The north coast of Peru, with a tradition of constructing earthen buildings, was a hub of mural painting. Murals decorated pre-Columbian adobe architecture, including the interior and exterior of monumental architecture, religious centers, plazas, and tombs. Mural painting in the ancient Americas is a practice that extends back thousands of years and, in the absence of a textual record in the pre-Columbian Andes, offers insight to understanding indigenous cosmology and practices. These murals and buildings are rarely encountered intact today, as natural and human forces such as rain, wind, and looting have been detrimental to their preservation.

Pañamarca, located in the Nepeña Valley on the north coast of Peru, is not likely to be a familiar archaeological site to scholars outside of pre-Columbian studies. Vivid, brightly colored murals from the Moche culture, which flourished on the north coast of Peru between 200 and 800 C.E., were discovered and published in the 1950s, bringing the site prominent national and international attention.1 These murals depicted figural imagery of processing priests and warriors, ceremonies, and supernatural beings engaged in battle. At the time, murals such as these were unknown elsewhere. Their figural representations of mythology and ritual have shaped the scholarship of the Moche world and iconography. Mural E, the most well-known of Pañamarca’s wall paintings, has been used as an important example of a narrative of human sacrifice and ritual toasting. It features a priestess offering a sacrificial goblet flanked by priests, captured warriors, and human sacrifice. This scene, dubbed the “Presentation Theme” and later “Sacrifice Ceremony,” is believed to be a principal component of Moche religious and political ideology.2 

Numerous projects throughout the 20th century have studied the murals, but despite their impact on Moche studies, little archaeological research has occurred at the site. The project of Trever and her colleagues is the first study to incorporate archaeological investigation into understanding the murals and site architecture. The Archaeology of Mural Painting at Pañamarca, Peru contextualizes the site’s research history through the lens of a visual archive and presents the findings of the authors’ archaeological investigation. The book provides insight into how Pañamarca’s murals have impacted the imagination of the site and its scholarly significance throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It also reveals exciting new information documented by the authors during their fieldwork. Therefore, the book is divided in two parts. Trever presents the modern history of art and archaeology at Pañamarca in Part 1, with new information and insightful commentary about the history of research and documentation of the site. Part 2 presents the detailed findings of the Proyecto Arqueológico Pañamarca-Área Monumental (PAPAM), the authors’ interdisciplinary field project.

Part 1 provides a thorough visual history of modern research at Pañamarca describing a “series of modern encounters between scholars, artists, and the ruins of Pañamarca” (28). Trever draws on the available material “archive,” including new information from archives and PAPAM’s fieldwork, to recount the site’s historiography. This richly detailed narrative includes analysis of imagery of the site produced over time, including never before published images of the murals (for example, Figures 41 and 43 are replicas of the murals produced by a mid-20th- century expedition that Trever located in an archive). Trever draws on the material “archive” of Pañamarca’s modern history beginning with late 19th-century travel narratives, where photographs of the site’s monumental architecture were published as stenograph pairs taken by Augustus Le Plongeon and published in Ephraim George Squier’s Peru: Incidents of Travel and Exploration in the Land of the Incas (1877). Trever contextualizes photographs and illustrations produced by visitors to Pañamarca over the late 19th and 20th centuries, providing background on the perspectives and training of individuals, resources available, techniques, and technology that informed their interpretation and production.3 

One of the most important points highlighted by Trever’s site biography is the choices made by researchers in their documentation and the reproduction of some of these images. In particular, her description of the history of documentation of Mural E is fascinating. The most frequently reproduced illustration of Mural E is not the original illustration, which was drawn by the artist Felix Caycho Quispe working with Duccio Bonavia in 1958. Rather, the illustration that has often appeared in publication by Moche scholars is a photo-composite with an image of Caycho’s painting on an adobe wall that appeared as a postcard with several editions, which was sold in Lima in the 1960s and 1970s (Figure 56, see fn. 74, 75). Trever highlights the loss of the original mural as replicas and reproductions distance us from the original source. She goes as far as constructing a genealogy of the mural’s documentation and modern “replica-mass” (Figure 61). This example highlights how important understanding histories and practices of archaeological illustration are, especially in the case of works such as Mural E, as so little of this mural survives, and preventative conservation measures require the mural to be buried. Part 1 concludes with reflections of how Pañamarca’s modern biography and previous documentation have impacted PAPAM’s own recording methods.

