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Frontier Life in Ancient PeruThe Archaeology of Cerro la Cruz$

Melissa A. Vogel

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780813037967

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813037967.001.0001

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A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

(p.17) 2 A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350
Frontier Life in Ancient Peru

Melissa A. Vogel

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the geographic and temporal setting of the north coast of Peru ca. ad 900–1350, during periods known as the Middle Horizon and Late Intermediate Period, explaining the chronology and sociopolitical events of the time. It also provides an overview of the Casma polity and their eventual conquerors, the Chimú state.

Keywords:   Casma polity, Chao Valley, ceramic style

In order to establish that Cerro la Cruz was a frontier settlement of the Casma polity, one must first consider the political and cultural landscape of its time. The north coast of Peru during the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries AD was a place of great cultural transition. This era witnessed the fall of the Wari, an expansionist state in the Peruvian highlands, as well as the rise of the Chimú state on the north coast. Archaeologists used to believe that the Wari had conquered much of the north coast as well as the south coast during their reign (approximately AD 600–1000). However, more recent research on the north coast has failed to provide evidence of Wari occupation. Instead, more attention is now being paid to polities—such as the Lambayeque, the Chimú, and the Casma (e.g., Dulanto 2008; Mackey 2009; Vogel 2005)—that controlled the north coast from the late Middle Horizon and into Late Intermediate period. While much of this research is ongoing (e.g., Brown Vega 2008, 2009; Prządka and Giersz 2003; Prządka-Giersz 2009; Vogel 2011), it has the potential to essentially rewrite our current understanding of the events of this period. Keeping in mind that our understanding is in flux, this chapter provides a brief synopsis of north coast culture history as it is currently interpreted during the chronological periods that Cerro la Cruz was occupied, the Middle Horizon (ca. AD 600–1000) and Late Intermediate period (ca. AD 1000–1470). My focus is on the valleys that are most relevant to this analysis—those in the southern half of this region, which includes the Moche, Virú, Chao, Santa, Nepeña, and Casma valleys. Since previous ideas about Cerro la Cruz associated it with the Chimú polity, it is especially important to review the evidence for the Chimú imperial expansion. This is followed by an overview of both past and current research on the Casma (p.18)

Table 2.1. Andean Chronology

Period name

Approximate dates

Preceramic period

?-1800 BC

Initial period

1800–900 BC

Early Horizon

900–200 BC

Early Intermediate period

200 BC–AD 600

Middle Horizon

AD 600–1000

Late Intermediate period

AD 1000–1470

Late Horizon

AD 1470–1532

Colonial period

AD 1532–1826

Note: After Rowe 1960; Silverblatt 1987; Keatinge 1988.

polity, with special attention given to the proposed Casma capital city of El Purgatorio.

The Temporal Setting: Andean Chronology

The division of Andean culture history into horizons and intermediate periods has been used to distinguish periods of relative stability dominated by a few major polities (the horizons) from those of instability and greater sociopolitical change (the intermediate periods) (table 2.1) (Covey 2008; Keatinge 1988; Rowe 1960). Several Andeanists have pointed out that the provisions upon which this chronology was developed are no longer supported by archaeological evidence (e.g., Mackey 1982; Topic 1991; Willey 1999). A revision of this chronology is in order for both Andean culture history on the north coast and conceptions of Andean sociopolitical change in general. However, until this chronology is replaced by another common standard, it serves as a useful framework for intersite comparison (Covey 2008:288).

Although the Chao Valley has been occupied continuously from the Preceramic period through the present day, the radiocarbon dates collected by this project (table 2.2) confirmed that Cerro la Cruz was occupied during only two periods of prehistory, the Middle Horizon and the Late Intermediate period, specifically from approximately AD 900 to 1300. The following sections discuss past chronological models for these periods and how they are being modified by the results of more recent fieldwork, so that the results of this research at Cerro la Cruz can in turn be placed within the context of the regional culture history. (p.19)

