Cornell University

Anthropology Colloquium: Edward Swenson

Friday, January 31, 2020 at 3:00pm to 4:30pm

McGraw Hall, 165
740-750 University Ave, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Ritual Poesis, Masquerade, and the Crafting of Ancient Moche Ontologies

Edward Swenson, University of Toronto 

An investigation of broken ceramic masks recovered from the Moche ceremonial center of Huaca Colorada (AD 650-900) in northern Peru reveals that masks acted as animate persons that channeled the life-force of powerful wak’as (sacred beings) to dependent people and things.  The iconography of these unusual ceramic artifacts also suggests they were worn by ritual specialists in rites that promoted fertility, social integration, and communion with ontological others. The discovery of the mask fragments in middens containing a high quantity of corn beer jars further indicates that they were worn during lavish feasts staged on ceremonial platforms.  Significantly, the beer vessels are decorated with faces that closely resemble the figures depicted on the masks.  Therefore, masqueraders and their replicated ambassadors, materialized in numerous portable jars, formed conduits of life-giving fluids as they circulated among celebrants gathered at the site. Although the role of masks in Moche culture would appear to support Philippe Descola’s argument that Andean civilizations were grounded in an “analogical ontology,” I argue that anthropologists should approach ontology—or deep-seated assumptions on being, reality, and the nature of existence—not as all-determining but as the product of explicit cosmologies creatively negotiated within specific ritual and political arenas. Ultimately, the Moche mask proves useful in critically assessing the ontological turn in archaeological research.


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cascal, Anthropology, anthro, anthro-colloquium, cashum, isscal, ciamscal

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Liz Kirk

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Ed Swenson

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University of Toronto

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there will be a receiption after the talk.

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free and open to the public.

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