Saturday, February 14, 2015

Let’s Talk About Sex: A Discussion of Moche Erotic Pottery

Figures 1 & 2: Moche Pottery; Prisoner, Realistic Ceramic (Left) and Fisherman, Moche Fine Line (Right).  Images Taken by C. Boston, 2007.

The Moche existed along north coast of Peru from 200 to 850 AD.  It was a complex, state level society that covered a large geographical area.  Their cities, temples, and agriculture dotted the northern Peruvian coastline in what are considered two factions of the Moche: the Northern and Southern.  They both had a complex ideology that involved ritual sacrifice, priests and priestesses, and elaborate ceremonials.  The Moche are probably best known and recognized for their complex pottery styles, which ranged from fine-line to realistic pieces, all of which were made with clay and elaborately painted and stylized (Figure 1 & 2).  One such pottery style that is poorly studied among the Moche is their erotic pottery (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Moche Erotic Pottery (Source: Journeys, & C)
The Moche erotic pottery is characterized by the various sexual acts depicted, which include acts of oral, vaginal, and anal sex as well as masturbation.  These acts are most commonly shown between a man and a woman, although male on male homosexual acts are present, too.  Although heterosexual sexual relations are the most common it is interesting to note that vaginal sexual acts are the most rarely depicted.  Common sexual acts demonstrated in Moche erotic pottery are (in order of most common to least common) heterosexual anal sex, acts of masturbation, and heterosexual oral sex.  There are also several vases that portray males with their erect penises.  These pieces are known as phallic libations (Figure 4).  These are functional ceramics used as pouring vessels, with the erect penis being used as the spout.

Figure 4: Moche Phallic Libation Ceramic (Image Source: Elo Gallery)
The purpose of the Moche erotic pottery is still unknown in part due to their lack of study and the lack of contextual information associated with them.  There are, however, some hypotheses to explain the purpose of these ceramics:
·         Many scholars believe that these pots were used by the Moche as educational tools about sex and reproduction.  Given the number of sexual acts presented in the pottery this idea seems plausible, but the rarity of vaginal sexual acts, which leads to reproduction, casts doubt on this hypothesis.
·         R. Larco Hoyle proposed that the Moche erotic ceramics were indeed used as an educational tool for sexual education but not for reproductive purposes.  He believed that the lack of vaginal intercourse and the high prevalence of non-reproductive sexual acts, such as anal sex and masturbation, meant that the erotic pottery represented acts of birth control. 
·         Joan Gero believes that the Moche erotic pottery, while literally representing sexual acts, metaphorically represented power and political relationships within the Moche culture.  The Moche was the dominant culture of the period, and Gero believed that the Moche erotics symbolized the Moche’s dominance over other more subordinate groups that they conquered.  She also notes that the acts were performed on men by women, further demonstrating the dominance of men over women in Moche society.
·         Steve Bourget, however, believes that the Moche erotics signify the political and religious authority of the Moche leadership.  He points out how specific sexual acts seem to symbolize religious and authoritative positions.  He points out how the position of the individuals in the Moche anal erotics resembles a temple, and how in the oral sexual acts the male is seated with the female kneeling in front, which is similar to a throne.

At this point, it is unclear as to which, if any, of these hypotheses is the strongest and what the true purpose of the Moche erotics may have been.  Further study is necessary in order to better understand their purpose and the Moche culture, as well.

References
Bourget, S. and Taylor, AC.  2010.  Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in the Mochica Religion.  Musee du quai Branly.

Gero, J.  2004.  “Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reflections.”  In Combining the Past and the Present: Archaeological Perspectives on Society.  Edited by T. Oestigaard, N. Anfinset, and T. Saetersdal.  Oxford: Publishers of British Archaeological Reports.

Larco Hoyle, R. 1965. Checcan. Geneva: Nagel.


31 comments:

  1. I feel like the last two hypothesis seem to be reading into the pottery a lot. I could see them possibly being a way of providing sexual education and showing birth control methods.
    One thing that is for sure, is that they show that homosexuality has been around for a very long time.
    Sarah Howard ANTH 102-1002

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    1. They may seem like stretches to those of us who do not understand the underlying parts of culture, but there are many latent messages in every culture that members of the culture do not necessarily see or realize. So who are we to say that these two ideas aren't correct? They could also be wrong.