Table 2.2. Results of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Dating


Calibrated ages

sample ID

Sample location


14 C age (BP)






824 ± 45

AD 1165–1264

AD 1066–1282




1004 ± 31

AD 1001–1028

AD 984–1152




832 ± 30

AD 1190–1256

AD 1160–1276




944 ± 30

AD 1025–1158

AD 1020–1185




833 ± 30

AD 1189–1256

AD 1160–1276




901 ± 30

AD 1042–1206

AD 1031–1217




1042 ± 35

AD 984–1019

AD 898–1035




943 ± 58

AD 1021–1162

AD 990–1220




749 ± 41

AD 1259–88

AD 1216–99




944 ± 54

AD 1021–1162

AD 996–1218




813 ± 30

AD 1213–63

AD 1164–1279




819 ± 30

AD 1211–61

AD 1163–1278

Note: Dates were calibrated with the program INTCAL-98 (Stuvier et al. 1998).

The Middle Horizon

The Middle Horizon has been characterized as “an era of profound cultural change” (Moseley 1992:209). Various factors, such as severe El Niño weather phenomena followed by an extensive drought (demonstrated by ice core evidence) and a proliferation of fortified and defensively located settlements, contribute to our understanding of this period as a time of shifting alliances and instability.

Traditional models had posited that a group of highland people called the Wari gained control over much of the north coast through military conquest, beginning around AD 600 (e.g., Isbell 1977; Isbell and McEwan 1991; McEwan 1990; Menzel 1964; Schreiber 1987, 1987). The Wari polity has been described as an “extensive” state (Moseley 1992:216) or even as an empire (e.g., Cook 1986; Isbell and McEwan 1991; McEwan 1990; Menzel 1964, 1977; Schreiber 1987, 1992; Stone-Miller and McEwan 1990/1991) that established administrative centers among dispersed local populations through the dissemination of a new agricultural technique, irrigated terracing. The military conquest model was generally supported throughout the 1960s, and notions of Wari state dominance on the north coast were rarely challenged until fairly recently (e.g., Bawden and Conrad 1982; Mackey 1982). However, further research at sites on the north coast has (p.20) raised questions about the nature and extent of the Wari presence on the north coast (e.g., Jennings 2006; Topic 1991; Vogel 2003). The degree to which changes in ceramic and architectural styles on the north coast can be attributed to Wari state influence has been greatly debated (e.g., McEwan 1990; Pillsbury and Leonard 2004). Several authors (e.g., Conklin 1990; Mackey 1982; Pillsbury and Leonard 2004) have emphasized the continuity of north coast architectural styles, noting that features such as walled enclosures, once thought to have resulted from Wari influence, actually predate the Middle Horizon at sites such as Huaca de la Luna and Galindo and are the result of local architectural developments.

Instead of direct and complete authority, the relationship between coastal and highland populations may have been centered on trade and ideology (Jennings 2006; Shady 1982; Topic 1991), with either indirect Wari control (Isbell 1988) or multiple independent regional centers (Bawden and Conrad 1982; Mackey 1982) that were in contact with the Wari but not under their control. Politically speaking, the north coast was not dominated by any form of centralized control during this period, suggesting greater competition among lower-level elites and independent polities (Bawden 1996). The Wari polity did not survive beyond the Middle Horizon, and the capital city of Wari was abandoned by AD 1000 (Isbell 2008).

While the origins and development of the Casma polity are still under investigation (Vogel and Vilcherrez 2008, 2009; Vogel, Falcón, and Pacifico 2010), it seems likely that they arose in the Casma Valley during the Middle Horizon (Fung and Williams 1977; Vogel 2003; Wilson 1995). However, the absence of an earlier Moche occupation in the Casma Valley, despite its presence in neighboring valleys, is significant for probing the origins of the Casma polity (Collier 1962; Moseley 2001). At its height, the Moche polity consisted of two separate regions. The northern region was comprised of the Piura, Motupe, Lambayeque, Zaña, and Jequetepeque valleys, while the southern region included the Chicama, Moche, Virú, Chao, Santa, and Nepeña valleys (Castillo 2001:307). The debate over the political organization of the Moche state has developed significantly in the last two decades as more fieldwork has been conducted, but there is still no true consensus. There remains a distinct need for more field research in the southern Moche region, which has traditionally been characterized as a conquest state (e.g., Chapdelaine 2008, 2010). For the moment, the (p.21) best model seems to be one of individual valley states united by culture and perhaps language, but without a strong, centralized authority.1

It appears that during the Middle Horizon, the Moche polity retreated from the southernmost valleys but still occupied the northern half of their territory as well as the important Moche Valley site of Huacas de Moche into the seventh and eighth centuries AD (Chapdelaine 2010). Bawden (1996:264–75) credits the Moche polity collapse to three major factors: environmental catastrophe, foreign pressure from the Wari polity, and internal social stress. One possible source of this internal stress, at least in the southern valleys, could be the emergence of the Casma polity.

