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Painted Worlds

Searching for the meaning of self-expression in the land of the Moche

September/October 2017

Moche Panamarca Procession


The cover of the Autumn 1951 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY features a dramatic scene of close combat between two men, teeth bared, faces bright red with exertion, garments flying, pulling each other’s hair so violently that each grips the ripped-out forelock of his foe. Created by the artist Pedro Azabache, this cover is a replica of a wall painting at the site of Pañamarca on the northwest coast of Peru, done very shortly after the work’s rediscovery. Mural A depicts a contest between Ai-Apaec, the mythological hero worshipped by the Moche culture, which flourished in this region between about A.D. 200 and 900, and his twin or double. Although Pañamarca’s impressive ruins on a granite outcropping in the lower Nepeña River Valley were well known in the first half of the twentieth century, and had been described by travelers in the late nineteenth century, only a few articles about the site had been published and very little had been said about its wall paintings. Thus, when American archaeologist Richard Schaedel arrived there in 1950, he believed that any paintings he might find would be fragmentary at best. Once there, however, he soon found that Pañamarca’s adobe structures had been completely covered in polychrome murals. In a single week—originally planned for five days, the trip was extended when more murals and a group of burials were discovered—Schaedel and his five-person team not only recorded the combat scene, but also discovered new murals of what he identified as a large cat-demon and an anthropomorphic bird. On the walls of a large plaza, they documented a 30-foot-long composition showing a procession of warriors and priests wearing a costume with knife-shaped backflaps known to have been part of Moche sacrificial rituals.


Though in less than pristine condition after more than 1,000 years, the abundance and unexpected state of preservation of Pañamarca’s murals surprised and delighted Schaedel. But it also concerned him. In his article about the site for Archaeology, he writes, “We hope that this description [of the paintings] will serve as a timely note and warning to lovers of art and archaeology in Peru and elsewhere that this rich source of vivid mural decoration, which today only awaits the patience of the archaeologist to reveal, may tomorrow be irrevocably destroyed. If these still unrevealed documents of the human spirit are not to be forever lost to us, we must constantly keep in mind two ideals: as archaeologists, to devote our attention first and foremost to the adequate documentation of fragile paintings; and to create among the public in general an awareness of their aesthetic as well as their documentary value, so that the present apathy towards their preservation may be replaced by a sense of obligation to their protection.”


Over the more than 65 years since Schaedel’s work at Pañamarca, it was widely assumed that his admonitions had been ignored or forgotten, and that the surviving murals had fallen into ruin. Very little fieldwork was conducted after Schaedel’s excavations and work by Duccio Bonavia later in the 1950s, and only a few new paintings were discovered. When archaeologist and art historian Lisa Trever of the University of California, Berkeley, chose to work in Pañamarca in 2010 along with her Peruvian colleagues Jorge Gamboa, Ricardo Toribio, and Ricardo Morales, she wasn’t very hopeful. “I was pessimistic when we began, figuring that most of the murals that had been discovered before had been destroyed, so we set out to map where the paintings had been and to contextualize what remained,” she says. “But when we began to dig, we were shocked that so much had survived from the earlier excavations.” What was even more surprising was that so much more remained in situ, intact, and unexcavated. “We were soon looking at things that no one had seen since A.D. 780, when parts of the site were deliberately buried,” says Trever. “We went in with a sense that Pañamarca was a site of lost monuments and lost masterpieces of the ancient Peruvian past, and were amazed to find out that not everything was lost at all.”



Exploring Moche Murals