Powerful Women Existed in Moche Society: Now Move On

Posted on August 9, 2013


How long does it take for us to not be surprised that powerful women exist?

I wonder about that question a lot: every time the tomb or portrait of a woman of the noble class in Classic Maya society is found, we hear about how surprising it is that there were powerful women. Usually, this is followed by an explanation of why the latest example is an exception, and Maya society was actually male-dominated.

So many exceptions to the rule: El Peru-Waka’, Palenque, Copan… why, it’s almost as if the ruling class of Maya society actually was made up of both men AND women.

But if the coverage of Maya archaeology seems doomed to resist what we actually know– that women were active political players in many Maya sites, and were recognized economic forces in the household economy– coverage of the Moche seems doomed to find every powerful woman a surprise.

The latest report, of a spectacular tomb at San Jose de Moro, follows by almost twenty years the first reports from the same site of tombs whose principal occupants were women. As the article notes, since 1991 eight such tombs have been documented there:

The accumulating evidence has convinced archaeologists that the site was an important ceremonial and pilgrimage center between A.D. 600 and 850, and that the priestess-queens who were buried there played a large role in governing the political and spiritual affairs of the region—a huge shift in thinking about the structure of Moche society….This site, then, with its elite burials of both genders, suggests that men and women alike filled positions of power in the neighboring communities.

It is really time to move beyond being surprised.

So much has been established, in fact, that in 2010 a blogger named Sam was able to write a pretty nifty essay on Moche “women of power”, concluding that the evidence for women holding positions of power was clear. And the bibliography provided didn’t even include the important work of Melissa Vogel, who by 2003 had put together a convincing argument that Moche women held political positions of power based on cosmologies that gave central roles to female divinities as much as to male divinities.

Nuance, though, has so far escaped most analysis. In 2006, a tomb at the site of El Brujo yielded the remains of another woman. The New York Times reported:

She was surrounded by weaving materials and needles, befitting a woman, and 2 ceremonial war clubs and 28 spear throwers — sticks that propel spears with far greater force — items never found before in the burial of a woman of the Moche …. Was she a warrior princess, or perhaps a ruler?

“Befitting a woman”??!! Whose gender ideology are we getting here– the Moche, or the New York Times?

For me, the most interesting thing about the latest tomb reported is the description of the wooden coffin in which she was buried: provided with a metal mask and sandals, it is said to have been “anthropomorphized”; Luis Jaime Castillo Butters is quoted as saying “It became a person.”

The author of the story later softens that statement, saying the coffin represented the woman inside. But what Castillo Butters raises is the more interesting possibility– that the coffin itself was a personified object, a thing with a capacity to act. This recalls the active roles of crafted objects in scenes described as “the revolt of the objects“, discussed by archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter. For the Moche, it seems, the boundary between human agency and object agency was not firm.

There is actually a lot more that could be said about gender in Moche society than is captured in the simple expression of surprise that women had positions of authority.

This is, after all, the one Precolumbian group known for creating a body of sexually explicit pottery. Social anthropologist Mary Weismantel has explored how the kinds of sex acts shown on Moche pots may be related to the scenes of death, ancestors, and burial, and the actual use of these pots in burials, identifying a philosophy of the circulation of substances from generation to generation in Moche society.

What both of these kinds of analyses have in common is that they go beyond being surprised that  Moche society was not what a Victorian imagination would suggest, to explore how Moche people might have experienced their world: one in which at least some objects had the ability to act autonomously; in which sexuality was tied to the reproduction of humans through complicated intergenerational circulation of substances; and decidedly, a society in which no simple dichotomy between men in power and women under domination would make sense.

Rethinking that assumed dichotomy might make us want to reconsider the Moche woman excavated at the site of El Brujo, in the Huaca Cao Viejo. Buried holding war clubs in each hand, what are we to make of her? A woman in a man’s world?

Or, as Mary Weismantel suggests in her new essay “Towards a Transgender Archaeology” (in Susan Stryker’s The Transgender Studies Reader 2) is it possible that the dichotomy is ours, and that “for the elites who rules these valleys, maybe it wasn’t especially transgressive for a biological female to carry weapons”?

Modern US culture treats sex-based gender as the primary, and guiding form of identity. What those of us working on complex societies in the past are seeing, instead, is that other aspects of identity may be more important.

I look forward to the day when a Moche burial is described without surprise at what the reporters see as a mismatch of sex and other attributes; then we might be on our way to seeing Moche society in terms that may legitimately surprise us, by teaching us something new.