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Moche Stirrup-Spout Bottle* May 22, 2009

Posted by Elena in My research.
From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Moche Society and Culture

Moche (or Mochica) was one of the most vigorous and prosperous cultures of Ancient Peru. It is known to have thrived between approximately 100 and 800 ad. Diverse geography and climate such as cold ocean next to a harsh desert shore line on the Western side and the second highest mountain range in the World on the Eastern side led to the need to organize society and created a reliance on community over the individual.  They built an impressive irrigation system that transformed kilometers of desert into fertile and abundant fields capable of sustaining a population of over 50,000. Without benefit of the wheel, the plough, or a developed writing system, the Moche nevertheless achieved a remarkable level of civilization, as witnessed by their highly sophisticated ceramic Moche buildingpottery, lofty pyramids, and clever metalwork. Moche artifacts found in the tombs of great lords include finely crafted bronze, gold and silver ornaments, large, gilded copper figurines, and intricately decorated ceramic pottery. The Moche artisans portrayed a very realistic and accurately detailed depiction of themselves and their environment. These art pieces are the only remaining source of archeological information about their everyday life and work [2, 3].

Moche Ceramic Tradition

Ceramics seemed to be the preferred medium in Moche culture, as estimated 90% of Moche art is represented in ceramics.  These ancient ceramic works are considered remarkable for their exoticism, expressive nature, but also for their quality. The most common form of ceramic produced by the Moche was the stirrup vessel, in its simplest form a closed body surmounted by an arched tube that connects to it in two points, and is pierced by a vertical spout [1]. The majority of the decorated examples are modeled into three-dimensional sculptural forms depicting animals, human and supernatural figures, portraits of important individuals, war scenes, and a variety of other motifs familiar from the daily life and mythology of the time.

Purpose of the Object

Although these vessels are often found in elite Moche burials, they were used by the Moche during life. Many of the vessels in grave deposits show signs of abrasion and other wear, and fragments are found in domestic rubbish heaps and those of ceremonial grounds, where they had been discarded after being broken, presumably during use. Despite their esoteric configuration, the vessels were intended to hold liquid, possibly a beverage [1].

Construction Type

The globular body of the vessel has a stirrup handle which is an elegantly arched hollow ceramic tube attached to the vessel at both ends in such a way as to be open into the body of the vessel. The shape of the handle indicates an early date in the long ceramic sequence of the Moche [5]. The handle has the short tapering spout at the mid point. The intricate construction of the vessel suggests clever adaptation to the environment such as small opening of the spout that allowed minimal evaporation of liquid and kept the dust out. The liquid would pour smoothly out of the vessel because air enters one end of the handle while liquid comes out the other. The shape of the handle allows for easy carrying of the vessel or suspending from belt or rope.

Clay body

Moche vessels were made of low temperature earthenware obtained locally [3].  The body of the stirrup bottle is of reddish color indicating high content of iron oxide. The non-invasive PIXE spectroscopy study of similar Moche vessels showed that these clays contained on average ~20% of Fe2O3. The other main ingredients were silica (SiO2) – 50-60% and alumina (Al2O3) – 10-15%. These clays also contained relatively high percentage of fluxes (K2O: 6-10% and CaO: 5‑6%) [3] that lower maturation temperatures during firing.

Ceramic Technique

It is known that the prevalent ceramic technique of early Moche was coiling – a hand method of forming pottery by building up the walls with ropelike rolls of clay and then smoothing over the joints.

Surface Decoration

The globular chamber of this well-proportioned bottle is decorated with the undulating body of a big serpent on one half of the chamber, apparently by using sprigging technique – applying clay in a plastic state to form a relief decoration. The reptile’s large head has catlike eyes, whiskers, and a bifurcated tongue. A mythological creature known as the “eared” serpent often assumes feline characteristics such as whiskers and fangs [5]. Incision and carving might have also been used to shape the snake’s “facial” features. The main body of the vessel is covered with the red iron-rich slip (i.e. clay in liquid suspension). The serpent’s body is outlined and decorated with concentric circles in white slip that contained high percentage (20-30%) of CaO (whiting) [3]. Snakes were common in Moche art. Although their meaning is unclear, the annual shedding of their skins may have been symbols of renewal and regeneration [5]. No vitrified glazes were used by Moche. The high gloss resulted from burnishing (i.e. using a smooth object to polish the surface of leather hard clay) either with the hand, with a cloth or with a smooth stone, while the vessel was in the leather hard state (i.e. the condition of the raw ware (green ware) when most of the moisture has left the body but when it is still soft enough to be carved or burnished easily). This treatment drew finer particles to the surface making the vessel stronger and more water-tight [3].

