Objectreligious artefact: Ornament
Type of arts & crafts
SizeDiam. 8 1/2 in. (21.5 cm)
CultureMoche (Loma Negra)
Type of sourceDatabase “Metropolitan Museum of Art”
Fund that the source refers toMetropolitan Museum of Art
This gilded copper disk featuring a three-dimensional butterfly at its center was produced by Moche metalsmiths on Peru’s North Coast. The ornament was originally cut from a larger sheet of hammered copper and then gilded (Lechtman, 1982; Schorsch, 1998). The disk features a solid roundel at the center surrounded by concentric bands of step motifs. The outermost ring is adorned with gilded dangles suspended by copper bands attached to the back of the disk. There are additional disks at vertices within the roundel yielding what must have been a dazzling spectacle when displayed in the sun. The gilded butterfly is represented with notable attention to anatomical detail, including its spread spotted wings, each inscribed with the wing veins, an abdomen with the sections apparent, and a head inlaid with shell and turquoise eyes. The insect is attached to the main body of the disk by six thin copper legs. These appendages would have permitted a slight movement of the figure as the disk was moved suggesting the idea of flight. The wires that hold the dangles are oriented so that only when the butterfly is pointing up do the dangles hang properly. The cut-out design may suggest a sense of place, as step designs are often associated with architecture: they may represent mirror images of temple steps or a repeating stepped wave design common in representations of buildings in Moche ceramics.
The function of disks such as the present example is unclear. They may have served as shield frontals, attached to a cane backing, but the delicate nature of the butterfly would have made this work impractical in battle. More likely, this disk served as part of the ceremonial regalia deployed in ritual performance. Alternatively, these disks may have been attached to textile banners or wooden supports of some sort. In either case, the presence of only one or two holes for attachment also seems to indicate that disks like this were not used in activities that involved strenuous motion.
The Moche (also known as the Mochicas) flourished on Peru’s North Coast from AD 200-850, centuries before the rise of the Incas. Over the course of some six centuries, the Moche built thriving regional centers from the Nepeña River Valley in the south to perhaps as far north as the Piura River, near the modern border with Ecuador, developing coastal deserts into rich farmlands and drawing upon the abundant maritime resources of the Pacific Ocean’s Humboldt Current. Although the Moche never formed a single centralized political entity, they shared unifying cultural traits such as religious practices (Donnan, 2010).
This object was said to have been found at the burial site of Loma Negra, which was one of the most northern outposts of Moche culture. Loma Negra works in metal share similar iconography with ceramics and metalwork found at Moche sites father to the south, such as Ucupe (Bourget, 2014). The precise relationship between the Loma Negra and the Moche “heartland” remains a subject of debate, however (Kaulicke, 2006).
References and Further Reading
Bourget, Steve. Les rois mochica: Divinité et pouvoir dans le Pérou ancient. Paris: Somogy éditions d’art; Geneva: MEG, Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, 2014.
Castillo, Luis Jaime. “Masters of the Universe: Moche Artists and Their Patrons.” In Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017, pp. 24-31.
Disselhoff, Hans-Dietrich. “Metallschmuck aus der Loma Negra, Vicus (Nord-Peru).” Antike Welt vol. 3 (1972), pp. 43–53.
Donnan, Christopher B. “Moche State Religion.” In New Perspectives on Moche Political Organization, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and Luis Jaime Castillo. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, pp. 47-69.
Jones, Julie. “Mochica Works of Art in Metal: A Review.” In Pre-Columbian Metallurgy of South America, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1979, pp. 53-104.
Jones, Julie. “Innovation and Resplendence: Metalwork for Moche Lords.” In Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru, edited by Joanne Pillsbury. Studies in the History of Art 63. Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Symposium Papers 15. Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2001, pp. 206-221.
Jones, Julie, and Heidi King. “Gold of the Americas.” The Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art vol. 59, no. 4 (Spring 2002).
Kaulicke, Peter. “The Vicús-Mochica Relationship.” In Andean Archaeology III, edited by William H. Isbell and Helene H. Silverman. Boston, MA: Springer, 2006, pp. 85-111.
Lechtman, Heather, Antonieta Erling, and Edward J. Barry Jr. “New Perspectives on Moche Metallurgy: Techniques of Gilding Copper at Loma Negra, Northern Peru.” American Antiquity vol. 47 (1982), pp. 3-30.
Schorsch, Deborah. “Silver-and-Gold Moche Artifacts from Loma Negra, Peru.” Metropolitan Museum Journal vol. 33 (1998), p. 113, fig. 7, 8.