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A sex-themed vessel found in Peru. Museo Arqueologico, Lima, Peru.

Sex Pottery of Peru: Moche Ceramics Shed Light on Ancient Sexuality

The Moche were a mysterious civilization who ruled the northern coast of Peru beginning two thousand years ago. They built huge pyramids made of millions of mud bricks and created an extensive network of aqueducts. They were also pioneers of metal working techniques like gilding and soldering, which enabled them to created extraordinarily intricate jewellery and artifacts. Due to the lack of a written language, little was known about the Moche civilization until the 1980s when archaeologists began uncovering monuments and tombs containing detailed murals, and incredible ceramics that depicted detailed scenes of hunting, fighting, sacrifice, ceremonies, and explicit sexual encounters.

While much attention has been paid to the murals that display scenes of everyday life, as well as elaborate sacrificial rituals, relatively few scholarly studies have investigated the subset of Moche ceramics that portray deities, skeletons, humans, and animals, engaged in a wide variety of sexual acts. However, they may in fact represent the most detailed account of sexual customs ever left by ancient people.

Moche mural in Huaca de la Luna, Peru

Moche mural in Huaca de la Luna, Peru ( National Geographic )

Moche Ceramics

The Moche art style is one of the most representational, non-abstract styles of art in the ancient Andes, and this is most easily seen in their spectacular ceramics, which makes use of fine-line painting, fully modelled clay, naturalistic figures, and stirrup spouts, to represent social activities, war, metalwork, weaving, and sex.

To date, more than 100,000 of these vessels have been found and are now distributed throughout museums and private collections worldwide.  Almost all of them were recovered from significant archaeological sites, such as Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun), and Sipán, as well as from Moche burial sites scattered across the northern coast of Peru.

Most of the Moche ceramics have been recovered from the major archaeological sites of Huaca de la Luna, Huaca del Sol, and Sipán, shown respectively from left to right.

  Most of the Moche ceramics have been recovered from the major archaeological sites of Huaca de la Luna, Huaca del Sol, and Sipán, shown respectively from left to right.

Moche Sexuality

Of the thousands of ceramic vessels that have been recovered, at least 500 of them display sexually explicit imagery, typically rendered as free-standing three-dimensional figures on top, or as part of, the vessel.  As well as being works of art, the sex-themed vessels are also functional clay pots, with hollow chambers for holding liquid and a spout, typically in the form of a phallus, for pouring.

Many of the Moche ceramics contain phallic spouts for pouring liquid.

Many of the Moche ceramics contain phallic spouts for pouring liquid.  (public domain)

Paul Mathieu, in his book ‘Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics’ reports that “a wide variety of sexual acts are represented: female to male fellatio is quite common; kissing and fondling; male masturbation (but never female masturbation); intercourse between heterosexual couples, in various positions; birthing scenes; also, intercourse between animals (copulating frogs, mice, dogs, llamas, monkeys, at times on corn or other food crops); and intercourse between human females and mythical animals (such as the bat and the jaguar who both had special religious connotations in Moche culture).”

A wide variety of sexual acts are depicted in the Moche pottery.

A wide variety of sexual acts are depicted in the Moche pottery.

There are a few features of the Moche sex pots, however, that have really got archaeologists and anthropologists talking… and wondering. Firstly, it is common to find depictions of a couple having sex, while the woman is breastfeeding an infant. Secondly, the most frequently depicted sexual act is anal sex, while vaginal sex is almost non-existent. This is able to be determined as the genitalia of both sexes are often rendered in careful anatomical detail.

The most frequent sexual act depicted in Moche pottery is anal sex

The most frequent sexual act depicted in Moche pottery is anal sex ( Wikimedia Commons )

Interpretation

There has been no shortage of theories put forward to explain the meaning behind the explicit artworks.  According to Turner (2013) in his dissertation ‘Sex, Myth, and Metaphor in Moche Pottery’, previous scholarly works have approached Moche erotic vessels as a representational catalog of the sexual practices of the Moche people, didactic objects intended to demonstrate methods of contraception, conveyors of moralizing content, reflections of Moche humor, or as portrayals of ritual or ceremonial acts.

The latter theory has received the most support to date, particularly given that the sex pots have been found almost exclusively in high-status burials, irrespective of the age or gender of the deceased; are often accompanied by other religious artifacts; were found to be produced at huaca (temple) centers rather than in domestic contexts, and occasional depict sexual acts involving skeletons, deities, or religiously-significant animals.

According to Turner (2013), the sexual scenes “allude to fundamental cosmological relationships between the mountains and the coast and male and female, a rich metaphorical language concerning fertilizing fluids and the hydraulic cycle, and a set of beliefs pertaining to ancestor worship and the role of the deceased in relation to agricultural and human fertility.”

Nevertheless, many of the features of the sex-themed vessels still perplex researchers, including the breastfeeding during intercourse and the almost non-existent depiction of vaginal sex. Archaeologists believe they have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of Moche archaeological remnants, and perhaps as more sites and artifacts are uncovered, a clearer picture will emerge.

Featured image: A sex-themed vessel found in Peru. Museo Arqueologico, Lima, Peru.

References:

Erotic Ceramics Reveal Dirty Little Secret – Los Angeles Times. Available from: http://articles.latimes.com/2004/mar/07/news/adfg-pottery7

Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America – American Anthropologist. Available from: http://www.faculty.fairfield.edu/dcrawford/weismantel.pdf   

Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics by Paul Mathieu.

Sex in Peru by Rick Vecchio

Turner, A. (2013). Sex, Myth, and Metaphor in Moche Pottery. Dissertation for UC Riverside. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6pw774tr#page-9

By April Holloway

Comments

“the almost non-existent depiction of vaginal sex”

I guess they were early days and we were still learning how to do it.

I bet it had more to do with their form of birth control. I'm pretty sure they understood vaginal sex led to procreation and anal didn't. You could also say it was their way having casual sex with their partner without having to worry about getting pregnant.

So now we know why they died out.

I would like to congratulate Paul Mathieu about Eroticism in ceramics/Is the answer to the origen and history of the unpublished ceramics "CALVAZUTRA" From Ecuador.

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