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    2. My son is in sixth grade and he just had to write a full report on what he learned about a culture based off of a piece of pottery. Of course, the pottery was not of this nature, however, he was able to learn a lot more then even I could have thought as an anthropology major.

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    3. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, April, and while my initial reaction was being thankful that a sixth grader isn't exposed to this type of material I then realized that my brother was at that age because I came home with a replica piece and showed the family. :P Oh, the joys of living with an anthropologist.

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  2. Wow, I think these scholars need some serious life experience.
    Porn is Porn people, Sex is awesome, and we didn't invent it... Figure 4 is just hilarious.
    I think it is safe to say the Moche people liked sex and were comfortable with it and they celebrated it, it also appears that they were not homophobic, which is great. What would happen if anthropologist discovered our ruins 1000 years from now, and they stumbled upon a brothel or a sex shop, or some dudes stash of porn? Would they say that the objects they found were representing the temple or our view of religion or our political system, or that they were used as educational tools or a form of birth control. Seriously?

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    1. Actually, Johanna, anthropology is the study of people-both biologically and culturally-so it is not unexpected that anthropologists would delve more deeply into a topic than what is just available "at face value". You say that porn is porn, which is the "face value" analysis, but there is more to porn than that. For example, scholars, not just anthropologists, who study porn today note the values inherent in porn, such as gender relations, sexuality preferences, beauty standards, power relations (yes, that is something studied quite often in modern pornography studies), etc. Many anthropologists have studied all sorts of topics within the realm of sexuality in the past, and they have gleaned quite a bit of information about the people from those studies. For example, if a culture believes in birth control, what methods were they using and why? Who was expected to use birth control? Who had access? Who didn't have access? All very interesting questions that provide us more insights into culture, moreso than people had sex and didn't want to get pregnant. So while you may believe that these scholars need more life experience when it comes to delving more deeply into the subject matter it is actually a matter of them wanting to have a better understanding of the society & culture as a whole.

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  3. wow this is crazy, i believe that heterosexuality was really popular back then and now i see where we picked it up, it wasn't taught it seems like it was picked up from what they saw. i feel like the pottery was used to teach sexual acts or put common sense into kids of what growing up persisted of.- Armando Villalpando

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  4. Pottery is a way of expressing someones feeling or emotions and some have an use for them, for example the one with the spout. I did not really know heterosexuality was popular back then, i thought it was just now. I'm surprised that Joan Gero believes that these pottery pieces represented power and political relationships to the Moche culture. It must have had some true and powerful meaning.
    Briana banuelos
    Anth 102 1002

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    1. Briana, I believe you mean homosexuality, which is same sex relationships. As for Dr. Gero's assertions she is not without precedence in our own culture in regards to studies on pornographic materials. There are a lot of power relations and cultural values imbued in modern pornographic materials, so it would make sense that similar situations may have existed in past cultures.

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    2. I know to me its surprising how cultures have this ideal thing.
      Briana Banuelos
      Anth 102

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  5. I do recall in my early years I had a project that was about a African Fertility statues piece. This was about trying to have a baby. They believe having a set male and female of them will help them have a baby. To see these Moche Erotic Pottery is a lot more in your face about sex.

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  6. I find these statues very interesting. I wonder where these statues were located in the society. If they were placed in a home or dwelling, perhaps they were associated with fertility rites or sexual stimulation. If it were found in a more ceremonial location, perhaps they were associated with more religious activities. I think were the statues were placed in that time could help determine their function. After all, anthropology, specifically archaeology, is the study of human behavior by looking at both spatial and temporal assignments.

    -Courteney Hedicke, Anth101

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    1. Interesting insights, Courteney. Provenience of artifacts (location of where they were in the soil/excavation unit) definitely gives us a lot of clues that help archaeologists interpret the artifact.

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  7. Anthropology 102:1002
    What I find interesting is that some of these statues were useful in everyday use. Such as the pieces with the penis containing a slit for pouring. I couldn't imagine inviting dinner guests, and then serving gravy in one of those containers. Please pass the penis, uhhh gravy.

