The Moche Temples

The Moche Temples



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The Moche Temples in Peru are made up of Huaca del Sol y la Luna, translated as the Temples of the Sun and the Moon.

History of the Moche Temples

The Moche Empire was a pre-Inca civilisation, which lasted from roughly 100 to 900 AD: it was centred at the Huacas del Moche (Moche Temples), near the mouth of the Moche River Valley. The complex of huacas was thought to have been built in 500 AD.

The Moche Temples are located in northern Peru and, like many Moche sites, are adorned with various colourful friezes of different shapes and ominous figures. They were built of adobe bricks and would have been constructed over the course of many years, each generation adding further levels. Friezes and ceramics found at the respective sites detail a range of Moche customs, including religious rituals involving human sacrifice and their relationships with their gods. These would have originally been brightly coloured: it’s thought religious leaders took hallucinogenic substances, which explains why some of the images are so vivid and surreal.

The site was occupied for a relatively short period of time: extreme climate events including prolonged flooding and subsequent droughts meant that the Moche relocated north. The larger Huaca del Sol was looted by the conquistadors in the 16th century: they diverted the nearby river to run past the base of the pyramid in order to more easily access materials.

The huacas were opened up again in the 1990s by archaeologists, and only

While Huaca del Sol is the smaller of the two Moche Temples, it is better preserved than Huaca de la Luna.

The Moche Temples today

The site is far from developed – it’s still a work in progress but there is now signage and interpretation. The Museo Huacas del Moche is a short walk away, and houses much of what was excavated from the site. It’s well worth paying the museum a visit.

Bear in mind most of the signage is in Spanish: English-speaking guides lurk at the taquilla (ticket booth), and it’s worth hiring one if no-one in your group speaks Spanish as Moche civilization is fascinating to learn about.

Getting to the Moche Temples

Today, the city of Trujillo is about 3km away. Local buses or combis will be able to drop you there easily: head to the south east of Trujillo to find one heading in the right direction. For a comfier journey, hire a taxi, or if you fancy stretching your legs, it’s about a 6km site from the centro historico of Trujillo.


Huaca del Sol: A Massive Ancient Temple Made of More Than 130 million adobe bricks

A view at the Huaca del Sol. Shutterstock.

More than 1,500 years ago, a pre-Columbian civilization inhabiting the northern coast of what is now Peru erected a humongous structure in honor of the sun.

Called Huaca del Sol, this supermassive temple is believed to have been constructed by the Moche civilization.

The ancient culture flourished in the region from around 100 to 750 AD. They were people who were agriculturally based and invested a great amount of time and resources in building an intricate network of irrigation canals that eventually allowed them to supply water for their crops.

It was one of the most sophisticated cultures of ancient times in Peru. Evidence of their history can be found in numerous artifacts where we can see organized people who participated in numerous activities, including hunting, fishing, fighting, sacrifice, sexual encounters, and elaborate ceremonies.

But they are most famous for the goldwork, their ‘huacas‘ and irrigation systems.

Huaca del Sol. Image Credit: Shutterstock.


Moche Chronology

Scholars have come to recognize two autonomous geographic regions for the Moche, separated by the Paijan desert in Peru. They had separate rulers with the capital of the Northern Moche at Sipán, and that of the Southern Moche at the Huacas de Moche. The two regions have slightly different chronologies and have some variations in material culture.

  • Early Intermediate (AD 100-550) North: Early and Middle Moche South: Moche Phase I-III
  • Middle Horizon (AD 550-950) N: Late Moche A, B, and C S: Moche Phase IV-V, Pre-Chimu or Casma
  • Late Intermediate (AD 950-1200) N: Sican S: Chimu

The Inca were fond of gold and silver and used it for ornaments and for decorating their temples and palaces, as well as for personal jewelry. The Inca also practiced basic mining. As the Andes Mountains are rich in minerals, the Incans accumulated a great deal of gold and silver by the time the Spaniards arrived

Few criminals are able to make a successful living out of bank robbery over the long run. Bank robberies are still fairly common and are indeed successful, although eventually many bank robbers are found and arrested.


Peabody Museum

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The Inca of Peru’s southern highlands are perhaps the best known of the ancient civilizations of South America. They created one of the largest empires in the world of their time, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But while their achievements were impressive, they were only the last in a series of remarkable cultures that had preceded them. One of their greatest rivals for empire was the Kingdom of Chimor, known today as the Chimu, on the north coast of Peru. But the Chimu themselves owed much to their predecessors, the Moche.