About the time of the Moche collapse, another important polity emerged on the far north coast and continued to develop contemporaneously with the Casma polity. Centered in the Lambayeque region, the Sicán polity (also referred to as the Lambayeque polity and often, in the past, confused with the Chimú state) has been the subject of extensive research by Shimada's Sicán Archaeological Project since 1978. Although the exact origins of the polity are still unclear, Shimada has developed a three-phase chronology from approximately AD 800 to 1375 that traces the rapid rise of Sicán to a period of impressive cultural florescence known as the Middle Sicán period (Shimada 2000). The Sicán polity is credited with the revivalist building of enormous platform mounds, the expansion of trade networks into Columbia and the Amazon, and the development of innovative metallurgical techniques. Shimada (2000:61) argued that this was a centralized state with distinct social classes and that it maintained control over multiple modes of resource exploitation. While its demise may have begun with internal dissension, the Sicán/ Lambayeque state did not collapse until, like the Casma, it was conquered by the Chimú during the fourteenth century AD.

The Late Intermediate Period

By the beginning of the Late Intermediate period, the Moche and Wari polities had both collapsed. Moseley (2001) pointed out the significant environmental changes that took place and their effects on human adaptation, especially the extended drought that began shortly after AD 1100 and continued until AD 1500. This drought was particularly important in coastal valleys such as the Chao, which have a limited water supply (p.22) in years of average rainfall and would therefore have been even more vulnerable to such a long period of drought.

The emergence of the highly centralized Chimú state at the end of the Middle Horizon represented a dramatic change from the previous few hundred years of dynamic political tension. The Chimú consolidated first the Moche, Chicama, and Virú valleys (approximately AD 900–1300), then, through the conquest of the Lambayeque polity to its north and the Casma polity to its south, it became the largest and most stable polity in the Andes at the time (Mackey 2009; Moore and Mackey 2008). Chimú political organization was by far the most centralized form of government yet practiced on the coast and perhaps in the Andean region—exceeded only by the Inca Empire, which struggled long and hard to conquer them. Based on Spanish accounts documenting indigenous oral histories, we can date the Inca conquest of the kingdom of Chimor to ca. AD 1470 (Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990; Moore and Mackey 2008; Rowe 1948). Once the Inca captured the north coast, no other local polity was able to gain a foothold there before the Spanish conquest of Peru, which was only sixty years later.

Although we still know relatively little about the Casma polity, evidence from the site of Cerro la Cruz and the large center of El Purgatorio in the Casma Valley suggests that this culture survived through the fourteenth century, far into the Late Intermediate period (Vogel 1999, 2000, 2011; Vogel and Coronado 2001; Vogel and Vilcherrez 2009 [2007]). The polity was at least partially subsumed under the Chimú Empire by AD 1350, and it completely collapsed shortly thereafter. Exactly how this decline took place, though, requires further study at Casma polity sites in their core area, the Casma Valley.2 The frontier site of Cerro la Cruz provides an important opportunity to investigate how sociopolitical change occurring during the late Middle Horizon and Late Intermediate period affected Casma communities on the north coast of Peru.

The Emergence of the Chimú Empire

Thankfully, our understanding of the Chimú polity and its sociopolitical organization is much more complete than that of the Casma polity, if not entirely comprehensive. Many Andean archaeologists have contributed to our knowledge of Chimú culture, religion, sociopolitical organization, and imperial expansion.3 This section concentrates on the most salient (p.23) topics for understanding the Chimú-Casma connection: the geographic and temporal range of the Chimú Empire, its identifying characteristics (especially its architectural and ceramic styles), and its political organization. My bias is toward the development and expansion of the imperial phase, the period most relevant to the research at Cerro la Cruz.

