A Glimpse at Moche Phase III Occupation at the Huacas of Moche Site, Northern Peru

Article excerpt


The history of the Mochica civilization has been divided in different ways. Larco (1948) constructed the first chronological framework comprising five phases within a cultural continuum. This was based on variations in the forms and dimensions of the spout on stirrup spout vessels and the style of their decoration. While the basic five phases are still used today (Uceda & Mujica 1994; Shimada 1994), they are however challenged by new data, both chronological and stylistic. The idea of a single culture also needs reconsideration and a three-division type has been put forward to replace the old Larco scheme (Castillo & Donnan 1995). These new divisions have been labelled Early, Middle and Late Moche (Bawden 1996). It is, however, possible to make a correspondence between the two propositions. Early Moche is equivalent to phases I and II, Middle Moche to phases III and IV and finally Late Moche to phase V. In this paper, the Larco typology will be used, in particular to assign ceramic vessels to a specific phase.

If the early Moche phases are not well known from the archaeological record, the middle Moche phases are better known, especially phase IV which is considered to represent the climax of this civilization. This is not true of phase III, even if in the reconstructed history of the Moche culture many scholars assign great developmental importance to this phase (Topic 1982; Castillo & Donnan 1995; Bawden 1996). The expansion of the Moche III style over a broader geographic range was used to support the idea of the emergence of the first expansionist state on the north coast of Peru (Moseley 1992). On this basis Moche III would represent the first step towards the expansion of the Moche polity. Unfortunately, the emphasis put on this phase is not supported by a rich set of data. The possibility that most phase III components are buried below phase IV levels of occupation might explain our difficulty in documenting this key phase in the development of this complex society. The Huacas of Moche site is no exception.

Five field seasons (1995-99) were carried out in the zone between the two monumental buildings that characterized the Huacas of Moche Site (FIGURES 1-2). Our first goal was to obtain data on domestic architecture in order to understand the functioning of the site, to characterize its urban nature, economy and social organization and to study the evolution of urbanism and its relationship to state emergence on the North Coast of Peru. The first three seasons were dedicated to horizontal excavation, exposing contemporaneous clay-plastered floors of different compounds to understand the spatial organization of the latest occupations of the site without destroying architectural remains. Only during the 1998 and 1999 field seasons did we start to excavate vertically to get an idea of the superposition of occupational layers. These excavated units were limited in scale and did not allow any detailed understanding of earlier spatial organisation. However, in four distinct areas, evidence of Moche III occupation was found with the discovery of burials and their associated offerings.


In this paper, our goal is to present new data on the Moche III occupation from the Huacas of Moche Site and to discuss some cultural and chronological aspects. First, we will discuss Moche III mortuary practices, since the vast majority of our data comes from five burials. Second, radiocarbon dates for this phase combined with stratigraphic evidence will be used to enhance our understanding of the early history of this settlement.

Mortuary evidence

Burials from architectural compound #5

Architectural compound #5 was selected in 1998 to explore earlier occupation of this area because a looter's pit showed there had been successive occupation below the actual surface (FIGURE 2). This compound provided us with strong stratigraphic evidence for the occupational sequence and particularly Moche phase III. …