Moche Portrait Head Bottle

Thousands of ceramic bottles were produced by Moche ceramicists, and many multiples were made using molds.

Portrait Head Bottle, 5th–6th century (Moche culture, Peru), ceramic, 32.39 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the galleries devoted to the Pre-Columbian art of South America, and looking at an object that comes from what is present-day Peru that was made by the Moche culture. It’s a ceramic bottle, and this is one of thousands of bottles that have been found.

Dr. Sarahh Scher: [0:24] It seems to have been something that was very important to them to produce in large numbers. We know that they used molds to produce a lot of their ceramics, and that they were making things in multiples even when they were finishing the surfaces by hand.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] We see some beautiful finish work. First of all, it’s clear that the clay has been burnished, probably with a smooth implement like a river stone or something that would have been able to produce that very glossy, almost glaze-like quality, but this is not glazed. It is, however, very characteristic of Moche ceramic ware, with this very unusual spout, which is known as a stirrup spout.

Dr. Scher: [0:58] It’s something that we see quite a lot in Moche vessels that are made for high-status consumption. It’s something that is a revival to some extent of earlier styles that are seen in the Chavin and the Cupisnique culture, and may even refer to the Moche looking back to those earlier cultures and their prestige and claiming it for themselves.

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] This object that we’re looking at, although it itself is very old, could be referring to something even more ancient.

[1:26] Let’s take a close look at it. You have this beautiful human face, this probably male face, with this sharp nose, who seems to be looking directly out at us. The ears are oddly pushed forward. He’s also clearly wearing something wrapped around his head.

Dr. Scher: [1:41] He’s wearing a head cloth. In this case, it’s been placed over the head and then folded and wrapped so that you have what is essentially a cap of fabric and then another flap coming down the back and covering most of the hair.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] You can see its folds and its overlapping. You can also see that this representation, presumably of something woven into the cloth, that shows a dragon-like figure, a serpent.

Dr. Scher: [2:05] They’re referred to usually as feline serpents because they tend to have ears. They’re a very common motif in Moche art. We find them everywhere.

Dr. Zucker: [2:13] This is a ceramic representation of a depiction in cloth. You can also see the painting directly on the face.

Dr. Scher: [2:20] We do see a lot of body painting, both on men and women, in Moche art. There’s not been a lot of research that’s been able to show what particular designs mean, with one exception, and we see it here.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] Here, I think you’re probably referring to the very faint rendering that we see just at the chin.

Dr. Scher: [2:38] Yes. The band that runs along the contour of the chin and looks like it has these three little oblong objects that are hanging from it. Those are meant to be representations of the pupae of flies.

[2:53] As grotesque as that may sound, what it’s a reference to is the sacrifice that was practiced in Moche culture of warriors, who then were very frequently left exposed for a certain amount of time for the flies to devour and for their flesh to at least partially decompose.

[3:12] There are some associations in Moche art of flies as being almost vehicles for human spirits to the underworld, and it’s a way of marking somebody as someone who’s going to be sacrificed.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] What’s interesting is that the figure is shown with such nobility, and yet we’re also seeing a figure that is to be sacrificed.

Dr. Scher: [3:30] Well, in the case of the Moche, it was important that the person being sacrificed was healthy and strong and brave. He would have been somebody from the elites who had proven himself in warfare, but had lost one critical battle.

Dr. Zucker: [3:46] When then is a vessel like this made, how was it used? We know so little about these people.

Dr. Scher: [3:52] These sorts of objects are not just being found in graves, they’re also being found in domestic spaces, in areas that we might think of as maybe being middle class.

[4:01] These may have been objects that were used not only by the elites, but also were given as gifts to the middle class, perhaps as status gifts, to help associate them and to bind them symbolically to the upper classes, and that were part of their participation in the mythology and the worldview of the elites that legitimized their rule.

Dr. Zucker: [4:22] I want the face on this vessel to open its mouth and to tell us exactly what it means.

Dr. Scher: [4:27] That would be fantastic.

[4:28] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Moche Portrait Head Bottle," in Smarthistory, May 4, 2016, accessed April 18, 2024,