Geographic and Temporal Extent

The Chimú developed the largest and most centralized state on the north coast of Peru, eclipsed only by the Inca, who conquered them in approximately AD 1470 (Mackey 2009; Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990; Moseley 2001). Ethnohistorical sources state that at its fullest extent, the Chimú Empire stretched from the Tumbes Valley in the north to the Chillon Valley in the south. This constitutes a distance of approximately 1,000 km, encompassing two-thirds of the coastal population (Moseley 1990:1). However, archaeological evidence indicates the presence of Chimú state power from the Motupe Valley to the Casma Valley but remains ambiguous for the outermost valleys (Mackey 2009; Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990:207, 219). The beginnings of the Chimú state can be traced back to approximately AD 1000 in the Moche Valley, where the capital of Chan Chan is located. Mackey and Klymyshyn (1990) also include the Chicama and Virú valleys when describing the central area, or core of the empire.

Chimú Style: Architecture and Ceramics

From a stylistic viewpoint, distinctive indicators of Imperial Chimú group affiliation have been identified in architecture, ceramics (both fineware and utilitarian wares), iconography, textile technology, and mortuary practices. Many of these stylistic attributes evolved from long-term cultural continuities on the north coast but were codified into a distinct Chimú-style during the consolidation of the state. For example, the trade-mark architectural feature of Chimú architecture is a U-shaped structure with niched walls called an audiencia (figure 2.1). Other typical Chimú-style architectural features include high-walled adobe compounds with baffled entries, pilastered doorways, entry plazas, restricted access patterns, and labyrinth-like passageways (Keatinge 1982:199; Moore 1996b; Moseley 1975).

In terms of ceramic style, press-molded blackware is typical of Chimú (p.24)

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.1. U-shaped audiencia with niches at the site of Chan Chan. Photo by author.

fineware, while carinated rims are the hallmark of utilitarian ollas (Collier 1955:111; Topic and Moseley 1983). Chimú-style ceramics are predominantly mold-made and, thereby, mass produced. Stirrup-spout bottles are a common vessel form, often with a small monkey or lug located at the juncture of spout and stirrup. Surface decoration generally involved low-relief press molding, one of the most common being stipples of various sizes. Vessels may be highly burnished but are rarely slip painted (Donnan 1992:96). Flat-bottomed plates appear to have originated on the north coast with the Chimú state. Other popular vessel forms include jars, bowls, and spout-and-handle bottles (Donnan 1992:96).

Unlike the Moche style that preceded it, Chimú art is rarely narrative, focusing instead on repeated patterns of zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, or geometric forms (Pillsbury 1997:182). Its iconography becomes highly restricted as the Chimú state becomes an empire, focusing on only four major deities from the state religion: the staff god, the two-tasseled headdress god, the goddess, and the moon animal (Mackey 2001). Mackey (2001:138) pointed out that Chimú imagery is much more standardized than that of earlier north coast styles, and that its deities take on a more human appearance. Chimú-style ceramic vessels also depict maritime themes such as fish, waves, pelicans, and Spondylus shells (Pillsbury 1997). (p.25) This artistic canon applies to other media as well, including textile designs, metal objects, and adobe friezes on compound walls. Ethnohistorical documents confirm the importance of the sea and the moon goddess in north coast religion at the time of the Inca conquest, which may explain the predominance of maritime themes (e.g., Anton 1972:67, McClelland 1990:75; Rowe 1948). But these themes also reflect larger regional continuities which can also be found in the late Moche and Lambayeque art styles (Mackey 2001:134).

Chimú Political Organization

Scholars have also given a great deal of attention to the political organization of the Chimú state. It appears to have been the second most centrally organized polity in the precolonial Andes, surpassed only by the Inca Empire, which followed it and made use of its administrative achievements to rule the north coast. The Chimú state religion is reflected in the production of ceramics, textiles, wooden implements, and metal objects depicting a limited pantheon of deities. Evidence for state-sponsored ceremonies is also found in the architectural models that show rituals taking place in large enclosed plazas, such as those found in the capital city of Chan Chan.

