen and interacted with vessels such as the Larco shell example. Given its fine quality, it was most likely an elite vessel suggesting that perhaps only elites saw, used, and read it. The proposed socio-religious role of the vessel, therefore, could have functioned only among the elite to distinguish subtleties of status within the upper strata. If individuals from various strata interacted with it, however, the vessel would have continued to serve the same function in a wider hierarchical capacity, demonstrating the social flexibility of the naturalistic style for the Moche elite.

Style in Moche ceramic arts directly impacted the dynamic between material culture and socio-religious ideology. Representationalism and especially naturalism, such as that portrayed in the Larco shell vessel, allowed for a widely inclusive viewing experience in which everyone could understand the signifier, unmistakably a strombus galeatus shell. In addition, as in the case of the Larco vessel, three-dimensional modeled forms brought the signifier into the real world, giving the icon of an elite ritual theme both physical presence and interactive potential to non-elites. Paradoxically, however, literacy generated a social reaction to the vessels by which only elites could fully understand its specific meaning as it related to a wider theme or narrative and only the elites had the power to explain it. Thus, the Moche visual system was one based on equality and social balance that simultaneously enshrined the system of inequality that was keeping the elites in their privileged position at the top of the hierarchy. Having exclusive thematic knowledge maintained the elites in their position of power. The naturalistic style of the Larco shell vessel allowed everyone to see and identify the signifier, while only a few could participate in the communication of its information to identify the signified. Ultimately, the vessel's naturalism made it simultaneously accessible and inaccessible while it worked to maintain the Moche social fabric.

In the end, the Moche employed naturalism in the Larco shell vessel to perform a specific task within their stratified society. In conjunction with literacy, the image worked for the Moche in the establishment of their socio-religious ideology. The objects did not require physical interaction to participate in this system of stratification for the Moche. Simply existing and being seen was enough. In this respect, the Larco shell vessel and the portable arts themselves were far more visually complex than mere texts in their ability to reach an illiterate audience and act as powerful agents in the formation of Moche society. In the end, religion, esoteric knowledge, art, style, and accessibility helped spread an ideology that sustained political inequality.

Concluding Remarks

While this study has focused on the Larco shell vessel as a specific case, the ultimate conclusions regarding the relationship between style, literacy, and power can be applied to wider choices informing Moche art production, thus opening avenues for further investigation. For example, as the creators of these objects artists would have been granted a certain degree of esoteric knowledge that potentially placed them in a higher textual community above others. Understanding how ceramic vessels were read could therefore help us understand the role of the artist-craftsman in Moche society. Another point of inquiry could examine why some seemingly humble objects are rendered in three-dimensional naturalistic form. For example, conducting a similar case study of the Fowler Museum's warty squash vessel, could answer why some comestibles were rendered and others were not. Christopher Donnan points out that there are no depictions of avocado, guava, or sweet potatoes though these are frequently found in refuse. (68) This seems to reinforce that idea that only select items from the natural world were represented because they indexed larger narratives. Pursuing an investigation of the warty squash could consequently lead to the deeper understanding of an existing theme and narrative or could indicate a new theme.

Some questions are difficult to approach for such a distant culture. While rampant looting has left us with many artifacts without archaeological data, approaching the form, style, and communicative power of vessels can help to overcome such difficulties in an effort to understand the role of art in Moche society. No matter how our knowledge of Moche style and iconography develops, however, we will never attain the degree of literacy accessed by the Moche elites, demonstrating its enduring social power. As a modern viewing audience, today we must accept that we are all necessarily equal in our varying degrees of (il)literate engagement with Moche naturalism.

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Bourget, Steve. "Caracoles sagrados en la iconografia moche." Gaceta Archeologica Andina V (20): 45-58. 1990.

Bruhns, Karen Olsen. Ancient South America. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Burger, Richard L. Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Castillo, Luis Jaime. Personajes miticos, escenas y narraciones en la iconografia mocbica. Lima: Fondo Editorial, 1989.

Chapdelaine, Claude. "The Growing Power of a Moche Urban Class." Chap. 4 in Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2001.69-87.

Cordy-Collins, Alana. "Archaism or Tradition?: The Decapitation Theme in Cupisnique and Moche Iconography." Latin American Antiquity 3, no. 3 (September 1992): 206-220.

Cummins, Tom and Joanne Rappaport. Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012.

Donnan, Christopher B. "The Thematic Approach to Moche Iconography." Journal of Latin American Lore 1, no. 2 (1975): 147-62.

--, and Donna McClelland. Moche Lineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999.

--, University of California, Los Angeles, Heard Museum of Anthropology and Primitive Art, and Denver Art Museum. Moche Art of Peru: Pre-Columbian Symbolic Communication. Rev. ed. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1978.

