‘Unprecedented’ 1,300-year-old murals shed light on life in ancient Peru. Take a look
Resting atop a rocky outcrop in Peru’s Nepeña Valley is Pañamarca: an architectural trove built between 550 and 800 C.E. that now holds countless remnants of the Moche people.
For decades, archaeologists and researchers have taken an interest in uncovering Pañamarca’s secrets, and now, they are making progress and sharing their findings.
The Archaeological Research Project (PIA) “Paisajes Arqueológicos de Pañamarca” was launched by a team of archaeologists from around the world in 2018, according to a March 7 news release from the team. Although the team estimates it has uncovered less than 10% of the site’s extensive paintings, it says its findings are already granting greater insight into the ancient Moche civilization.
The team focused its excavations on the site’s pillared hall — a continuation of work that began in 2010 — and uncovered paintings dating to some time between 650-700 C.E., Lisa Trever, a Lisa and Bernard Selz associate professor of pre-Columbian art history and archaeology at Columbia University, told McClatchy News.
The recent project revealed a new portion of a painting that was first discovered in the hall in 2010, the team said in a presentation of its findings. The new finding depicts three figures.
“One wearing an elaborate headdress and carrying an unusual mace decorated with a person with arms raised beneath a serpent-arc; a second figure bearing a bag; and a third figure carrying a stirrup-spout bottle in the shape of a hybrid animal” the researchers said.
There are several other objects between the three figures and part of another headdress is visible, according to the archaeologists.
The team said they also made a more “unprecedented” discovery: a two-faced man.
The mural depicts a figure with two faces holding a “stiff and motionless” feather fan. Beneath the figure is a second depiction of the man, but his feather fan is bending with his movement, the team said.
The figure is not comparable to any other Moche art, according to the archaeologists. It may be an attempt at showing a person in two different moments though.
“There is nothing quite like this in South American archaeology,” Trever told Live Science. “The artists may have been experimenting with how to show movement, and two narrative moments at once.”
Ancient artistic techniques
The team’s findings also gave them insight into how the murals and paintings were created.
Artists would begin a mural by smoothing the adobe wall they were going to paint on, according to the archaeologists. Artists would use a plaster made of clay before painting the wall white.
Once the plaster and paint dried, artists would sketch their painting on the wall using a “pointed tool like a stylus” to make incisions, researches said. Then color was applied using brushes.
Some walls appeared to be plastered and painted multiple times.
The history of Pañamarca and the Moche people
Experts believe Pañamarca was constructed between 550-800 C.E., during the Moche civilization in Peru.
The Moche, also known as the Mochica, flourished on the northern coast of Peru between the 1st and 8th century, according to Britannica. Other remains of the civilization, including two huge structures known as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, have been discovered at Moche archaeological sites. Tombs of Moche elites and royals have also been excavated.
The recent findings are giving experts greater insight into the “religious rituals, political life and societal hierarchy of the Moche,” the team said.
“Pañamarca was a place of remarkable artistic innovation and creativity, with painters elaborating on their knowledge of artistic canons in creative and meaningful ways as the people of Nepeña established their position in the far southern Moche world,” Trever said in the team’s release.
The artifacts and murals that have been excavated also indicate that the Moche engaged in “multicultural relationships and long-distance economies,” according to the team’s presentation.
The project will continue its work at Pañamarca as it works to learn more about the site and the Moche people.
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