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    1. They probably would think our themed salt and pepper shakers are odd, too. ;)

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  8. Anthony Bourdain has a cooking show that I sometimes watch and on one of his episodes he featured a museum that housed these sort of artifacts. So I am actually familiar with them. Maybe we are over thinking just what the function of these vessels are. Maybe, Just maybe they where not used for teaching at all, maybe they where used as entertainment kind of like playboy or any other type of memorabilia of that nature. Nikki Meeko anthro 102-1002

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    1. Such ideas have been put forward but the sheer number of these vessels (in the 1000s) seems to suggest that they weren't merely play things so to speak. Plus, the Moche had a monopoly on the types of pottery that were produced, so that seems to suggest that the control and deliberate creation of these styles served a further purpose than to be playful. It may have been that they were meant to appear as much but that the State wanted happy citizens who were amendable to whatever other activities the State wanted (such as human sacrifice, which was also common).

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  9. Such interesting culture, first culture to ever see pottery or statues that signal-fie erotic images. I never knew that homosexuality has existed that long ago. I agree with the scholars that the pottery was used for birth control. I wander if other cultures have erotic displays like the Moche culture ?

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    1. Many cultures did, although not particularly in pottery forms. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and others all had their own versions of erotic art.

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  10. Figure 4 is actually used for drugs the small opening in the head is where one would put the leaves and burn it that is why it has holes around the pottery's head piece so the fire isn't suffocated. the smoke is then inhaled through the small opening in the center of the pottery. I have seen a reproduction of the same use of a pottery but depicted as a giraffe. It is illogical that it could be used as a pitcher to carry water because the opening where water could be placed is too small and it would be difficult to gather water from a river without getting in. - Maya Quezada , ANTH 102,1002.

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  11. Reading through these comments, I agree that pottery is a way of life and cultural expression and I also think this Moche Erotic pottery was created to teach some sort of sexual education. Given the various amount of different sexual situations depicted in the pottery, it seem to show the means of reproduction. I have seen this pottery in stores in Mexico and was intrigued by it but now that I understand it better, I have more respect for it and its artists.

    Thanks for the post

    Zachary Forrester
    anthro 101 3001 summer

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  12. These sculptures seem to depict the comfort in sexuality this society had.

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  13. The hypothesis by Hoyle, that the pottery was used as a form of birth control is a neat idea. It completely differs from our society view on birth control. But, I really like the last two hypotheses. They seem very plausible.

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  14. These pieces of poetry are so odd but definitely unique. Clearly this society have people were very open with one another, or kept their children educated.
    Jordan R

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  15. Although the hypotheses presented are each possible and, I'm sure, well researched. I have the thought that it is plausible the Moche were simply sexual beings who enjoyed portraying sexual acts through their pottery. Just food for thought..

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  16. Nudity has always been a common thing in art. In the United States nudity is very sexualized but it is not like that in other parts of the world like Europe. When I traveled to El Salvador, they had a lot of erotic ornaments. Many homes had them and they were neat to see.A lot of the families there saw it as a normal ornaments but we were shocked that they would have those in their living rooms. Maybe the Moche saw it the same way.

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  17. The hypotheses was enjoyable to read. Learning about other cultures is funny, not in a judgement way, but the fact they used pottery for birth control was interesting.
    Aaliyah Caldwell

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  18. Betsy Britt - Introduction to Anthropology SA-202November 29, 2016 at 7:07 PM

    I won't lie. As soon as I read the title Salt n' Pepper's "Let's Talk About Sex" started playing in my head. It's a good song, and I recommend it.
    Anyway, I agree that the pottery was used for education, but of newlyweds and virgins planning to have sex in the near future. I don't know exactly why I think this, probably because I feel like the pottery could be used to decrease pain and injury durung intercourse.

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  19. Pottery can show a lot about meaning with the design of the figure. In this case its showing sexual characteristics so some will think its funny however in other cultures this resembles something important.

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  20. I would of never thought of to make sexual pottery and never have I heard of this until now. I wonder how did they hide it from the children or did they not have it as a secret to them.


    Kenneth Granger

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  21. This is something very new to me. I honestly never would've that you could use sex and pottery in the same sentence. Others probably wouldn't even believe me if i told them what i've read. Imagine being at a restaurant and asking someone to hand you the "vagina", but meaning something as simple as salt, or sugar.
    -Brittany Duckett

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