The Moche civilization has received considerable scholarly attention over the past three decades, in the wake of the impressive discoveries of the tombs of the Lord of Sipán in 1987. Archaeologists have uncovered towering huacas (monumental stepped platforms), sumptuous burials, and meticulously crafted fine-line ceramics at a plethora of sites scattered along the river valleys of Peru’s north coast. But perhaps the most enigmatic features of the Moche artistic repertoire are the murals that adorn the walls of temples and residences of dozens of archaeological sites across the region. The best-known Moche wall paintings are those at Huaca de la Luna, which boasts friezes of prisoners, mythological creatures, and the aptly named “Complex Theme” mural—a veritable kaleidoscope of aquatic and celestial symbolism. Yet surprisingly, there has been little scholarly work dedicated exclusively to Moche murals, with the exception of Duccio Bonavia’s important book Mural Painting in Ancient Peru (1985); wall paintings are usually included as a chapter or subsection of broader archaeological studies of a particular site.
It seems that there are three reasons for this scholarly lacuna. One, which Lisa Trever acknowledges in the introduction of this new book, is that the majority of Moche murals have been excavated post-1990, and this kind of specialized, medium-specific scholarship often takes at least a generation to incubate, especially when one considers the time lag between excavation and publication. Second, the majority of art historical studies on the Moche have tended to focus on ceramics, perhaps given their ubiquity in museum collections across Peru, the United States, and Europe. The third reason speaks to a deeper issue of methodological rivalry between archaeologists and art historians working in the Pre-Columbian Americas. As one eminent Mesoamerican archaeologist put it to me when I was an undergraduate, “Art historians like to make up stories.”
Trever’s The Archaeology of Mural Painting at Pañamarca, Peru puts to rest any lingering doubts regarding the veracity of art historical approaches to the pre-Hispanic visual record, a contention itself symptomatic of antiquated disciplinary compartmentalizations that are thankfully increasingly dropping out of favor. Trever’s book, which she wrote in collaboration with archaeologist and illustrator Jorge Gamboa, archaeologist Ricardo Toribio, and conservator Ricardo Morales, demonstrates a remarkable synthesis of archaeological investigation with art historical analysis of the iconic murals of the southern Moche site of Pañamarca.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1, written by Trever, presents an overview of the site, with a focus on the history of excavations there, from the observations of nineteenth-century travelers to the most recent excavations conducted by Bonavia in the mid-twentieth century. The second part of the book, jointly written by Trever, Gamboa, Toribio, and Morales, provides in-depth technical documentation and analysis of the excavations they conducted at the site in 2010. The fruitful six-month excavation negated the long-held assumption that the Pañamarca murals were completely destroyed after the 1970 earthquake; Trever and her colleagues discovered vestiges of the previously published murals as well as undiscovered murals that appear in print here for the very first time. Normally these two parts would exist as separate publications, with the latter in the form of a technical report.
Part 1 delves into a historiography of archaeological and art historical investigation of Pañamarca, beginning with early explorers Ephraim George Squier, Augustus Le Plongeon, and Ernst Middendorf, who first documented the site through illustrations and photographs. Trever painstakingly traces the history of archaeological image production at the site, producing what she calls an “art history of archaeology.” She moves beyond mere assessments of the images’ accuracy and instead contextualizes a variety of them, from Le Plongeon’s stereographs of the site to Squier’s engravings in which he inserts himself into the image as a key player in the site’s discovery. Trever offers sound, archivally grounded analysis of the writings and images of these early visitors, but her somewhat tepid conclusion that these representations “can be seen primarily as images destined to serve this North American audience and the commercial, narrative genre that it consumed” (39) feels like a missed opportunity to delve into the sociopolitical dynamics of these travel accounts, and how they projected an imperial imaginary that drew on earlier colonial tropes of discovery and splendor.
Trever then moves into a discussion of the earliest scientific investigations of the site by Julio C. Tello and his assistant Toribio Mejía Xesspe, beautifully illustrated with field notes and drawings executed by Mejía, whom Trever reveals as a much more significant player in the site’s early excavation and documentation than previously known. She follows with another fascinating episode in the historiography of Pañamarca: the role of north coast indigenistas in illustrating the murals and bringing national attention to the site. As she aptly remarks, “The history of research at Pañamarca does not proceed in a linear march of ever-greater scientific fidelity” (57).
While a more traditional approach may have cast aside the heavily stylized illustrations of the murals by 1950s indigenista artists Pedro Azabache Bustamante and Félix Caycho Quispe as tangential to a scholarly understanding of this archaeological site, Trever centers them as vital to the story of Pañamarca’s artistic and intellectual exploration. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of part 1 is the visual genealogy of Mural E, which has undergone a series of permutations and distortions that began with Caycho’s drawing of the now-fragmentary mural of the Sacrifice Ceremony. This widely reproduced image has achieved canonical status as one of the most important murals of the Pre-Columbian Andes despite the fact that the image itself is a highly edited digital manipulation of a version of the original drawing grafted onto a generic adobe wall.
Part 2, “Pañamarca Revisited,” details the excavations undertaken in 2010, replete with diagrams, site maps, and an extensive photographic register of the murals. Part 2 will likely appeal to archaeologists interested in the technical aspects of the excavations in order to draw comparisons and connections with other Moche sites. The authors are exhaustive in their fine-grained analysis of the murals, most of which survive in extremely fragmentary form. They are forthcoming and meticulous in their discussion of conservation interventions, not only in the excavation of the murals, but in their subsequent reburial in order to ensure optimal protection. Indeed, given the lack of resources available to conduct ongoing excavations and keep Pañamarca open to visitors as an archaeological site, they had to rebury the murals they uncovered in 2010, thus making the need for detailed and transparent documentation all the more urgent.
This section will also be of interest to art historians in its demonstration of both the limitations and the advantages of modern technology in the documentation of murals. Some of the photographs, despite their undeniable indexicality, read as illegible mosaics of cracked clay plaster and pigment. It is Jorge Gamboa and Pedro Neciosup’s field drawings that grant legibility to these murals, enabling us to imagine their original chromatic brilliance and iconographic complexity. And Trever and Kirsten Larson’s “digital conservation” of the murals through their layering of color onto the line drawings produced by their colleagues gives us an even fuller glimpse of how the site’s brightly painted walls may have appeared in antiquity. We can thus see how the process of image making at Pañamarca is an ongoing one, always mediated by the needs and preoccupations of its interlocutors.
While I acknowledge Trever’s efforts to establish continuity between parts 1 and 2, there is some disjointedness that makes it difficult to connect the thoughtful historiographical discussion of Moche image making with the highly technical material in the second half of the book. Moreover, the discussion of the mural iconography in comparative perspective could have benefited from further discussion. We are left wondering why the iconography of the Pañamarca murals appears to have been adapted from northern ceramics as opposed to local ones. Can we trace any vectors of transmission of iconography from murals to textiles to ceramics, and back to murals again? What types of ritual practices might have occurred in conjunction with these murals? We will likely have to wait for Trever’s forthcoming book, Moche Murals and Archaeo-Art History: Image Studies in Ancient Peru, to begin to answer these questions. This impressive book is a significant contribution to the scholarly literature, and one that sets a high bar for future studies on ancient muralism of Peru’s north coast.