The Moche people lived on Peru’s north coast long before the Spanish conquest of the Americas. They grew corn and squash, built monumental adobe temples and were master craftsmen in gold and ceramics.
They never had the chance to sell their wares on Etsy, and yet they anticipated some of our most modern anxieties.
Like us, they saw themselves living in a vulnerable world where the technology created to make their lives better was just as likely to turn against them. While we worry about our baby monitors and home routers being hijacked by malicious hackers, they perceived a world in which everyday objects like jugs and clothes might come to life with ominous consequences.
Moche artists painted scenes of this happening on ceramic vessels and on the walls of their temples. They appear whimsical to us today — items of clothing, weaving implements, weapons, all with arms and legs, hands and feet, some with heads and faces, on parade or engaged in battle — but for the Moche they may have represented a deep-seated uncertainty and fear about the ultimate fate of the human-created world.
In some scenes, the animated objects are docile. In one, bowls piled with food and jugs have grown legs and walk toward human figures participating in a ceremony; some helpful jugs even bend over to pour liquid into vessels.
But other paintings show a world turned upside down, where the objects have taken charge: They fight and defeat human warriors and parade naked human captives.
In an excavation in 1991 near the town of San José de Moro, archaeologists, including one of the authors of this piece, Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, discovered the lavish tomb of a Moche priestess. Her coffin had been anthropomorphized, with a mask representing the priestess’ face on top and with arms and legs fashioned from copper on the sides.
Inherent in the idea that objects have life is the more subversive concept that they also have desires; feel hate and love; seek revenge; and have the capacity to act on their own.
In the modern world, most of the objects that surround us are a result of an impersonal process of production — they come from factories, we buy them in stores or online. For the Moche, objects were not produced — they were created, imbuing them with the ambiguity and mystery with which life is given to animated beings.
Such objects could be either beneficial or dangerous, depending on whether they decided to serve their creators or turn against them, either of their own volition or through the black arts of others.
We now live in a world where objects once again have life.