Firing Technique

Moche vessels were fired in an oxidizing atmosphere (i.e. the firing condition during which the kiln chamber retains an ample supply of oxygen) in a pit that allowed oxygen to circulate around the vessel, bringing out the rich red tone of the slip [1]. A replica of a firing pit recreated based on excavation

”]Recreated ground plan and section through the replica pottery kiln. Reproduced from [4]findings at various Moche sites shown here (image reproduced from [4]: Ground plan and section through the replica pottery kiln). Three different views of the firing chamber show a pit with partially raised walls that could have been constructed from clay and/or rock and allowed both oxidizing and reducing atmospheres (depending on the size of the opening that could be changed depending on the intentions of the potter). The pit has an entrance at the shallow end for easy loading/unloading and general maintenance.

Personal Reflections

I stumbled upon stirrup vessels made by modern artists in catalogs and books and was intrigued by their shape. When I saw this particular bottle in the Metropolitan Museum or Art in New York, I realized that the idea of the shape came from at least ~2000 years ago. It immediately suggests utilitarian nature of the vessel, however, this fact in no way diminishes its esthetic value. It comes as no surprise that 2000 years later the ingenious unity of obvious utilitarian purpose and the highly artistic execution of this bottle such as an elegant organic curve of the handle, intricate surface decoration, perfect smoothness of the walls, and well-defined lip still inspire artists to keep exploring and reproducing its distinctive shape.

Indian sign


1. S. Miller. Feline painting of the Moche. http://www.tribalarts.com/feature/moche

2. R.A. Hudson, ed. Peru: A Country Study. 1992. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress.

3. C.P. Swann, S. Caspi, and J. Carlson. Six stirrup handled Moche ceramic vessels from pre-Colombian Peru: a technical study applying PIXE spectrometry. Nucl. Instr. Meth. Physics Research. 1999, B150: 571 – 575.

4. I. Shimada, D. Goldstein, J.Sosa, and U. Wagner. Early Pottery Making in Northern Coastal Peru. Part II: Field Firing Experiments. Hyperfine Interactions. 2003, 150: 91–105.

5. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/05/sac/ho_1992. 60.9.htm


This project was a part of my ceramic class assignment. Although information that I could find on this particular piece was quite scarce, I was able to assemble it into a story that I am presenting here. I cannot  guarantee 100% accuracy. Please, refer to the cited sources for more information.



1. marilyn revere - January 24, 2012

I am trying to copy a stirup-spout vessel from the denver art museum. I am interested in what you know about how to form the spout with clay, and any modern examples of doing so. You mentioned you had seen modern ones.I am a beginning Ceramics art student at Metro state college and have never done ceramics. We had to go to the musem and find a piece of art, we have to try to replicate it and then modernize it in a second piece. Thank you for your time . Marilyn

Elena - January 25, 2012

Hi, Marilyn. I am not exactly sure how this particular spout was created. There are numerous references in the literature about molds used by Moche to make these types of pots. It is quite possible that this spout was made with the press mold. If you look at it more closely, it is too perfect and smooth, and the rim is well defined. Of course, that could be also made by hand (look at the examples of jixin teapots). You could try building it with small coils. After attaching coils, go over with a serrated rib to remove seams, and then with a smooth rib and sponge. You can also make a tube by rolling a relatively fat coil and inserting a round stick along the length. Stick should be longer than the coil. Then carefully roll the stick on the table back and forth pressing on both ends that stick out of clay until the opening is of the right diameter and the wall thickness is right. Another way is to extrude the tube if you have access to an extruder and hollow dies. You can then pull the tube gently to make it thinner in the middle. As you can see there are many ways to build a spout. Not sure if I explainef well. Do not hesitate to ask if you need clarifications. I might be able to refer you to websites where it is explained better. Regards, Elena

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