In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Moche Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes

Art History Moche Art
Margaret A. Jackson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0120


The Moche of the North Coast of Peru (c. 100–800 CE) are well known for having produced artworks of impressive technical virtuosity and complex figural imagery. Moche cultural remains are found throughout their coastal homelands, with works in the form of monumental pyramids and temple complexes extensively decorated with polychrome murals, elaborately modeled and painted ceramic vessels, elite tombs, sophisticated textiles, and metalwork. Yet despite abundant art and architecture, the Moche are essentially an “archaeological culture,” meaning that all interpretations depend heavily on archaeological findings to contextually anchor the group within the larger trajectory of Andean culture history. The only direct evidence of Moche is in the form of biological remains, material artifacts, and a rich corpus of visual imagery. This results in a bibliographic source list heavily infused with archaeological method and visual analysis. Interpretations typically depend on an interdisciplinary evidence derived from archaeological, ethnographic, ethnohistoric, linguistic, and art historical methods, and the interpretive literature for Moche often falls along disciplinary lines; most conclusions represent a synthesis of approaches. Broadly speaking, scholars of Moche art tend to focus on articulation of contextual parameters, such as architectural, social, and environmental factors, as well as the role of human agency in the creation of meaning and message, versus hermeneutic explorations of internal structures and meanings, graphic and formal analyses, semiotic relationships, symbolism, and iconology. No bibliography is definitive and multiple points of entry are possible for the interested reader. Many articles derive from larger collections of essays in edited volumes; the reader is encouraged to investigate those expanded works for additional essays on related material.

General Overviews

Moche was never a unified empire, despite evidence for long standing political alliances; thus, it is incorrect to speak of Moche as if it were a monolithic culture. Instead, it appears the Moche were a collection of interdependent autonomous or semiautonomous polities, with numerous religious and urban centers located throughout North Coast valleys. Moche elites apparently shared religion and strategies of governance, and the people employed common subsistence methods for agriculture, fishing, and production of household goods. Work by Rafael Larco Hoyle (Larco Hoyle 2001, originally published 1938–1939) stands as the earliest comprehensive attempt at an overall description of Moche as discrete cultural entity. Colonial sources support the idea of venerable lineage clans in the coastal valleys, with intermarriage among elites, competition for resources, occasional hostility or warfare, and varying degrees of cooperation for maintenance of irrigation systems. Several sources elaborate on these cultural systems in synthetic manner; Castillo, et al. 2008, for example, presents overviews of political organization based on art and archaeology. Moche centers of political dominance seem to have shifted over time; Shimada 1994 and Bawden 1996 discuss case studies for later Moche sites, such as Pampa Grande and Galindo. Art and visual culture have played an unusually important role in interpretations of Moche culture, politics, and ideology; formal analyses and thematic overviews by Benson 1972, Donnan 1978, and Hocquenghem 1987 opened the field for later works employing interdisciplinary approaches such as semasiography and narrative structure (Jackson 2008; Quilter 2011).

  • Bawden, Garth. The Moche. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.

    Synthesizing Moche studies ten years after the discovery of royal tombs at Sipan and asserting that the fundamental purpose of Moche artwork was to affirm and reinforce Moche elites’ right to rule, the author’s work on the developmental sequence of Moche culture is especially tuned to its final phases and the importance of the Moche Valley site of Galindo.

  • Benson, Elizabeth. The Mochica: A Culture of Peru. New York: Praeger, 1972.

    Benson presents a detailed analysis of Moche ceramic art with emphasis on identifying a principal deity, Ai Ap’aec, and articulating a particular cohort of recurrent death imagery.

  • Benson, Elizabeth. The Worlds of the Moche. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

    Benson’s reprisal of her earlier work but with benefit of four decades of additional data and discovery. She includes excellent photos of significant art and architecture with expanded explanation of familiar Moche artistic themes.

  • Castillo B., Luis Jaime, and Santiago Uceda C. “The Mochicas.” In Handbook of South American Archaeology. Edited by Helaine Silverman and William Isbell, 707–730. New York: Springer, 2008.

    The authors lay heavy challenge to the long-standing notion that Moche culture arose from a singular antecedent. Citing a range of evidence from coastal sites north and south, they argue that the Moche phenomenon had multiple origins and that Moche cultural forms were impacted by and, in some cases, overlay distinctive local traditions.

  • Donnan, Christopher B. Moche Art of Peru. Museum of Cultural History. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978.

    The book that influenced a generation of Moche scholarship, this well-organized, easy-to-read publication clearly articulates Donnan’s “Thematic Approach” to understanding Moche art. What later became the most famous of Moche images, the Presentation Theme, is described in detail here.

  • Hocquenghem, Anne Marie. Iconografica Mochica. Lima: Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru, Fondo Editorial, 1987.

    This pioneering work in Spanish correlates Moche’s recurrent themes, which the author sees as essentially religious, with the ritual calendrical cycle, as determined from colonial sources. It provides an excellent source for line drawings, many of which follow after Kutscher 1950 (cited under Early Studies of Moche Art).

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

    This study contextualizes the Moche ceramic workshop at Cerro Mayal (Chicama Valley) in an effort to articulate the internal workings of Moche iconography and ceramic technology. Building on advances in communication and picture theory, the author applies semiotic and art historical studies of semasiography to Moche ceramic arts.

  • Larco Hoyle, Rafael. Los Mochicas. Lima: Museo Larco, 2001.

    Enormously influential, these two volumes represent the first detailed attempt at a comprehensive definition of Moche North Coast society as a distinct cultural entity not directly related to highland Inca. Larco addresses agriculture, political organization, and the coastal environment in relation to artistic representations. Originally published as two volumes in 1938–1939, the recent reprint features expanded use of color images.

  • Quilter, Jeffrey. The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages. Boston: Peabody Museum, Harvard, 2011.

    Well illustrated with mostly images of artworks in the Peabody Museum, this general introduction provides ready access to the current state of Moche studies, addressing the relationship between archaeology and interpretations of imagery.

  • Shimada, Izumi. Pampa Grande and the Mochica Culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

    Pampa Grande is considered to have been the last great urbanization associated with Moche culture, complete with large platform structures and craft workshops. Located in the northern Moche area, in the Lambayeque Valley (c. 600–750 CE), Shimada articulates the city’s main features and hypothesizes some of the reasons that the northern and southern Moche areas took divergent cultural trajectories during later Moche history.

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