Iconography / Moche / Pre-Columbian / Visual Literacy

Practicing Visual Literacy Skills while Decoding Moche Iconography

Written by Ameena Mohammad, former Pre-Columbian Archives Assistant (2013-2014); Edited by ICFA Staff 

As I mentioned in my previous post about processing the collection Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011, assessing and providing access to this collection has involved fact-finding or playing detective. I got to spend an ample amount of time looking through photographs of ceramic vessels and fineline drawings. While I often pride myself for having an eye for the visual arts, especially moving images, the Moche Archive has certainly given my eyes and visual literacy skills a work out!

Exploring Moche iconography 

As an animal lover, some of my favorite subjects to explore within the Moche Archive were related to animal. Donnan further designated some animal subjects as “natural” versus “mythical.” For example, deer are split into two categories, with Category 42: Deer (natural) and Category 43: Deer (mythical). A “natural” depiction of deer features the animal in a natural habitat, as seen below (left image). On this vessel, the drawing depicts a young deer galloping, tongue hanging out, as well as some plant life surrounding the animal. On the other hand, “mythical” depictions of deer tend to be more decorated (e.g., a patterned body) and appear stoic or less expressive in form, as if the animal has human traits. In the example to the right below, the mythical representation is anthropomorphic, and shows the deer with large antlers and a patterned body.

The fineline painted vessel on the left is categorized as  Deer (natural), where the image on the right is categorized as Deer (mythical). Images from Series 4: "Large" Photograpic Prints, Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011.

The Moche fineline painted vessel on the left is categorized as Deer (natural); the vessel on the right is categorized as Deer (mythical).

Is that a deer or a llama?

Identifying the species of animal  on Moche vessels was not always easy. At least, not without some additional research! I would sometimes sit in ICFA and ask myself or colleagues: “Is that a deer or a llama?” Still, I was curious to understand the visual distinctions that Christopher Donnan and other scholars have made between the animals. Wanting to learn more about the iconography, I turned to Donnan’s Moche Art and Iconography (Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Latin American Center, University of California, 1976; specifically pages 30-31). According to Donnan’s book, deer and llamas are similar in that they have “cloven hoofs,” but otherwise the animals differ greatly upon closer examination.

DeerTransparencyCat42

A Moche ceramic vessel categorized as Deer (natural). The up-turned ears and tail are clues to its animal type. Series 4: “Large” Photographic Prints, Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011.

Deer are consistently depicted with short, often textured, tails pointed upward. Additionally, deer have larger, almost diamond-shaped, ears.

LlamaTransparency

A ceramic vessel categorized as Llama. Its patterned body and down-turned ears give clues to its animal type, Series 4: “Large” Photographic Prints, Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011.

On the other hand, llamas have pointy ears, and may or may not have a spot design on their bodies. Llamas also have short tails that are typically turned down. Lastly, llamas are often depicted as working animals with ropes around their necks and/or carrying “burden bags,” as seen in the collage below.

Images of llamas from Series 4; "Large" Photographic Prints, Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011

Images of llamas from Series 4: “Large” Photographic Prints, Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011

Visual Literacy  Test 

While I am now able to identify and differentiate certain images in the collection, the initial reference interviews with our researchers and working with the collections materials were certainly very important and necessary to developing my visual literacy skills. During processing, I learned that the categories constructed by Donnan were based on his own and his research associates’ visual interpretations and in-depth research of the material, and so some of the categories can seem subjective. For example, two different scholars may refer to the same vessel using varying terminology. For example, Donnan’s Category 86 in the Moche Archive is “Music,” while Elisabeth Benson identifies scenes represented on the same vessels as “procession,” or sometimes more specifically “figures playing panpipes.”

My visual literacy skills were put into test when we received a rather large reference request from a scholar.  A curator from a museum in Geneva, Switzerland asked for high resolution images and for permission to use 26 fineline drawings in an exhibit on Moche Royalty and to publish them in the companion publication. With his request, he provided ICFA with captions in French.

