The Testimony of Hands


Location of Moche culture

57.5.1, ceramic portrait vessel
Moche culture, Peru (A.D. 100–800)
Gift of Walt Stewart
Photograph by B. Bernard

People who lived long before us aren't always that difficult to imagine. In a few times and places, realistic portraits were made long before the modern period. Such portraits were usually restricted to elite members of society, while the portrayals of ordinary people were much sketchier. Among the ancient Moche, for example, pottery vessels were made to show the faces of actual rulers. This individual probably suffered from Bell's Palsy.

Although the portraits appear to be of rulers, they are found in the tombs of other people. Esther Pazstory suggests that the people in the tombs were officials who were supposed continue serving their lord even after death.

The vessel is 25 centimeters (10 inches) tall, and is and mold-made. Sheets of clay were pressed into molds to form two halves of the main vessel. As the clay dried, it shrank away from the molds, thus freeing itself. The two halves were then "glued" together using additional clay. The "stirrup spout," a typical Peruvian touch, was then added. (This form of molding, which uses wet but solid clay, should not be confused with slipcasting, in which a liquid clay-water mix is poured into a mold.) Once the vessel reached the proper form, red "slip clay" was painted on to color the face.

For more information on Moche portrait vessels, we recommend Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru, by Christopher B. Donnan.

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All content copyright © Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico. High-resolution versions of photographs may be ordered from the Maxwell Museum's photo archives. Please make note of the catalogue numbers. For more information please visit the photo archives web page

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