Ancient girl power: The roles of elite women in Moche society

In 2013, Archeologists uncovered new evidence that broadens our understanding of roles of elite women in Moche society. Check out what they found!
by Hendrika Janssen

The tomb of a powerful Moche priestess-queen was unearthed during the summer of 2013 in San Jose de Moro in northwestern Peru. This was an interesting find, as the discovery helped alter people’s thoughts about the role of elite women in Moche society.

But what do we know about the Moche civilization? And how did the discovery of ancient tombs of priestess-queens change perceptions about elite women in the culture?

The Moche culture

The Moche civilization, also known as the Early Chimu or Moche culture, flourished in the northern part of Peru from approximately 100 AD until 800 AD. Their capital was located near present-day Moche and Trujillo.

Although this is the topic of much debate, scholars believe that the Moche were not politically organized as a monolithic state or empire. Instead, it is believed that they were a group that shared a common elite culture, depicted in the iconography and architecture that still survives today. The society relied heavily on agriculture, and they are notably known for the construction of an elaborate irrigation system to ensure water from the river reached their crops.

The Moche culture was highly sophisticated, and the excavated artifacts show their lives, with meticulous scenes of fishing, fighting, hunting, ceremonies, sacrifice and sexual encounters. This culture is best known for their intricately decorated ceramics, gold work and “huacas” (monumental constructions).

Moche Pottery, Peru, Peru For LessThis is a typical pre-Columbian Moche ceramic.
Photo by Rainbowasi/Flickr

But who ruled the Moche? Recent archeological evidence indicates that women played a key role in ruling this mysterious culture.

The Moche priestess-queens

Since excavations first began at San Jose de Moro in 1991, eight elite female burial grounds have been unearthed. This evidence has made archeologists conclude that this city was a crucial ceremonial and pilgrimage center between 600 and 850 AD. The tombs also highlight the central role of elite women in the era.

The most recent discovery was made in 2013, when archeologists uncovered the remains of a high priestess-queen of the Moche culture in an impressive burial chamber in the Chepén Province in northern Peru. The queen was buried alongside two (presumably sacrificed) female attendants, and five children. Several key hints were found regarding the woman’s identity and role in society.

Moche excavation site, Peru, Archaeology, Peru For LessYale University student Daniela Wolin (right) and SFU archeology student Matthew Go (left) are working hard to unearth an adult woman from the late Moche period
Photo by SFU Public Affairs and Media Relations

The skeleton of the woman was found resting on a low platform in the chamber, and was dressed with a single bead necklace made from local stones. Next to the skeleton lay a crucial clue to the woman’s identity: a tall silver goblet appearing in Moche art and depicting human sacrifice and the drinking of blood. These types of vessels have previously been found exclusively in the tombs of powerful priestess-queens.

Another clue regarding the importance of this woman in society is the extensive decorations on the coffin. While the wooden box itself had long decayed by the time it was found, it had been covered in copper plaques. These plaques had a typical Moche design of waves and steps.

Close to the skeleton’s head they found a copper funerary mask (that most likely once laid on top of the coffin). At the foot they found 2 copper sandals. Excavation director Luis Jaime Castillo Butters tells National Geographic : “The coffin was anthropomorphized… It became a person.” The coffin was likely a part of a public funeral, as is done with famous people in current day.

Moche Funerary Mask, Peru, Peru For LessThis is an example of a copper Moche funerary mask
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The priestess-queen that was buried here along with the others that were found, are believed to have been imperative in governing the spiritual and political affairs of the region. This is an enormous shift in analysis of how the Moche society was structured, as Castillo Butters tells National Geographic: “Twenty-five years ago we thought that power was monopolized by male warrior-priests.”

A change in perception

The diverse discoveries in recent years have  now placed women at the top of Moche power structures. The idea that men exclusively ruled the culture has been discounted.

At the El Brujo site in Trujillo for example, a tattooed female mummy was uncovered in 2005. This mummy was buried with huge ceremonial war clubs and nose rings with implicit designs including men holding war clubs – all traditional symbols of power. Tokens of great wealth were also found with the mummy, including 15 different types of necklaces. Some scholars believe this woman was a warrior queen.

huaca, Moche, Peru, Peru For LessDepicted here is the facade of a Moche tomb, known as a huaca, at the El Brujo excavation site in Trujillo
Photo by Veronique Debord

This find along with evidence found at San Jose de Moro in 2013 indicates that power in this area was held by women. Females were likely in charge of many communities in the area, while men had control over others. The Moche believed that these roles continued after death: “The Moche seem to have believed that the identities that gave prominence to these individuals in life were to be maintained after death,” Castillo Butters tells National Geographic. “Accordingly, they imbued their burials not only with symbols of religion and power, but [also]with the artifacts and costumes that allowed the priests and priestesses to continue performing their ritual roles in the afterlife.”

Learn more about the unknown pre-Inca civilizations of Peru

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