Pañamarca: Unearthing Ancient Peruvian History

Painted Worlds

Painted Worlds: The Moche Project at Pañamarca, Peru is a seven-year (2023–2030) interdisciplinary, collaborative project between Columbia University and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The Project investigates, documents, and conserves Moche period (ca. 500-850 CE) murals and architecture at the site of Pañamarca—a monumental center on the southern frontier of Moche influence in northern Peru. The Project works in collaboration with local surrounding communities to create opportunities to share and conserve the heritage of this important archaeological and world heritage resource.

The Moche were a remarkable civilization that lived from roughly 300-850 CE on Peru’s north coast. We recognize and identify Moche culture based on a suite of artifact, architectural, and artistic styles found in 10 contiguous valleys. The material culture includes incredible ceramic vessels, some of which are painted with narrative scenes of mythical and real beings. We also see large monumental adobe structures, locally known as huacas, and often containing painted surfaces. Pañamarca contains an array of adobe monumental platforms, walls, and temples. The first mural discoveries at the site were revealed to the world in the 1950s. These included a famous mural of a Moche priestess. Since then, little work was done at the site until 2010, when Lisa Trever and her team documented paintings on numerous structures, indicating that Pañamarca was once a vibrantly painted marvel with vividly colored scenes of human and divine figures engaged in a dramatic array of ceremonies, pageantry, and epic narratives. Some of the most remarkable discoveries in 2010 were located within a monumental pillared hall. In 2022, excavation continued in this structure and new paintings were uncovered. These portray strange beings—including a two-faced man never before documented in Moche art, women displaying colorful spun threads and weaving tools, and an extravagantly rich processions of well-dressed individuals. The new discoveries demonstrate that Pañamarca was a place of unusual creativity and a crucible for artistic invention. The artists and patrons of Pañamarca did not conform to what otherwise is thought to have been a very rigid society and artistic style that is seen in the heartland of Moche culture—roughly 175 km to the north. Yet, these latest finds are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more earthen wall paintings remain in remarkably good condition just below the surface. Work will continue to document the painted surfaces of the hall of painted pillars. Additionally, other areas of the site will be explored to bring further understanding to this important southern Moche monumental center and the secrets it holds.

The Team

Results from the 2022 Season |

Image for Painting Creativity on a Moche Monumenal Frontier

Painting Creativity on a Moche Monumenal Frontier

Located at the monumental frontier of the Moche world, Pañamarca was once a soaring marvel of politico-religious life and artistic creativity in the Nepeña Valley of the north-central coast of Peru. Coeval with the New Temple at Huacas de Moche, and other late Moche centers (ca. 600–800 CE), Pañamarca’s builders and painters turned up the volume in their craft. When newly made, its monuments would have gleamed with aesthetic effects of richly-colored figures, painted at varied scales on the bright white backgrounds of adobe walls. Although the general style of flat polychrome compositions of humans, non-humans, and other things was widely shared across several late Moche centers, the techniques of wall painting were distinct between Pañamarca and what is known from Huacas de Moche (the latter including fragments of wall painting from Huaca del Sol curated at the Hearst Museum). But in their particular imagery these works were even more strikingly unprecedented. In this digital poster with planned multimedia features, we share findings from the 2022 season of the PIA “Paisajes Arqueológicos de Pañamarca.” This work included the discovery and meticulous documentation of painted architecture and archaeological contexts to reveal images that had not been seen since their closure more than 1200 years ago. These painted monuments prove that Pañamarca was a place of unexpected artistic innovation. At Pañamarca, makers were not only permitted but also apparently encouraged, to play with and elaborate on artistic conventions in new and meaningful ways—as its people made a place for themselves in the far southern Moche world. 

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