Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 21, 2016
Juliet B. Wiersema Architectural Vessels of the Moche: Ceramic Diagrams of Sacred Space in Ancient Peru Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 224 pp.; 185 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780292761254)

Juliet B. Wiersema’s Architectural Vessels of the Moche: Ceramic Diagrams of Sacred Space in Ancient Peru is a significant contribution to the field of art history for two reasons. The first is the subject matter: she addresses the relationship between architecture and its representation through an examination and comparison of ceramic vessels that represent architectural spaces and archaeologically recovered architectural remains from the Moche culture of the Peruvian north coast (ca. 100–900 CE), a topic that has not been closely researched prior to this volume. The second is how she confronts the complications that come from studying objects without provenience, from cultures without writing, where scholars are left with objects that must be “decoded.” Wiersema frames the discussion of architectural reality and ceramic representation as an exploration of how to derive meaning from such cultural remains. She stresses the need for an art history that creates an understanding of objects and structures that come with no words attached—as she describes them, “largely silenced.”

The book’s introduction outlines the issues involved in the project, as well as sets the stage with summaries of Moche art-historical studies, Moche architecture, and the basic nature of the architectural vessels to be examined. The cavalcade of questions that come with a largely unprovenienced corpus are acknowledged, and revisited in the conclusion. Wiersema notes the early twentieth-century roots of her inquiry, tracing the limited study of architectural vessels to the present day. She then discusses the relative youth of Pre-Columbian art history in general and its inextricable ties to archaeology, especially in Moche studies. Her remark that the traditional concerns of art history (“connoisseurship . . . detailed analysis of style, patronage, artistic influence, and the reconstruction and interpretation of decorative programs”; 7) are not often the same concerns as the archaeologists who have written the majority of studies of Moche art is a critical observation. She advocates for a move beyond the oft-used Erwin Panofsky as a default decryptor of “wordless” art, reminding readers that Heinrich Wöllflin and Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s approaches are equally important in the study of groups of objects dispersed over space and time. She shows that the connections between architecture and identity can be explored on both archaeological and art-historical levels to better understand the heterogeneity of what was once considered to be a unified Moche culture.

The introduction’s overview leads into chapters 1 and 2, which deal with the nature of the architectural vessels and some of the concepts that have developed to interpret them. Wiersema introduces the reader to her use of art-historical and visual theory in the interpretation of architecture and the multiple possibilities for envisioning and representing architecture. The relationship between full-scale architectural spaces and small-scale replicas is explored multiculturally, giving breadth to the discussion of visual styles. This is another important aspect of this book, as it reaches beyond comparison with other Andean traditions and looks at the Moche as part of a worldwide artistic tradition. While this may not seem particularly revolutionary, it is part of a still-new movement away from a reductive impulse to frame the Moche as simply an aspect of lo andino, and instead aims to engage Moche visual studies in a larger art-historical dialogue. After the discussion of visual possibilities, Wiersema demonstrates how the vessels can be read in light of these possibilities, including the complex interaction between two- and three-dimensional elements on a single vessel. Heavily illustrated with examples, readers are shown the relationship between excavated architecture and vessels from the corpus, learning Moche artistic conventions and understanding how to see the vessels as something other than simple, generic models.

Chapter 3 goes into the corpus in depth, providing analytic tables that show the stylistic, thematic, and possible geographic and temporal range of the vessels studied. Here, Wiersema discusses not only Moche artistic output, but also takes into consideration “Moche-esque” vessels, which show interaction with other coastal cultures through time. Keeping these other cultures in consideration situates Moche ceramics within a larger north coastal tradition of architectural representation. She highlights important aspects of style, decoration, and motif in both two and three dimensions, and shows how some elements of excavated architecture are congruent with representations on the vessels. The architecture considered is, as much as possible, balanced between southern and northern Moche sites, which helps to reinforce Wiersema’s argument that architectural vessels are a Moche-wide tradition geographically as well as temporally. The chapter identifies vessel and architectural types and decorative motifs that are exclusive to the Moche, and those that are part of the shared coastal milieu. Using these findings, she is able to put forth preliminary hypotheses about the temporal and spatial popularity of certain structures and vessel styles. These hypotheses are of course dependent on a corpus that has a very small number of provenienced items, an issue that still plagues Moche visual studies (even after half a century of scientific excavation on the north coast), and are also subject to a changing understanding of both relative and absolute dating of Moche ceramics—something Wiersema herself clearly states.

