Assessment / Fellowship / Iconography / Photographs / Pre-Columbian

Assessment of the Moche Archive at Dumbarton Oaks

Written by Lisa Trever, Tyler Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies
PhD in History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks is the new home of the Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1968–2010. The archive was given to the institution by Dr. Donnan, professor emeritus of anthropology at UCLA, in 2011. It is an incomparable visual resource for the study of Pre-Columbian art.

A sample of images from the Donnan and McClelland Archive, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives

A sample of images from the Donnan and McClelland Archive, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives

The primary subject of the archive is the finely painted and mold-made ceramic vessels made by Moche artists on the north coast of Peru from about AD 250 to 850. The ceramic art of the Moche is extraordinarily figural and often very naturalistic, in contrast to other more abstract and schematic visual traditions of the Incas or other early South American cultures.

Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows examining the Donnan and McClelland Moche Archive in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives in April 2013.

Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows examining the Donnan and McClelland Moche Archive in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives in April 2013.

The Moche archive consists of two primary sub-groups: about 100,000 study photographs taken by Donnan during visits to museums and private collections in the United States, Europe, and South America and archaeological projects in northern Peru; and prints of over 800 rollout drawings of Moche iconography made by the late Donna McClelland and other collaborators for the archive.

The Moche Sacrifice Ceremony depicted on a bottle in the Museo Larco, Lima. Top: photography by Christopher B. Donnan. Bottom: rollout drawing by Donna McClelland (448)

The Moche Sacrifice Ceremony depicted on a bottle in the Museo Larco, Lima. Top: photography by Christopher B. Donnan. Bottom: rollout drawing by Donna McClelland (448)

As McClelland described her process of illustrating Moche bottles in 1999: “The problem of making a flat rollout drawing of the design on a spherical vessel is similar to that of a cartographer making a flat map of the spherical earth. Something similar to an “orange-peel” map, rather than a Mercator projection must be created.” To create her illustrations, McClelland would lay out on her table dozens of 3 ½” x 5” photographs of multiple views of a decorated ceramic vessel. In a first pass she would make a pencil sketch of the scene to work out the proportions and spatial relationships of each figure and motif.

Director of Pre-Columbian Studies Colin McEwan demonstrates Donna McClelland’s process of drawing Moche iconography on half-matte acetate from Donnan’s photographs in the archive

Director of Pre-Columbian Studies Colin McEwan demonstrates Donna McClelland’s process of drawing Moche iconography on half-matte acetate from Donnan’s photographs in the archive

McClelland then created an ink drawing on half-matte acetate. To do this she would first draw a groundline using a nonphoto-blue pencil. Then she would draw the continuous scene from the ceramic using very fine drafting pens. McClelland’s drawings are especially remarkable for their attention to the subtle qualities of the ceramic painters’ lines. These rollout drawings have become so important to the study of Pre-Columbian art and iconography because—like Justin Kerr’s rollout photographs of Maya vases—they allow us to comprehend the entire pictorial content of a vessel in a single view.

An original pen drawing of bird warriors from a ceramic vessel drawn by Donna McClelland

An original pen drawing of bird warriors from a ceramic vessel drawn by Donna McClelland

The iconographic subject matter of the Moche Archive is vast. The photographs and drawings are arranged into ninety-three iconographic categories defined by Donnan and McClelland. The imagery ranges from realistic representations of plants and animals, to bizarre sculptural scenes, to esoteric images of Moche ritual practice and mythology. Special strengths of the collection include the famous Moche portrait head vessels or huaco retratos and representations of the “Presentation Theme” or “Sacrifice Ceremony” and the “Burial Theme.” The latter is the subject of a 1979 Dumbarton Oaks monograph by Donnan and McClelland that is available here. The archive contains prints of the fineline drawings, negatives, slides, and various photographic formats.

Moche_Human Head006Moche_Human Head007

Examples of the subject boards where Donnan and McClelland arranged contact prints as they worked out the categories of Moche ceramic iconography, in this case human heads.

An unexpected discovery made during the process of inventorying the Moche archive was the inclusion of a rollout photograph made by Justin Kerr—best known for photographing Maya vases—of a Moche stirrup spout bottle in a private collection. This mythological scene of creation and the growth of a divine tree in which monkeys frolick was illustrated as well by Donna McClelland for the Moche Archive. The comparison of rollout photograph and rollout drawing exhibits the various ways that scholars, artists, and photographers have sought to make Pre-Columbian iconography visible and comprehendible for scholarly study and lay appreciation.

Images of a mythological scene of creation painted on a Moche bottle in a private collection. Top: rollout photograph by Justin Kerr (K5837). Bottom left: rollout drawing by Donna McClelland (549). Bottom right: still photographs from the Donnan and McClelland Moche Archive

Images of a mythological scene of creation painted on a Moche bottle in a private collection. Top: rollout photograph by Justin Kerr (K5837). Bottom left: rollout drawing by Donna McClelland (549). Bottom right: still photographs from the Donnan and McClelland Moche Archive

As a Tyler Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks this past year, I created an initial, 200-page inventory and assessment of the Moche archive to prepare it for further processing and scholarly access. Although Donnan and McClelland have published many of the fineline drawings in their books and articles, there is much more material that has still not yet been published. In addition to the fineline ceramics, there are thousands of images of sculptural ceramics that have received far less academic attention than this rich material merits.

The Moche Archive is housed in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks and will be available for scholarly consultation by appointment.

For more information, please see the link to Donnan’s and McClelland’s 1979 publication: http://www.doaks.org/resources/publications/doaks-online-publications/pre-columbian-studies/the-burial-theme-in-moche-iconography

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