Dual-faced men in Peruvian mural sheds insight into pre-Columbian beliefs

“These murals are beautiful windows into our past, which we’ve never seen before."
Nergis Firtina
One of the two-faced men is shown here.
One of the two-faced men is shown here.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science 

A ceremonial hall from the Moche culture of Peru contained two 1,400-year-old murals of two-faced individuals, which archaeologists found. It is thought that a newly discovered artwork may depict "cosmic worlds."

Led by a team of women archeologists and conservators, including a local Denver resident and Denver Museum of Nature & Science scientist, the political life and societal hierarchy of the Moche people are coming into view as a multi-year excavation continues at Pañamarca to understand better the religious rituals, as per Pañamarca.

It is believed that Pañamarca was built between 550 and 800 CE. Pañamarca is an architectural complex perched on a rock outcrop in the lower Nepea Valley of the Peruvian Ancash province.

According to estimates, teams have so far discovered less than 10 percent of the enormous artwork painted on the adobe walls of the Pañamarca architectural complex. The stories presented by these ancient murals are still being pieced together. In 2023, researchers hope to visit the location once more.

“We are adding significantly to a body of work that lends insight into the perspectives and priorities of the people who walked this landscape long before us,” said Jessica Ortiz Zevallos, the Peruvian director of the archaeological research project.

“These murals are beautiful windows into our past, which we’ve never seen before. It’s exhilarating to be leading this work.” 

Complete throughline for Peruvian history and culture

There is now a clearer throughline for Peruvian history and culture thanks to recent finds at Pañamarca and earlier ones made there during the past century. Digital photography, photogrammetric modeling, and virtual reality simulation will make these insights more widely available.

“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,” said Lisa Trever, Lisa, and Bernard Selz Associate Professor of Pre-Columbian Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

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“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.” 

Archaeology and art history are complimentary fields that enable this creative and cultural exploration. The crew meticulously documented every element revealed in the paintings, and discoveries have been matched to relevant materials. The murals at Pañamarca and the artifacts together can tell more about the Moche people's worldview and way of life.

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