According to ethnohistorical documents (Rowe 1948; Cabello Balboa [1586] 1951; Calancha 1638), expansion to the north and south occurred in two major waves. However, archaeological evidence recovered from Chimú administrative centers has revised the chronological sequence for imperial expansion. Radiocarbon dates from the site of Farfán in the Jequetepeque Valley suggest that the northern valleys were conquered around AD 1300 (Mackey 2009), soon followed by the southern expansion through the Casma Valley. Mackey and Klymyshyn's (1990) research at the site of Manchan indicated that the Chimú state conquered the Casma Valley by AD 1350 (Mackey 2009). In addition, no Chimú administrative centers have been found in the valleys south of the Casma Valley, so the degree to which the southernmost valleys were integrated into the empire remains questionable (Mackey 2009; Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990:207). Radiocarbon dates from the Lambayeque Valley indicate that the northernmost valleys were not conquered until after AD 1350 (Shimada 1990:313) and may thus represent a third stage of expansion (Mackey 2009).

(p.26) Defining the Casma Polity: Previous Research

Determining how the lesser-known Casma polity fits into this regional culture history is an ongoing project, but our knowledge of this culture is growing rapidly and adding to the dispersed contributions of previous scholars. Prior to the completion of this research at Cerro la Cruz, only surface survey and test excavations had been completed at any Casma polity site. Few publications refer to the Casma as a polity instead of just a ceramic style (e.g., Collier 1962; Conlee et al. 2004; Daggett 1983; Fung and Williams 1977; Mackey 2009; Tello 1956; Vogel 2003, 2011; Vogel and Vilcherrez 2009 [2007]; Wilson 1995). One goal of this research is to amplify and define our understanding of the Casma polity. This section synthesizes what is known about the Casma polity and style to form a preliminary model for the constitution of the Casma polity and to identify archaeological indicators of a Casma polity presence.

Geographic and Temporal Extent

Thus far the Casma polity appears to be coastal, occupying only the chala4 and low-altitude yungas.5 However, further investigation must be conducted to verify what connection, if any, the Casma polity maintained with the highlands. Mackey and Klymyshyn (1990) suggested that the Casma polity extended from the Chao Valley south to the Huarmey Valley, a distance of approximately 300 km. This would make the Chao Valley (possibly along with its equally small neighbor, the Virú Valley) the northern border between the Casma polity and the emerging Chimú state. If this is correct, Cerro la Cruz may have been first a frontier outpost and later part of a border zone for the Casma polity, linked to a southern core in the Casma Valley.

The temporal limits of the Casma polity's existence also remain largely undefined. Researchers have generally referred to it as a Middle Horizon (ca. AD 600–1000) culture (Daggett 1983; Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990; Tello 1956; Wilson 1988, 1995) that persisted into the Late Intermediate period (Fung and Williams 1977). These temporal designations are based primarily upon relative dating of the Casma Incised and Casma Molded ceramic styles found at various sites, but not in combination with other lines of evidence or absolute dating techniques. In contrast, the research at the site of Cerro la Cruz focused exclusively on a Casma polity site, (p.27) using multiple artifact classes and producing absolute dates in association with these artifacts. In addition, ongoing research at the Casma capital city of El Purgatorio has produced radiocarbon dates of approximately AD 700–1400 (calibrated, 2-sigma, see Vogel 2011:Table 2.23).

Casma Incised and Casma Molded Ceramic Styles

Nearly all the information currently published regarding the Casma polity focuses exclusively on the ceramic styles, which nevertheless require further definition and clarification (tables 2.3 and 2.4). Tello (1956) was the first to coin the term “Casma style” during his survey of the Casma Valley. He was also the first to describe the site of El Purgatorio, the proposed capital of the Casma polity. His classifications of ceramic styles have since been revised and refined, but his pioneering survey provided the foundation upon which further research was based. Collier (1962) then divided the Casma style into two types, Casma Incised and Casma Modeled (also known as Casma Molded; figures 2.2 and 2.3), and equated

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.2. Fragment of a Casma Incised olla from Cerro la Cruz (B3R10U1-58). Photo by author.


