Moche Mural in Peru Revealed in Stunning Detail

Interactive gigapixel technology offers a new way to see ancient art.

In the bone-dry coastal desert of northern Peru, the ancient Moche sculpted and painted intricate murals on the adobe walls of the site now known as Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon). Created between A.D. 100 and 800, the images hold intriguing clues to a mysterious people who left no written texts to help explain their beliefs and customs.

Now, a composite photo in super high resolution has captured one of those murals in amazing detail, allowing anyone with a computer to zoom in for close-up views of individual figures. (Click here for the interactive version of the photo.)

Covering 200 square feet (19 square meters) in the corner of one of the temple's plazas, the polychrome relief vividly portrays scenes from the spiritual life of the Moche. Human sacrifice, for instance, was a common ritual in this culture. It's shown here in mid-action, with the perpetrator thrusting a weapon at the defenseless victim, who is splayed on his back. In other spots, warriors appear in various poses that must have held great meaning centuries ago—grasping an iguana by its tail, brandishing a weapon in each hand, and holding up a decapitated head. (See more pictures of a Moche sacrifice chamber.)

The mural includes many animals—fish and crayfish (presumably from the nearby Moche River), as well as snakes, scorpions, monkeys, foxes, buzzards, an unidentified feline, and dogs that appear to be barking. It also may show scenes from daily life—people capturing birds with nets, fishing from a kind of reed boat still used locally today, even smelting gold.

The Moche are known for their masterful ceramics and metalwork. Their intricate artifacts of gold are best known from the treasures uncovered in 1987 in the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, the richest unlooted grave found to date in the New World.

At Huaca de la Luna the wall with the wealth of motifs caught the eye of Fabio Amador—a senior program officer in National Geographic's department of research, conservation, and exploration—while he was visiting grantees in the field.

It seemed like the perfect subject for a gigapixel image, a panorama made of billions of pixels that capture every element in sharp detail. Using a process developed by GigaPan Systems, Amador took hundreds of photos with a camera mounted on a robotic tripod. Those photos were then stitched together seamlessly with proprietary software.

"I really wanted to get to the detail, the design elements, without losing their placement in the larger context of the mural," Amador says.

Archaeologists have been using gigapixel photography as a scientific aid since GigaPan was founded in 2008. The technology has helped record a Paleolithic site in southwestern France and the site of a Macedonian cult on the Greek island of Samothrace, for example.

Amador sees two large roles for gigapixel photography in this field: first, facilitating research by allowing experts to take a close look at sites anywhere in the world; and second, giving the public a heightened appreciation of those sites. "The modern archaeologist is capable of not only making the discovery, but also communicating to the world the beauty of the past," he says.

Excavations began at Huaca de la Luna long before archaeology was a modern discipline. When German archaeologist Max Uhle did the first work there between 1898 and 1899, it was more adventure than science.

Since 1991, an international team of experts has been studying the Huaca de la Luna murals in depth.

"We're still not sure of the significance of the complex themes," says archaeologist Santiago Uceda of Peru's Universidad Nacional de Trujillo, "but our working hypothesis is that they're intimately related to the Moche myths that gave rise to the ceremonies and rituals carried out in that sacred space."