--, Donna McClelland, and Donald McClelland. Moche Fineline Painting from San Jose de Moro. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, 2007.

Hocquenghem, Anne Marie. "Rutas de Entrada Del Mullu En El Extremo Norte Del Peru." Bulletin de l'Institut Francais d'etudes Andines, 1993. 701-719.

Jackson, Margaret A. Moche Art and Visual Culture in Ancient Peru. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

McClelland, Donna. "A Maritime Passage from Moche to Chimu." In The Northern Dynasties: Kingship and Statecraft in Chimor: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 12th and 13th October 1985. Edited by Michael Edward Moseley and Alana Cordy-Collins. Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990. 75-103.

Pasztory, Esther. "An Alternative Path in Andean Art; Moche: Portraits and Humor." Ch. 5 in Pre-Columbian Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 129-144.

Paulsen, Allison C. "The Thorny Oyster and the Voice of God: Spondylus and Strombus in Andean Prehistory." American Antiquity 39, no. 4 (1974): 597-607.

Quilter, Jeffrey. "The Narrative Approach to Moche Iconography." Latin American Antiquity 8, no. 2 (1997): 113-33.

--. "Moche Mimesis: Continuity and Change in Public Art in Early Peru." In Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru, edited by Joanne Pillsbury. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2001. 21-45.

--. The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, 2010.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca. Art of the Andes. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 2006.


(1.) I am grateful to Dr. Maya Stanfield-Mazzi for her careful revisions and encouraging feedback toward the improvement of this article. I also thank the members of Dr. Stanfield-Mazzi's seminar on Moche art in the spring of 2014 who provided positive and critical comments when I presented my final paper for the course from which this article derives. I would also like the recognize the great impact Dr. Margaret Jackson's Moche Art and Visual Culture in Ancient Peru had on my personal viewing experience and understanding of Moche vessels and thus the following argument I present here. Finally, I would like to thank the reviewers who took the time to provide very constructive edits and comments.

(2.) Esther Pasztory, "An Alternative Path in Andean Art; Moche: Portraits and Humor," in Pre-Columbian Art (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 133.

(3.) It is difficult to identify the start and end dates of the Moche with exactitude. Because of this, some scholars differ in their identification of the Moche period. For example, while Margaret Jackson and Jeffery Quilter both note the dates as circa 100-800 AD, in their 2007 publication Christopher Donnan and Donna and Donald McClelland state the Moche flourished from 200-800 AD. Margaret A. Jackson, Moche Art and Visual Culture in Ancient Peru, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), 3; Jeffery Quilter, The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, 2010), 3; Christopher B. Donnan, Donna McClelland, and Donald McClelland, Moche Fineline Painting from San Jose de Moro (Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, 2007), 1.

(4.) This element is the most stylized moment of the entire vessel given that these ridges normally continue across the entire body of the actual shell.

(5.) Christopher Donnan, Moche Art of Peru: Pre-Columbian Symbolic Communication, (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1978), 56.

(6.) Rebecca Stone-Miller, Art of the Andes, 2nd ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 2006), 83-84.

(7.) It can be rather safely assumed, however, that the vessel came from a funerary context though it was not necessarily made for funerary purposes. The lack of archaeological data comes as no surprise considering Christopher Donnan and Donna McClelland project that 95% of Moche ceramics in museums and private collections were looted by grave robbers and their provenience is unknown. Donnan and McClelland 1999, 18.

(8.) Jackson 2008; Garth Bawden, "The Structural Paradox: Moche Culture as Political Ideology," Latin American Antiquity 6 (1995); Donnan 1978; Jeffery Quilter, "Moche Mimesis: Continuity and Change in Public Art in Early Peru," in Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru, (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2001) 2001; and Luis Jaime Castillo, Personajes miticos, escenas y narraciones en la iconografia mochica (Lima: Fondo Editorial, 1989).

(9.) Jackson 2008, 135, 138.

(10.) Ibid., 153.

(11.) Bawden 1995, 255-273.

(12.) Bawden's discussion of a structural paradox in conjunction with Quilter's article examining monumental architecture were highly influential in the formulation of my argument.

(13.) Jackson 2008, 11.

(14.) Ibid., 7. Emphasis my own.

(15.) Ibid., 82.

(16.) Christopher B. Donnan, "The Thematic Approach to Moche Iconography," Journal of Latin American Lore 1 (1975), 147-62.

(17.) Jackson 2008, 82.

(18.) Tom Cummins and Joanne Rappaport, Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 6.

(19.) Castillo 1989, 30.

(20.) Jackson 2008, 89.

(21.) Ibid., 134.

(22.) Donnan 1975, 153.

(23.) Jackson 2008, 111.

(24.) Ibid., 89-90.

(25.) Jackson 2008, 138-141.