For example:

fig. 3.84 :
Scène peinte du Démon au sommet fendu s’apprêtant à décapiter un guerrier
Phase III, 5e siècle
Museo Larco, Inv. n°  ML003441
Dessin par Donnan McClelland, Courtesy of the Dumbarton Oaks Research and Library.

fig. 3.84 : Scène peinte du Démon au sommet fendu s’apprêtant à décapiter un guerrierPhase III, 5e siècleMuseo Larco, Inv. n°  ML003441Dessin par Donnan McClelland, Courtesy of the Dumbarton Oaks Research and Library.

fig. 3.84 : Scène peinte du Démon au sommet fendu s’apprêtant à décapiter un guerrierPhase III, 5e siècleMuseo Larco, Inv. n° ML003441 Dessin par Donnan McClelland, Courtesy of the Dumbarton Oaks Research and Library.

In what category do you think this drawing is filed within the collection? How would you interpret the illustration? For the list of categories, see the appendix in the finding aid.

While my knowledge of the French language ended in fifth grade, my initial interpretation of the text (and image) was: “demon preparing to behead a warrior.” Google Translate said: “Painted scene of the Devil to split top preparing to behead a warrior.”

To begin my search, I needed to narrow down a few possible categories before physically searching for the fineline drawing. I think the strategy of planning-ahead is effective given the number of categories to search within.

Binders full of the 2,067 Moche fineline drawings.

Binders full of Moche fineline drawings.

During the search for the 26 fineline drawings, I relied on the finding aid, the cross-references Donnan provided in the Moche Archive Guide (Series 7), and a partial list of cross-references that I created during processing. I also relied on my overall experience working with the collection.  As a result, I decided to limit my search to the following categories based on my own visual and textual interpretations:

  • Category 05: Decapitation …because the large figure looks like it’s wielding a weapon.
  • Category 28: Prisoners (capture) and Category 29: Prisoners (sacrifice) …because it looks as though the little figure is captured or going to be sacrificed.
  • Category 70 Snakes (natural and mythical) …because there appear to be four snakes in the fineline drawing.
  • Category 38: Body Parts and Category 63: Crested Animals …because both of these categories are cross-references of category 05

But unfortunately, my search did not yield any results. And so I kept thinking about crested animals (Category 63) and supernatural figures (Category 04):

Example of crested animals. Fineline Drawing: 647 - LAR 98-30 - Category 63 - III.

Example of crested animals. Fineline Drawing: 647 – LAR 98-30 – Category 63 – III.

Example of supernatural figures. Fineline Drawing: 675 - BER 158/159 - III - Category 04.

Example of supernatural figures. Fineline Drawing: 675 – BER 158/159 – III – Category 04.

Other scholars refer to “crested animals” as “moon animals” or “moon monsters,” reminding me of the importance of cross-references and indexed terminology. And so, I checked the cross-references for “crested animals” and only found one: monkeys (natural and mythical), This seemed like a long-shot, but the little guy in the top right did look monkey-like to me. Nevertheless, I still did not find the drawing.

Next, I focused on the curled noses in the iconography, and so I asked myself: what categories use “crested animals” as a cross-reference? And of those, what potentially fits with the iconography seen here? Yet again, I searched for more cross references in the Moche Archive Guide, but this time focusing on the supernatural element of the drawing.

Eventually, I found the the drawing in Category 27: Supernatural Confrontations, as seen in the caption below. With this, I know that Donna McClelland illustrated this particular drawing due to its number identifier (#687), since she illustrated the majority of the fineline drawings numbered between 0001 and 0819. So, I not only found the drawing, but also identified its creator.

Where is this fineline drawing? Could it be organized in a cross reference of Category 63: Crested Animals?

Found in Category 27: Supernatural Confrontations. Fineline Drawing: 687-LAR 98-5-5-III Category 27.

Overall, working with the Moche Archive has allowed me to practice my visual literacy skills on a regular basis during my term. The collection has also made me more aware of how to read non-moving visual frames, and I’ve learned to give pause, look deeper, and sometimes take more than a second look for visual cues. Lastly, this collection has given me a genuine sense of fulfillment and a lasting appreciation for the study of Moche art and iconography.

Credit line for all images:

Christopher B. Donnan and Donna McClelland Moche Archive, 1963-2011, PH.PC.001, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

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