Table 2.3. Sources of Information on the Casma Polity and/or Casma Style


Subject of publication

Information on ceramic style

Information on architectural style

Information on site layout

Information on settlement patterns

Information on political organization

Tello 1956

Survey of Casma Valley

Photographs, drawings, and description

Brief description of El Purgatorio, no drawings/maps

Collier 1962a

Survey of Casma Valley

Drawings and description

Fung and Pimentel 1973b

Chankillo site in Casma Valley

Brief description

Fung and Williams 1977

Survey of Sechin Valley

Photographs and description

Brief description, no drawings

3 site maps

Map of sites on Sechin branch

Secular state

Cárdenas 1976/1978 (illustration in 1979 and 1998)

Survey of Chao Valley

No drawings or descriptions in 1976/1978, but a few in 1998

Map of all sites in valley

Daggett 1983

Survey of Nepefia Valley

Drawings and description

Does not list the sites surveyed, only a map

Wilson 1988c

Survey of Santa Valley

Drawings and description—name differs

Brief description, no drawings

3 site maps

Maps and description

State, El Purgatorio as capital

Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990d

Chimù Empire in Casma Valley

Brief mention, no illustrations

Mention seven Casma sites but no map or names

Unified polity, El Purgatorio as capital

Wilson 1995e

Survey of Casma Valley

Named but no illustrations

Maps and description

El Purgatorio as capital

(a) Divides Casma Incised and Casma Molded ceramic styles.

(b) Links Casma culture with Casma ceramic style.

(c) Refers to the Casma polity as the “Black-White-Red State.”

(d) Suggests extent of Casma territory is from Chao to Huarmey Valleys.

(e) No name given to state.

them with Kroeber's (1944) “Sechín style.” Collier also related Tello's Santa and Huaylas Yunga styles to the Black-White-Red style (1962:415), which Collier considered to be Tiahuanaco-derived.

Although neither the Casma Incised nor Casma Molded style has been studied in depth, several archaeologists have noted its presence at Middle Horizon sites on the north coast and remarked on its characteristics. Fung and Williams (1977) linked Casma Incised to Thompson's (1966) Huarmey Incised style, as well as to a Nepeña Valley style that Proulx (1968, 1973) (p.29) referred to as Huari Norteño B. There appear to be local variations on the Casma style in each valley, but I focus primarily on descriptions of ceramics found in the heartland of the Casma polity, the Casma Valley, for comparison with those found at the site of Cerro la Cruz, on the periphery.

In his work on the Casma Valley, Collier (1962) described Casma Incised pottery as redware, primarily ollas decorated with incision, punctation, stamped designs such as circles and dots, and various appliquéd (p.30)

Table 2.4. Names for Variations on Casma Polity Ceramic Styles

Ceramic style

Provenience by valley


Corral Incised, San Nicolas Molded, San Juan Molded, Black-White-Red, Guañape


Collier 1955

Tanguche, Black-White-Red


Wilson 1988

Huari Norteño B, Nepeña Black-White-Red


Proulx 1973

Serpentine Appliqué


Daggett 1983



Kroeber 1944

Casma, Santa, Huaylas Yunga


Tello 1956

Casma Incised, Casma Modeled, Black-White-Red


Collier 1962

Huarmey Incised


Thompson 1966

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.3. Drawing of a Casma Molded jar fragment from Cerro la Cruz. Figure drawn by author.

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.4. Serpentine Appliqué design on a sherd from Cerro la Cruz (SA01-8). Photo by author.

bumps, serpents, and zoomorphic adornos (modeled figures that have been applied to the vessel), such as the common “rope design” around the neck (figures 2.22.6). Daggett (1983) generally agreed with this description based on the sample she gathered from the Nepeña Valley. Her sample included 200 rims, but she did not specify from which sites they were collected. She stated that the distinguishing feature of Casma Incised jars was the treatment of the rim. Flared rims were the most common type in her sample, followed by lipped-flare rims and, lastly, short, incurving rims (Daggett 1983:213). She also described small, thick handles attached to the shoulders of jars and rim decorations such as appliquéd nodules, rope designs, and short incised lines. One important detail Daggett mentioned is that adornos most frequently take the shape of a bird. (p.32)
A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.5. Fragment of a Serpentine Appliqué jar from Cerro la Cruz. Photo by author.

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.6. Fragment of a Casma-style olla with rope design from Cerro la Cruz (B3R10U1-201). Photo by author.

