Who Was She?

Posted by Censor Librorum on May 17, 2006 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

I make my living in marketing, but the career I really wanted was in archaeology. Tocharians, Sycthians, Sauromatians and Sarmatians are for me all thrilling mysteries waiting to be explored. Archaeologists are detectives, storytellers, seers, historians–and participants–all rolled into one. When they uncover a mummy or burial, they have the privilege, the wonder, the humbling feeling and the intimate sadness of seeing and holding what remains of the life of a person who lived long ago, and who is now just dust and bones before them. It is the most intimate connection with history–to lay your hand where another’s hand once rested decades, hundreds or thousands of years ago.

There is always the chance that a turn of the spade will also uncover something completely unexpected, and upend all previous scholarship. That was the case in the Moche discovery reported today in the New York Times – “A Peruvian Woman of A.D. 450 Seems to Have Had Two Careers.” “She was a woman who died some 1,600 years ago in the heyday of the Moche culture, well before the rise of the Incas. Her imposing tomb suggests someone of high status. Her desiccated remains are covered with red pigment and bear tattoos of patterns and mythological figures.” The most striking aspect of the discovery, according to archaelogists, are the objects buried with her. She was surrounded by weaving materials and needles (as befits a woman, according to the article), but also 2 ceremonial war clubs and 28 spear throwers–items never before found in the burial of a woman of the Moche, only men.

“She is elite, but somewhat of an enigma,” said John Verano, a physical anthropologist at Tulane University, who worked with the Peruvian archaeologists who made the discovery last year. Dr. Donnan of UCLA comments, “It’s among the richest female Moche burials ever found. The tomb combines things usually found either exclusively in male or female burials–a real mystery.” The archaeologists speculated that she might have been a female warrior, or, buried with symbols of power that were funeral gifts from men.

The National Geographic Society announced the find and is publishing details in its June issue. X-rays revealed the mummy was a young adult. Lying next to her as the skeleton of another young woman who was apparently sacrificed by strangulation with a hemp rope, which was still around her neck. The tomb was near the summit of a pyramid called Huaca Cao Viejo, an important site in Moche religion.

What the Times writer doesn’t say is that the Moche were not strangers to homosexuality; as their pottery portrayed a variety of acts, including very frank depictions of both oral and anal sex. Sexual aspects appear integral in their ritual practice as well (“Sex, Death, and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture,” by Steve Bourget).

Who and what was the woman in the tomb? And who was the woman who was obviously sacrificed to be buried with her? Here’s my take: based on other Moche artifacts previously found and analyzed, the clubs buried with her may have been used for human sacrifice. She may have been a priestess. That she was buried with both women’s and men’s tools may indicate she lived part of her life as a woman, part as a man; or, she existed in a role that combined aspects of both genders. Either way, she was honored and a person of considerable status. The depiction of a rope around the neck of a sacrificial victim indicates they are a prisoner of war, specifically captured to be sacrified. However, Moche artwork usually shows men, not women in this situation. I do not know whether or not in Moche burials sacrificed victims were offered as blood libations, servants, sex partners or all three. Her strangulation was less painful than the usual, very cruel and bloody deaths Moche captives could expect. Was she her lover? Maybe. But my theory is the woman was a captive who was killed to serve–in all ways–the dead woman. The real mystery is the gender blend of the objects. Does ancient burial show objects associated with a woman’s individual temperament, orientation, religious role or possibly, transgender change?

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