Without written histories, how can we find the life stories of the unnamed persons who lived in the ancient world? Archaeologists have mostly focused on understanding how groups of people interacted and what their cultures were like. With museum collections, researchers can add to this knowledge at the level of the society or culture. However, if we want to know more about individuals, the opportunities are few, especially when dealing with prehistoric artifacts removed from their original context.
An exciting exception was found by Moche scholar Christopher Donnan, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (2004). Donnan found that particular persons – whether real or mythical -- were depicted on ceramic vessels from the ancient Moche culture of the coastal Andes (ca. 100-800 CE). He identified several individuals who were shown at various stages in their lives. Donnan pinpoints striking facial features, scars, or other characteristics to identify these persons. The pottery artifacts depicting these individuals come from the collections of museums around the world and several archaeological sites.
The Logan Museum of Anthropology can now add its name to the list of museums with “portraits” of ancient Moche individuals. “Long Nose” is so-called for his very long and pointed nose and distinctive eyes that are found on the other eight known examples of his portrait. He’s depicted in his younger years as an elite warrior, wearing elaborate headdresses and square ear ornaments decorated with war clubs. In portraits of Long Nose as an older person, he is stripped of his status emblems and left with just gaping holes in his ears, and he is sometimes depicted as a bound prisoner.
Beloit anthropology major Dana Olesch’16 figured out that the Logan Museum had a portrait of Long Nose in 2013 while researching Moche pottery for Kylie Quave’s “Precolumbian Art & Architecture” course. The Logan’s vessel is almost identical to a Long Nose portrait from the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru. Moche pottery was typically mold-made; in fact, archaeologists excavated a mold for making portraits of a young and finely-adorned Long Nose in a ceramic production area at the Pyramids of Moche in northern Peru. In that production area, they found portraits of other recognizable individuals as well. It seems that portrait vessels were made in one place and distributed widely, though it’s difficult to know with certainty until more examples are systematically excavated and analyzed by researchers.
For now, a Beloiter’s discovery means that a single ceramic pot in the museum’s collection has a richer history than it would without knowledge of the other representations of Long Nose’s life. A young warrior grew up to become a captive, and we only know this thanks to careful study of collections in museums.
Check out a 3D scan of the vessel here.
Donnan, Christopher B. 2004. Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru. University of Texas Press, Austin.