The lower two-faced figure painted on the pillar at Pañamarca (photo by Lisa Trever, all courtesy Denver Museum of Nature and Science)

Archaeologists have revealed a new trove of painted murals within Pañamarca, a pillared hall on a rock outcrop in the lower Nepeña Valley of northern Peru. One series of murals features a two-faced man wearing a golden headdress and elaborate belt holding a fan of red and yellow feathers. In the upper painting, the figure holds a goblet of flowers feeding four hummingbirds in one hand. The figure carries a weapon or a quipu, an Indigenous numerical accounting device, in the lower portion, and his feathered fan is bent. Historians hypothesize that the images, which date back nearly 1,400 years, could represent artists’ attempts to experiment with portraying movement or narrative.

Lead researchers Jessica Ortiz Zevallos, the Peruvian director of the Archaeological Research Project (PIA); Michele Koons, archaeology curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science; and Lisa Trever, professor of Pre-Columbian Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University discussed their team’s work at a January 2023 annual meeting at the Institute of Andean Studies in Berkley, California.

“What grabbed our team’s attention, though, was the pillar painted with this person with two faces, never before seen in Moche art or any other pre-Hispanic tradition of the Andean region,” Zevallos told Hyperallergic of the PIA’s discoveries at the site.

Pedro Neciosup Gómez’s pencil and watercolor illustration of the pillar

Created between 550 and 800 CE, Pañamarca is unlike any other ceremonial center of the Moche civilization (300–850 CE), known for its artists and artisans. Artists created these extensive paintings that line the walls after smoothing and plastering adobe temple walls and pillars. Once the section was painted white, painters would sketch supernatural, mythological, or human figures on the surface using pointed tools to make incisions before coloring in the outlines.

Along with the image of the two-faced man, archaeologists exposed new murals on pillars previously excavated in 2010. They identified the Moche “priestess.” Beyond the murals, PIA also uncovered bits of feathers and stripped textiles likely brought to the coast from faraway communities. Their research suggests that Moche culture was much more diverse than previously thought.

“Not only are we seeing the artists of Pañamarca breaking the typical mold of Moche art, we also have physical evidence that these social ties were a reality and not just part of the artistic imagination,” said Trever.

Scientists have been researching Pañamarca since the 1950s, hoping to understand and document these people who lived hundreds of years before the Inca Empire. In 1958, archaeologists Hans Horkheimer and Duccio Bonavia discovered painted wall fragments of a priestess participating in a sacrifice ceremony. However, the walls had collapsed by the time archaeologists returned in 2010; researchers had not adequately preserved the site. Since 2018, PIA has worked to uncover more about the site, its architecture, and its environmental history. The team simultaneously excavates and protects the decorated walls without applying chemicals. At the end of every season, the team reburies everything. 

Director Jessica Ortiz Zevallos with members of the archaeological research project team at Pañamarca (photo by J. Antonio Ochatoma Cabrera)

Although they’ve found so much, PIA knows there’s much more to know about the Moche civilization. Even in Pañamarca, the excavated pillars make up less than 10% of the total murals at Pañamarca. In future seasons, the team hopes to finish exposing the rest of the pillars, some featuring more murals with the two-faced man, and move on to excavating Moche community plazas.

“When we were doing this work, we could glimpse that, around the corner to the right, the other side of the pillar was also painted with a similar image,” Trever said. “We could see just the edge of the straight feather fan and the hand that holds it.”

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School of...