Death as a Rite of Passage: The Iconography of the Moche Burial Theme

By Hill, Erica | Antiquity, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Death as a Rite of Passage: The Iconography of the Moche Burial Theme


Hill, Erica, Antiquity


Archaeological and art-historical research on the North Coast of Peru has revealed a rich corpus of iconographic themes in metalwork, murals and ceramics from the Moche period, c. AD 100-750. Iconography, with its wealth of representational imagery, in conjunction with archaeological evidence, indicates that a link exists between the images depicted and the ritual practices of the Moche (Bauer 1996: 333-4; Castillo 1993); in other words, the iconography is depicting certain aspects of Moche culture realistically, in particular, those aspects related to mortuary ritual (DeMarrais et al. 1996: 24).

This study examines one component of Moche iconography - the Burial Theme - using the tripartite 'rites of passage' framework formulated by Arnold van Gennep (1960). Rites of passage occur cross-culturally during major events in the life-cycle and have three major components (discussed in greater detail below). In an interpretive analysis, I apply this framework to the iconography of the Burial Theme. The liminal, or transitional, states depicted in this image facilitate the renewal of the community following death (see Uceda C. 1997).

The rites of passage structure provides the means for exploring prehistoric cosmology through iconography. Furthermore, this analytic structure can be employed as an alternative to analogical approaches and can be applied to the study of ritual and iconography beyond the bounds of the Andean world. Throughout, my focus is on death ritual, specifically as it relates to elite interments, but it draws on several sources, including Donnan & McClelland (1979), a vessel from the tomb of a high-status female at the site of San Jose de Moro (Castillo 1996), and a large sherd of another vessel published by Shimada (1994: 231). Finally, published examples of several vessels that contain either elements of, or related to, the Burial Theme itself are employed in this study (e.g. Benson 1972: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 2-1, 2-2 OMITTED]; Hocquenghem 1987: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 181-186 OMITTED]). All of the known contexts are mortuary, as are the contexts of most Moche ceramics and metalwork with iconographic content. Significantly, the Burial Theme first appeared during the Late Moche Period, characterized by both ecological and social upheaval.

The Late Moche period (AD 600-750) and the Burial Theme

The Moche inhabited the arid river valleys of the Peruvian North Coast, relying heavily upon irrigation technology (Conklin & Moseley 1988), domesticated camelids (alpacas and llamas) (Shimada & Shimada 1985), marine resources and the fundamental cultigens cotton, maize, beans, gourds and squash. Evidence from glacial cores indicates that a severe drought with associated El Nino events occurred between AD 563 and 594 on the North Coast (Shimada et al. 1991). These dates correspond to the transition from the Middle to the Late Moche Period (AD 550-600).

Bawden (1983: 235) applies A.L. Kroeber's term 'cultural reconstitution' to changes in Moche architecture and iconography evident in the Late Moche Period (c. AD 600-750). 'Cultural reconstitution' refers to the process of change that a polity undergoes as it fundamentally alters its basic structure in order to adjust to new conditions. As a result, the material record of the Late Moche Period (Phase V) included a 'diminished repertoire and use of traditional religious iconography, new ceramic forms . . . [and a shift] in ritual activities and paraphernalia' (Shimada et al. 1991: 253). The style and composition of ceramic motifs also display marked changes during the Middle to Late Moche transition. The Burial Theme is one such example, appearing in integrated form for the first time during this period. Although this image is used as a case study, the interpretative approach presented here may be applied to any culture-group with an extant iconographic repertoire.

Such an interpretive approach would not be possible without the rich description provided by Donnan & McClelland's (1979) monograph on the Burial Theme. …

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