Water Snakes and Killer Spiders

An extraordinary polychromed relief recently found within the Temple of the Moon—a massive ceremonial complex on Peru’s arid North Coast—is providing a window into the ceremonial life of the Moche, whose culture flourished in the early first millennium a.d in the many river valleys that crisscross this desert region. Excavated by Riccardo Morales and Santiago Uceda of the University of Trujillo, the frieze is adorned with images of serpents, mythical two-headed beasts, warriors, and axe-wielding spiders. According to the duo, the figures are associated with the so-called sacrifice ceremony, a well-known iconographic program often depicted in Moche art.

Although the Moche did not have a writing system, they did develop a stylized canon of religious iconography that was often painted on or modeled in ceramic, incised on metal objects, or woven in cloth. The sacrifice ceremony was a state-sponsored event at which prisoners of war were sacrificed and their blood ritually consumed to ensure fertility and the continued cycle of life. Moche royalty often took part in the rituals, assuming the roles of the protagonists in the story. Paraphernalia for the ceremony, including goblets and war clubs bearing scenes from the ceremony, has been found in royal burials at the Moche sites of Sipán and San José de Moro just to the north. Composed of a suite of structures built entirely of mudbrick, one atop the other, between a.d. 200 and 800, the Temple of the Moon is the largest of a number of platform mounds that punctuate the parched landscape. Today, most can easily pass for natural hills, having been rendered shapeless by torrential rains wrought by El Niño. The vast settlements that embraced them have since been blanketed by desert sands

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