Archaeologists Discover 1,400-Year-Old Murals of Two-Faced Men in Peru

The new finds are shedding light on the Moche people, who lived on Peru’s northern coast

Lower mural
Researchers think the artists may have been experimenting with how to depict movement. Lisa Trever / Denver Museum of Nature and Science

In northern Peru’s Nepeña Valley, archaeologists have discovered murals of two-faced men in golden headdresses. 

One image depicts a man holding a feather fan and a goblet, from which four hummingbirds drink. In another, a man holds a feather fan, as well as an unknown object that’s now partially obscured.

Estimated to be 1,400 years old, these murals are impressive for their elaborate detail alone. But researchers say they’re also unique: Such images have “never before [been] seen in Moche art or any other pre-Hispanic tradition of the Andean region,” says Jessica Ortiz Zevallos, the Peruvian director of the Archaeological Research Project, to Hyperallergic’s Taylor Michael. 

Uncovering mural
Conservator Rafael Gordillo Méndez reveals the painted surface of a pillar at the Pañamarca archaeological site. Lisa Trever / Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Zevallos led the research alongside Lisa Trever, an archaeologist and art historian at Columbia University, and Michele Koons, an archaeologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. They estimate that researchers have uncovered less than 10 percent of the paintings at the site, an architectural complex called Pañamarca. Experts think that the Moche people, who lived on Peru’s northern coast and predated the Inca Empire by several centuries, constructed the site between 550 and 800 C.E. 

Mural watercolor
A watercolor illustration of the mural by Pedro Neciosup Gómez Pedro Neciosup Gómez / Denver Museum of Nature and Science

“Pañamarca was a place of remarkable artistic innovation and creativity, with painters elaborating on their knowledge of artistic canons in creative and meaningful ways as the people of Nepeña established their position in the far southern Moche world,” says Trever in a statement from the team. “Our project has the potential to inaugurate a new period of understanding and appreciation of Moche art, including by contemporary artists who use these ancestral works as inspiration in their own practice.”

The unusual murals were found on a pillar inside a ceremonial hall. Experts don’t know what the two-faced men represent, but they have a few theories: They could be deities, though this possibility is less likely, as Moche art more often portrays deities with non-human characteristics like fangs or wings, Trever tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus. Instead, she says, “The artists may have been experimenting with how to show movement, and two narrative moments at once.”

Archaeological work at Pañamarca has been ongoing for more than 50 years. In addition to the two-faced man murals, researchers have found other examples of Moche art, including a mural of a priestess performing a ceremonial sacrifice, as well as murals that depict a bat and a serpent.

“The Pañamarca murals are truly spectacular,” says Edward Swenson, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto who is not involved with the project, to Live Science. The new discoveries “will no doubt significantly aid archaeological and art historical efforts to reconstruct the cosmological meanings and religious narratives of Moche iconography.”

Aerial photo of dig site
An aerial view of Pañamarca, located in northern Peru’s Nepeña Valley J. Antonio Ochatoma Cabrera / Denver Museum of Nature and Science

The researchers plan to return to the site later this year. They’ve already gotten a glimpse of a similar mural—they could see “just the edge of the straight feather fan and the hand that holds it,” Trever tells Hyperallergic—and they’re excited to continue excavations.  

“We are eager to return to Pañamarca and continue to share our findings,” says Koons in the team’s statement. “It is an absolute honor to work at this important monument of the ancient world. We are only beginning to comprehend the mysteries revealed by these murals.”

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