(26.) Allison C. Paulsen, "The Thorny Oyster and the Voice of God: Spondylus and Strombus in Andean Prehistory," American Antiquity 39, no. 4 (1974), 597; Elizabeth Benson, Birds and Beasts of Ancient Latin America, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997), 123.

(27.) Ibid., 597.

(28.) Karen Olson Bruhns, Ancient South America, (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 283-4. The expansion of trade with Ecuador may have been influenced by Chavin (Bruhns 1994, 141). Elizabeth Benson notes that the trade may have existed since Cupisnique times (Benson 2012, 18). In her article on the increased influence of marine life on the Moche during phases IV and V, Donna McClelland identifies a new a boatman deity shown in the burial theme exchanging the strombus. She states that this association between the strombus and the boatman deity suggests the shell was being transported by tule boat during phase V, though there are no fineline drawings depicting it (McClelland 1990, 78).

(29.) Paulsen 1974, 605.

(30.) Ibid., 603, 605; Benson 1997, 125.

(31.) Benson 2012, 103, 59.

(32.) Donnan 1978, 63. An image of a pututo can be found in figure 100 of the same publication.

(33.) Benson 1997, 135.

(34.) Benson 2012, 63.

(35.) Ibid., 112, 115.

(36.) Some shell vessels show the lip facing up while others show lip facing down. This could be significant to the meaning of the vessel or it could be an individual artist or community's stylistic choice. It could, for example, be dictated by the regional preference for using a ring base. Many of these types of vessels can be found in the Museo Larco online database.

(37.) Benson 2012, 29.

(38.) Jackson 2008, 135-141.

(39.) The Museo Larco database has several modeled depictions of the anthropomorphized Strombus Monster. An example can be found at: catalogo/ficha.php?id=3209)

(40.) Benson 2012, 63; Christopher Donnan and Donna McClelland, Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists, (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999), 110-111, 116, 179.

(41.) Alone it could act as a signifier of the wider confrontation theme.

(42.) Donnan, McClelland, and McClelland 2007, 62.

(43.) Ibid. In order of appearance, that list includes circular creature, anthropomorphized wave, strombus monster, paddler, anthropomorphized crab, and sea urchin.

(44.) An image of the Snake belt god in confrontation with the Strombus Monster can be found in Benson 2012, figure 7.3.

(45.) Benson 2012, 63; Alternatively, in their 1999 publication, Christopher Dorman and Donna McClelland identify the figure as "Warriors with Strombus Monster" while Steve Bourget identifies it as "adoration of the deified strombus" in his 1990 article (Bourget 1990, 55). All of these suggestions imply subtly different interactions with the Strombus Monster, which in turn allude to different though perhaps not mutually exclusive meanings of the theme.

(46.) In his article that focuses on the identification of iconographic evidence of the use of psychotropics in Moche art, Bourget relates the emerging monster out of the shell to the luminous experience of a person after being intoxicated with a psychedelic ingested with a land snail (Bourget 1990, 54).

(47.) Having been destroyed, the Panamarca mural was located on a separate wall on a platform at Panamarca where many other murals are depicted. According to Bonavia, this particular mural was incomplete. Some traces of color in front of the figure indicated to him a continuation of the scene. He notes that an earlier publication by Schaedel in 1970 mentions an "anthropomorphic bird figure" next to the Strombus Monster. The mural was created using the same technique as the other murals on the site. A white ground color was applied on top of drying plaster and then designs were outlined with incisions and subsequently filled with different colors. More information on the mural including an image can be found in Bonavia 1985, 49-53.

(48.) Donnan, McClelland, and McClelland 2007, 96.

(49.) Benson 2012, 60, 102-103; Donnan 1978, 63.

(50.) Benson 1997, 125.

(51.) Benson 2012, 104.

(52.) Ibid.

(53.) Bourget 1990, 54.

(54.) Donnan, McClelland, and McClelland 2007, 88.

(55.) Ibid., 120.

(56.) An image of this scene can be found in Donnan, McClelland, and McClelland 2007, figure 3.125.

(57.) Donnan, McClelland, and McClelland 2007, 120.

(58.) Ibid., 122. An image of this scene can be found in Donnan, McClelland, and McClelland 2007, figure 3.126.

(59.) Jackson 2008, 141.

(60.) Ibid., 142, 153.

(61.) Chapdelaine, Claude, "The Growing Power of a Moche Urban Class," in Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2001), 69-87.

(62.) Jackson 2008, 47.

(63.) Quilter 2001, 21-45.

(64.) Ibid.

(65.) Bawden 1995, 259; Jackson 2008, 48.

(66.) Ibid., 37

(67.) Cummins and Rappaport 2012, 6, 9, 255.

(68.) Donnan 1978, 56.
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