Chapter 4 examines one specific kind of architectural vessel, depicting the “enclosed, gabled type” of structure that numerically dominates the current corpus. This short chapter presents a kind of case study, closely demonstrating the relationship between two- and three-dimensional decoration on multiple vessels, showing how the structure on the vessels may relate to archaeologically recovered architecture, and examining the possible meanings of non-architectural motifs found on the vessels. The chapter echoes the book’s subtitle, “Ceramic Diagrams of Sacred Space,” underlining the fact that architectural vessels in general seem to depict architecture that is ritually important and linked to specific, real architectural types. An analysis of the non-architectural motifs on the vessels points to Moche motifs of sacrifice and bloodletting, making it possible that the structures represented were specifically for the purpose of religious performances of human sacrifice. The full-scale architectural examples discussed are all part of the site of Huaca de la Luna and its surrounds, perhaps indicating that at least some vessels were meant to “commemorate remembered forms of ceremonial architecture” (117). This possibility once more highlights the problem of unprovenienced works, as their distribution geographically could help in further understanding the site’s range of influence.

Chapter 5 follows with an examination of a subset of architectural vessels that produce sound—so-called “whistling vessels.” Whistling mechanisms are not exclusive to Moche architectural vessels, but Wiersema points out that the subject matter associated with sound production seems to indicate themes of liminality, further reinforcing the ritual underpinnings of the vessels and the architecture they represent. The chapter also contrasts the external and internal technological styles of a sub-group of whistling vessels, comparing Moche versions with examples from the overlapping Virú and Vicús cultures. Radiographic analysis reveals how external visual style can be shared even when internal technological elements are culturally dependent, and vice versa. In the case of these vessels, the whistling mechanism is the primary locus of difference. Wiersema shows how the tones produced can be seen as culturally identifying and helpful in classifying vessels that may seem, from their external stylistic elements, to be from disparate areas or cultures. This chapter joins a growing number of studies that explore the experience of sound as a significant cultural element in Andean prehistory.

Chapter 6 moves away from the specific and delves into a cross-cultural comparison with other cultures’ representations of architecture. From Byzantine mosaics to Chinese funerary ceramics, Wiersema explores how cultures have produced and used representations of architecture. She first draws from cultures with a textual tradition, allowing some concepts to be firmly anchored in their artworks. These concepts are then compared with West Mexican house and village models attributed to the Nayarit culture. Many of them represent things that were not visible, but understood as part of the architecture’s importance, similar to the often-hidden whistling mechanisms in Moche vessels. Wiersema notes that all the examples in the chapter represent real, not invented, architecture, and that the structures all had cultural importance. They were anchored in time, place, and ideology, and she shows how some of the examples shifted in meaning and changed in appearance over time as cultures changed socially, politically, and ideologically. She then argues that the Moche vessels should be seen as participating in similar cultural processes.

The short conclusion sums up the book, as expected, but also points to the work that lies ahead and the pitfalls and concerns that beset the next effort. This clear-eyed assessment of the state of the study, as well as the field in general, would be useful in and of itself as a basis for discussion with both graduate and undergraduate students who study Pre-Columbian art, as it highlights some of the unique problems that come from working with art from non-textual societies, as well as emphasizing the need for considering new avenues of exploration (such as the acoustic) in understanding how people interacted with ancient artworks. Architectural Vessels of the Moche will be useful for students of Pre-Columbian art and Andeanists in particular, but is also a beautiful example of how to approach an ancient cultural question from multiple perspectives, and thus also should appeal to anthropologists, archaeologists, and art historians in general.

Sarahh E. M. Scher
Affiliated Faculty, Visual and Media Arts, Emerson College