Although there were many differences between the Chimu and Moche, the Chimu had inherited much from those who had come before them. Based on documentation of surviving Chimu people encountered by the Spanish after their arrival, we know that the Chimu spoke a language called “Muchik,” a term ultimately referring to the middle sections of river valleys. These lands were the most desirable places to live, and so those who dwelt there often rose to power. One of the main centers of the Moche was the Moche Valley, a name that derives from Muchik. By the time of the Chimu, great temples there (huacas) lay in ruins, but they were considered holy ancestral places. The spectacular sites and arts of the Moche, as represented in this exhibition, are testaments to the achievements of this ancient people and offer scholars means by which to investigate this intriguing society.


Moche Metalwork

The Moche people were phenomenal metallurgists. In fact, they were pioneers in gilding and soldering metal techniques. They created a wide range of decorative, ceremonial objects, tools, weapons and jewelry. Many of these were cast in gold, silver and copper. In addition, they incorporated semiprecious stones and spondylus shells (spiny scallops) into their designs.

Ceremonial knife (tumi), 2nd-7th century, copper (cast), shell, Moche, Peru. Metropolitan Museum od Art, New York, NY, USA.

Moche artisans created decorative objects to adorn the body. Such objects included necklaces, nose ornaments, earrings, bracelets and headdresses. Many of these elaborate ornaments were discovered in royal tombs of the Moche elite. Also found there were several tumi knives. The tumi knife was a popular ritual object in Moche culture. It was usually created in metal and had a half crescent shaped blade. Sometimes the maker decorated the handle with a figure or animal. Some scholars believe that tumi knives were used in special ceremonies that involved human sacrifice.

Mural of Myths at Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) Trujillo, Peru. Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Santiago, Chile.

The Moche Royal Tombs of Sipán

In 1987, Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva received a tip from the police that local villagers had discovered gold in one of the huacas (a term for ancient sacred sites used widely in Peru) and were looting artifacts at the site of Huaca Rajada in the town of Sipán, near the modern city of Chiclayo on Peru’s northern coast. Recently, the local textile factory that had employed much of the town had suddenly shut down, and impoverished villagers turned to their local huaca for items to sell on the black market, largely driven by wealthy elites in the United States and Europe.

When Alva arrived at the scene, he discovered a rich Moche burial ground in Huaca Rajada, with some of the finest metalwork and ceramic pieces ever seen. This fateful night initiated an extensive archaeological excavation of the site over a period of nearly two decades, and excavation of the area continues today. The site has yielded over thirteen royal tombs, making it the richest burial site in the Western hemisphere.

This archaeological discovery was significant not only for the remarkable items contained within it, but because the tombs were found almost completely undisturbed due to the swift intervention on the part of the local police. Looted artifacts have been stripped from their archaeological context, making it very difficult for scholars to understand their original function and meaning.

A reconstruction of the tomb of the Lord of Sipán at Huaca Rajada (photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lords of Sipán

Ear ornament depicting a warrior, 640–680 C.E., gold, turquoise, and wood, 9.5 cm diameter (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The thirteen burials and all of their associated artifacts were discovered in situ (in their original place), enabling archaeologists to associate specific objects with the buried individuals.

The largest burial was devoted to the individual the archaeologists named the Lord of Sipán, who was interred with 451 objects of gold, silver, copper, and turquoise. The quality of objects associated with the Sipán burials is superb, and would have required a massive and specialized workforce to create.

Among the objects found in the tomb were a pair of elaborate earflares depicting warriors, as well as another pair with deer, and others featuring geometric designs.

In the tomb of the Old Lord of Sipán (so called because archaeologist believe it is probably an ancestor of the Lord of Sipán), a resplendent necklace was found, composed of beads over three inches in diameter that feature a spider whose body markings resemble a human face and warrior’s helmet, emphasizing the relationship between warfare and sacrifice in the Moche world (spiders, which ensnare and devour their prey, were associated with rituals featuring the sacrifice of bound prisoners, as well as a god that some modern scholars have called the “Decapitator”).

Spider necklace bead, 300–390 C.E., gold, 8.3 cm diameter (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Detail of a vessel representing the Sacrifice Ceremony, with the Warrior Priest on the left and the Owl Priest on the right, 500–700 C.E., ceramic (photo: Sarahh Scher, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

By discovering the tombs in their original context, archaeologists were also able to make an even larger discovery about Moche art as a whole. The Sacrifice Ceremony, found painted on ceramics and the walls of temples in parts of the Moche world, attained greater meaning after the Sipán discoveries.

