December 9, 2006 : Elizabeth Benson, "The War Club: An Important Moche Symbol"

  The Pre-Columbian Society was thrilled to have Betty Benson speak to us at our December meeting!  She spoke on the Moche, or Mochica, who lived on the desert north coast of Peru in the first seven centuries of our era, and left behind large adobe pyramid complexes, in which have been found gorgeous metalirgic and ceramic work.  In her talk, Betty addressed the Moche war club, a staff with a bulging top. This top can appear star-like; it is usually an octrahedron, a three-dimensional diamond shape, but it can also appear as two cones placed base to base, or as stacked disks, with the largest in the center.  Ms. Benson believes that the club can be best described as a mace; it served as staff of office, as well as a weapon.  Images of the war club have been found in murals and on pottery, while actual clubs have been found in burials.  In 2005, two clubs were discovered wrapped in a mummy bundle of a Moche woman buried beneath the Huaca Cao Viejo, in the El Brujo complex.  One of the clubs held traces of human blood.
            The war club is most often shown being held by a Moche warrior who kneels on one knee while holding the club over the other shoulder. Moche murals also show the club being used as a weapon in battles between two Moche groups, or between the Moche and foreigners. In one motif, the war club bearing warrior is accompanied by a foreign captive who has some of the usual attributes of coca use: a woven bag to hold the leaves and perhaps a lime jar or stick. Lime was used to break down the coca leaf while chewing it. Betty believes that this juxtaposition may refer to the Moche conquest of the coca growing areas of the neighboring Recuay people.  Moche warfare for actual territorial conquest appears to have been rare; most wars are believed to have been religious ritual battles, or those over trade routes or water rights.
            The war club is often included in an iconographic motif called a war bundle, which usually contains an upright club, covered at its center by a round shield, with perhaps other staffs, darted weapons or loops behind the shield as well. A back flap or a protective garment may protrude from either side of the shield, and a humming bird, known as an extremely aggressive bird, may accompany the bundle. This motif is often found on Moche jewelry, such as the round ear flare covers, and on stirrup pots.  At times, the top of the club is replaced by a human or eagle head.  It is believed that this may represent the animation of the club by ritual and warfare use. In murals, animated clubs and bundles are portrayed with arms and legs, running and fighting. A cup has been found showing an animated bundle holding a depiction of the same cup in its hand!
            At times, the club was involved with the depiction of supernatural animals.  To the Moche, the deer hunt was analogous to warfare; the deer was a worthy enemy. Therefore, one can find images of an anthropomorphized deer holding a war club in the traditional warrior pose.  War clubs were also involved in scenes of human sacrifice by the Owl God and the Bat Sacrificer. In some cases, the human headed mace may then have been a reference to ritual decapitation. The war clubs found in the mummy bundle of the woman buried in Huaca Cao Viejo are particularly intriguing, as they may be evidence of women rulers among the Moche.  Indeed, there is an image of a Moche woman wearing a golden lobed headdress, and holding two war clubs. We thank Betty sincerely for a fascinating investigation of this central Moche motif!
          Elizabeth Benson, a noted Pre-Columbian scholar, arranged the installation the Pre-Columbian Collection at Dumbartion Oaks in 1962. After becoming curator of the collection, she started the publication, conference, and fellowship programs, and finally was appointed director of Pre-Columbian studies. She left Dumbarton Oaks at the end of 1979 and is now a research associate of the Institute of Andean Studies. She has published and lectured on several Pre-Columbian fields but has worked mostly with the Moche people. She has recently been honored for this work by institutions in Austin, Texas, Washington DC, and Lima, Peru.

back to home page