Part 2, “Findings of the Pañamarca Documentary Field Project,” includes extensive documentation, both visual and descriptive, of the murals, architecture, contexts, and material culture recovered at Pañamarca by the PAPAM field project. PAPAM’s research methodology was enormously fruitful, and the excavations documented remains of all of the murals that had been previously published. Their team recovered material culture in association with murals which provides fascinating insights to Moche practices, such as the discovery of an offering of a feathered shield adjacent to the murals first documented in 1950.4 

The project also documented a new building in the site’s monumental sector, Temple of the Painted Pillars, with murals that had not been seen in 1,200 years. Nearly every wall and square pillar, which supported the roof, was painted and featured figural, narrative imagery of Moche mythology and ritual practice. These murals conform to the canon of iconography documented in Moche fineline ceramics from the northern Moche world. Excavations provided important information about site architecture and the construction sequence, enabling them to determine that the initial construction of the temple dated to about 650 C.E., and that it was renovated four times and then closed within 150 years. New murals were painted with each renovation which may have corresponded with new leaders coming to power. Appendix 4 is an excellent source for understanding the painting sequence of murals documented in the Temple of the Painted Pillars. Archaeological investigation enabled documentation of offerings made during renovations of the temple, including bundles of highly valued prestige resources such as Spondylus princeps from Ecuador and (possibly) lapis lazuli from Chile (Figure 230).

While Part 2 is of clear interest to other pre-Columbianists, it is also of value to archaeologists, art historians, architectural historians, and conservators working elsewhere as an exemplary model of the productivity of interdisciplinary collaborations. In addition to extensive illustrations from plan views, drawings of architectural sections, and photographs, the publication describes details about conservation interventions that were undertaken throughout the field project. As Colin McEwan points out in the book’s preface, it is rare that the study of mural art is carried out with a site’s archaeological program to better understand the chronological history. Yet, this stimulating study demonstrates the great potential that interdisciplinary collaboration can produce.

The dual foci of The Archaeology of Mural Painting at Pañamarca, Peru are complementary, with Part 1 informing the questions and approach to PAPAM’s fieldwork. In addition to being the first extensive publication dedicated to the site itself, it provides an essential site biography that critically examines illustrations of site architecture and murals produced in the past. It includes exciting new information on these early studies of Pañamarca. The field research of Trever and her colleagues has produced the first architectural and mural sequence for the site, anchored by absolute dating. The murals documented at Pañamarca are a tremendous new resource for Moche studies, as are the other types of material culture documented by the project. This book will remain a critical source for pre-Columbian mural art, not only because it is the most extensive resource on Pañamarca’s murals, but also for its thorough documentation, since the vivid iconography of Pañamarca’s walls and pillars are not accessible.

Alicia Boswell
University of California, Santa Barbara
D. Bonavia, “Una Pintura mural de Pañamarca, valle de Nepeña,” Arqueológicas 5(1959): 21–54; R. Schaedel, “Mochica Murals at Pañamarca,” Archaeology 4, no. 3 (1951): 145–154.
C. Donnan, “The Thematic Approach to Moche Iconography,” Journal of Latin American Lore 1, no. 2 (1975): 147–162; C. Donnan, “Moche State Religion: A Unifying Force in Moche Political Organization,” in New Perspectives on Moche Political Organization, ed. J. Quilter and L.J. Castillo B. (Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010).
Bonavia, “Una Pintura mural.” D. Bonavia, “Félix Caycho Quispe y la arqueología peruana,” Sian 6, no.11 (2001): 3-9.
R. Schaedel, “Mochica Murals.” L. Trever, J. Gamboa Velásquez, R. Toribio Rodriguez, and F. Surette, “A Moche Feathered Shield from the Painted Temples of Pañamarca, Peru,” Ñawpa Pacha 33, no.1 (2013): 103–118.