The Sacrifice Ceremony involves the ritual sacrifice of prisoners, whose blood is collected in goblets and presented as an offering to the Warrior Priest by his entourage. While the images vary across media, all of the Sacrifice Ceremony scenes frequently include the figures scholars have dubbed the Warrior Priest and the Owl Priest, often accompanied by a Priestess and other figures.

The Sipán excavations revealed that these figures were not merely mythological characters, but were connected to real humans who were buried in regalia similar to those in the painted representations.

Crescent-shaped headdress ornament (top left) and backflap (bottom left) from the Sipán tombs and their correspondence to the Warrior Priest’s depiction

By cross-referencing the tombs and their contents with Moche iconography, the Sipán burials allowed scholars to gain a better understanding of how the characters may have been a part of elite symbols of power and prestige. While the ensembles in the Sipán tombs do not directly correlate to the costumes seen in the Sacrifice Ceremony, they contain many similar elements, showing how some Moche elites identified themselves with the major actors in the Sacrifice Ceremony. At another Moche site, San José de Moro, elite women over many generations were buried with objects that identified them with the Priestess of the Sacrifice Ceremony.

A golden return

Backflap, 625–645 C.E., gold (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-SA 4.0)

This gold backflap, an article of clothing hung from the belt and perhaps meant to protect the lower back, was part of a warrior’s costume in Moche art. This example is topped with a depiction of the Decapitator, who holds a ceremonial knife called a tumi in his right hand, and a severed human head in his left. The backflap’s overall shape echoes the shape of the tumi. The half-spheres surrounding the Decapitator are actually rattles, enclosing within them small pellets of metal that would have made sound as the person wearing the backflap moved.

The backflap was one of the items originally looted from the Huaca Rajada in 1987, and was trafficked out of the country sometime between 1995 and 1997. In 1997, undercover FBI agents purchased it in a sting operation that took place in a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike. On July 15, 1998, the FBI held a ceremony to officially return the backflap to Peru, and it is now in the Museo de la Nación in Lima. The items excavated from of the Sipán tombs are housed in the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán in nearby Chiclayo.

Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán (photo: Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Additional resources

Sidney Kirkpatrick, Lords of Sipan: A tale of pre-Inca tombs, archaeology, and crime (New York: Morrow, 1992).

Walter Alva and Christopher B. Donnan, Royal Tombs of Sipán (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum, 1993)


Temples of Moche (Huacas del Sol y de la Luna) Tours and Activities

The Temples de Moche (Huacas de Moche), are Trujillo’s two most important sites that date to the Moche Empire. It’s hard to enough to fathom that civilizations existed here over 2,000 years ago, and even harder to fathom how some of their artwork has miraculously managed to remain.

At the Huaca de la Luna—Temple of the Moon—archaeologists are still uncovering frescoes which were thankfully missed by looters. Many of the paintings depict the deity Ayapec, whose snarling face and animated teeth are found on everything from ceramics to walls. It’s also believed that Huaca de Luna was a site of human sacrifice, and diggers have unearthed dozens of remains that suggest torture, warfare, and sacrifice. Given the murals and the human remains, it’s highly likely that the Huaca de Luna was a site of religious importance, and walking the corridors of the temple today is as enchanting as it is surreal.

Across the dusty Moche Valley, the Huaca del Sol—Temple of the Sun—rises 135 feet from the desert and is comprised of over 50 million bricks. It’s officially classified as the world’s largest adobe structure, although due to heavy looting by the Spanish and damage from El Niño rains, the temple hasn’t been excavated as heavily and is closed to the general public.

Temples of Moche (Huacas del Sol y de la Luna)

The Temples de Moche (Huacas de Moche), are Trujillo’s two most important sites that date to the Moche Empire. It’s hard to enough to fathom that civilizations existed here over 2,000 years ago, and even harder to fathom how some of their artwork has miraculously managed to remain.

At the Huaca de la Luna—Temple of the Moon—archaeologists are still uncovering frescoes which were thankfully missed by looters. Many of the paintings depict the deity Ayapec, whose snarling face and animated teeth are found on everything from ceramics to walls. It’s also believed that Huaca de Luna was a site of human sacrifice, and diggers have unearthed dozens of remains that suggest torture, warfare, and sacrifice. Given the murals and the human remains, it’s highly likely that the Huaca de Luna was a site of religious importance, and walking the corridors of the temple today is as enchanting as it is surreal.

Across the dusty Moche Valley, the Huaca del Sol—Temple of the Sun—rises 135 feet from the desert and is comprised of over 50 million bricks. It’s officially classified as the world’s largest adobe structure, although due to heavy looting by the Spanish and damage from El Niño rains, the temple hasn’t been excavated as heavily and is closed to the general public.


