Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Cerro Sechin: Stone Sculpture

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The elaborate and grim stone frieze at Cerro Sechin has fascinated scholars and laypeople alike since its discovery in 1937. Made from locally obtained blocks of granite, the stone monoliths depict scenes of sacrifice and bodily mutilation. Images of important personages, each of whom carries a club or staff and wears a loincloth and hat, are surrounded by engraved depictions of severed body parts and naked, maimed human beings. The majority of important personages are carved on larger stones, approximately 3 x 1 meters, while the dismembered human remains are carved into much smaller pieces of stone ranging from 0.5 to 1.2 meters wide and 0.5 to 0.8 meters long. Some scholars suggest that the monoliths were intended to commemorate an important battle or conquest, while others propose that the engravings were associated with religious and mythical themes.

Of the hundreds of monoliths found at Cerro Sechin, 244 contain or represent faces. The faces belong to either important persons, mutilated beings, or severed heads. While the facial expressions of the important personages are fierce and determined, those of the mutilated individuals and severed heads are contorted in pain. Their eyes, often indicated by a solitary curved line or as bulging circles, may indicate death, struggle, or disfigurement. The mouth—the most accentuated aspect of the face—is often pulled back in a distorted grimace, and streams of blood flow from head wounds.

In other instances, whole figures have been splayed down the center and their inner intestines graphically depicted. While evidence for large-scale warfare during the second millennium B.C. is scant for this region of Peru, it seems clear that notions of violence and combat were present, perhaps even celebrated, at Cerro Sechin.

Nicole Slovak
Department of Anthropological Studies, Stanford University

Cerro Sechin: Engraved perimeter wall, granite.
Close-up of engraved monoliths depicting severed heads and mutilated beings.
Cerro Sechin: El Portico Litico, granite; H. (figures) 82.7 in. (210 cm).
Two sculptures of important personages flank the rear staircase at Cerro Sechin.