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The Moche Sacrifice Ceremony

Moche Archaeology at Sipán


Fineline Drawing of Moche Sacrifice Ceremony, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich

Fineline Drawing of Moche Sacrifice Ceremony, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Munich

Drawn by Donna McClelland
The Moche had a complex system of iconography and ceremonialism, expressed in part through fineline designs, geometrical and/or pictorial scenes drawn on pots and in murals at sites such as Pañamarca, Huaca de la Luna and El Brujo. The drawings relate stories or mythological events or 'themes' which are found repeated on different ceramic bowls in different Moche cities. Between 20 and 40 themes have been identified to date, and one of the most complex is called the "Sacrifice Ceremony" which was recorded by the Moche with some variation several times.

The Sacrifice Ceremony shown in this image is from a ceramic pot in a museum collection in Munich and was drawn by Donna McClelland. According to archaeologist Christopher Donnan, this drawing shows a ceremony in which captives have their throats cut (the events shown on the bottom), and their blood consumed by priests and attendants (shown on the top).

Four main priests are shown on the top part of this drawing, and they are iconographic figures that recur not just in the Sacrifice Ceremony, but in other themes and alone. Figure A is the Warrior Priest, who always wears a conical hat and a warrior's backflap, and carries a large goblet. Figure B is called the Bird Priest, always part bird and part human. Figure C is called the Priestess, and she always wears a dress, a headdress with prominent plumes, and a hairstyle of wrapped braids. Figure D is another priest, who always wears a headdress with long streams with serrated edges.

Archaeological evidence indicates that these ceremonies were not just legends, but rather were recurring public events. Archaeologists recognized this first in 1987, when excavations at Sipán identified one person who was buried with the equipment and clothing of the Warrior Priest (el Señor de Sipán), and a second perhaps representing the Bird Priest. Additional excavations have identified two burials of women who may have been as the Priestess (Figure C) at the Moche site of San José de Moro and El Brujo (la Señora de Cao).


Alva, W. & C.B. Donnan. 1993. Royal Tombs of Sipan. Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles.

Bourget, S. 2006. Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Donnan, C.B. & D. McClelland. 2000. Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles.

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