Peabody Museum

Moche’s origins are obscure. Earlier cultures preceded or overlapped its development and influenced it. By the first century a.d., Moche began to take its distinct form in the Moche and Chicama valleys, the heartland of Moche culture.

The Moche expanded ancient irrigation fields to increase agriculture and used llama caravans to bring goods from other valleys and the highlands. A ruling class of warriors and priests rose to preside over artisans and agricultural laborers, expending wealth and labor in the creation of elaborate art and towns and brilliantly decorated temples of mud bricks (adobes).

At its height, Moche influence extended from the edge of the Sechura Desert in the north to the Nepeña Valley in the south. There were two subareas of Moche culture: Northern Moche in the valleys north of the Pampa de Paiján and Southern Moche to the south of it. The Southern Moche were likely under the influence of a large powerful center in the Moche Valley, while the Northern Moche consisted of independent centers.

Moche political history was complex, and the fortunes of different regions likely varied over the course of the seven centuries of Moche’s existence. Some peoples may have been forced by Moche armies to yield to new lifeways, while others may have willingly converted to Moche beliefs and practices. To the east in the highlands, the Recuay culture preserved its own traditions despite clashing with Moche at various times. Southwards, the Lima and Nasca cultures had little contact with the Moche and maintained their independence.


Ancient Peru

By about 2,500 BC people in what is now, Peru began farming. By about 1,800 BC they were making pottery. The first South American civilization was the Chavin. It arose in what is now Peru in about 900 BC. The Chavin did not invent writing but they were skilled architects, stonemasons, potters, and goldsmiths. They built in both brick and stone and their engineers were capable of building both dams and reservoirs.

Chavin farmers irrigated their land and they grew maize (their staple food), squashes, and beans. They also grew cotton and they wove it on looms. They raised llamas and alpacas for meat and wool.

The Chavin take their name from a great religious center at Chavin de Huantar. It has two stone temples. Little is known about the Chavin religion but they worshiped a jaguar god. They buried the dead with goods including pottery containers of food and drink. They probably believed the dead would need them in the next life. However, the Chavin civilization disappeared by about 200 BC.

In southeast Peru, another culture called the Paracas flourished between about 400 BC and 300 AD. They built large a number of large settlements on artificial mounds. They also buried their leaders on the dry and wind-swept Paracas Peninsula. The climate mummified several bodies and also preserved their clothes.

Later from about 100 BC to about 700 AD, a culture called the Nazca existed in Southeast Peru. They are famous for creating the Nazca lines, patterns that cross the desert and are best seen from the air. They include animals such as spiders and monkeys. The exact purpose of the lines is unknown.

Further north a culture called the Moche or Mochica flourished from about 50 AD to about 700 AD. They lived in coastal valleys in Northern Peru. Like other Peruvian cultures, Moche farmers built canals to irrigate their crops. They grew maize, potatoes and peanuts. They also grew cotton.

The Moche were a warlike people and warriors had high status in their society. However, the Moche were also traders. They imported things like feathers from the Amazon.

The Moche were dexterous goldsmiths and silversmiths. They were also skilled potters. The Moche also built pyramid temples. Their greatest temple was the Huaca Del Sol (Temple of the Sun). Its base measured 224 meters by 134 meters and it stood 46 metres high. It took at least 50 million adobe bricks to build the temple.

In the later years of the Moche culture, two empires grew up in what is now Peru. In the north was the empire of Tiwanaku, with its capital across the border in Bolivia. It began its rise to greatness about 500 AD and by the time it was at its peak about 850 AD Tiwanaku controlled about 350,000 square kilometers of territory. The people of the Tiwanaku empire are noted for their skill as stonemasons and potters.

In the south of Peru, another strong state called Huari grew up. Huari began to grow about 600 AD and soon controlled a wide area. The people of Huari also traded over very long distances. However, both these states, Tiwanaku and Huari collapsed about 1100 AD.

By about 1,000 AD a race called the Chimu created an empire in Northern Peru with its capital at Chan Chan. The Chimu worshiped the Moon. They believed the Moon caused it to rain and also controlled thunder and lightning.

The Chimu also mummified their dead. The body was put in a sitting position then tied with ropes. It was then wrapped in cloth.

The Chimu were also deft potters and metalworkers. Their craftsmen worked in gold and silver and also made blades of copper and bronze for tools. The Chimu also dug irrigation canals and built reservoirs. The Chimu were conquered by the Incas in about 1466.

A condor


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