(p.33) Daggett classified a portion of her sample as a separate type called Serpentine Appliqué, whereas I would include these designs as a subset of the broader Casma style.6 She described Serpentine Appliqué as a red-brown utilitarian ware similar to Casma Incised in several ways: the primary vessel form is the jar, similar handles are also applied to the shoulder, and the rims fall into the same three categories. Serpentine Appliqué style differs from Casma Incised only in the type and placement of design and in the slight burnish that some sherds show. Designs consist of appliqués in a crescent or S shape on which small circles are incised, giving a spotted serpent appearance (figures 2.4 and 2.5). These appliqués are placed on the shoulder but do not extend from rim to handle as they do on Casma Incised jars. Daggett notes that Serpentine Appliqué is found with red press-molded ware and a Black-White-Red painted ware, but in limited distribution. Black-White-Red painted ware is probably also a fineware variation of Casma style, but examples of this style were not found in our investigation at Cerro la Cruz.

Fung and Williams (1977) remarked on the ubiquity of Casma Incised ceramics in their survey of the Sechín branch of the Casma Valley. They conducted a settlement pattern survey of ten sites with limited excavation. Their interest focused primarily on Initial period and Early Horizon sites, but they also provided a more comprehensive discussion of the Casma polity, identifying possible Casma sites and architectural features and speculating about their political organization. Significantly, Fung and Williams (1977) pointed out that many of the simple designs incorporated into the Casma style have antecedents in Chavín-style designs of the Early Horizon. Indeed, the principal design element of Casma Incised style consists of a deeply impressed dot within a circle (figure 2.2), sometimes referred to as an “eye” or “jaguar spot.” This design seems to have extremely long-term continuity and widespread distribution along the coast of Peru, further complicating attempts to refine the definition of the Casma style.

Architecture and Settlement Patterns

Fung and Williams linked several architectural elements to Casma architectural style. These elements include carefully planned compounds with internal subdivisions, platforms, and rectangular patios connected by a system of terraces (Fung and Williams 1977:138). They attributed to (p.34) the Casma polity the sites of Huanchay7 and Cahuacucho, both of which are located on terraced hillsides. Fung and Williams also noted construction techniques at various sites that correspond to those found at Cerro la Cruz, including thick stone walls and walls that appear to be made of adobe but actually have stone foundations (1977:126). Moreover, structures in some cases are agglutinated, or connected to one another, but in other cases are free standing.8

Previously, Wilson (1995) was the only author to discuss Casma polity settlement patterns, although he never refers to the Casma polity by name. According to his survey, the periods dominated by the Casma polity (the Choloque and Casma periods) were the most populous periods in the prehistory of the Casma Valley (see also Thompson 1964:95). He estimates 245 occupations for the Choloque period (ca. AD 650–900) and 387 occupations for the Casma period (ca. AD 900–1100). Wilson suggests that these periods show a “distinct hierarchy of site size and function,” with the site of El Purgatorio as the first-tier settlement in the Casma Valley (1995:204). His findings are discussed in more detail in the interregional comparison in chapter 6, but one important result must be mentioned here as a possible archaeological signature of the Casma polity: the increase in fortified and defensively located sites associated with the Casma periods in the Casma Valley. This may be a pattern for Casma polity site location, a pattern illustrated by the location and fortifications of Cerro la Cruz.

Opinions on the population size of the Casma polity vary widely among scholars. Due to the absence of large pyramidal mounds or evidence for a Moche occupation during the Early Intermediate period (ca. 200 BC–AD 600), Collier (1962) argued that the Casma Valley was largely unoccupied during this time. Yet immediately following this period there seems to be a Middle Horizon peak in population on the southern north coast, which could be due to the growth of the Casma polity (Proulx 1973:66; Thompson 1964:92). Wilson (1995) also associated the Casma polity with a peak in the population of the Casma Valley but does not give specific population estimates.

Casma Political Organization

Conceptualizations of Casma polity political organization are also conflicting. Whether this was a highly centralized political organization or (p.35) a loose confederation of local elites from different valleys is still under investigation. My impression based on the data collected thus far is that the Casma polity was more hegemonic than territorial, that they recruited and incorporated local elites into an alliance rather than conquering each valley. However, this interpretation requires further exploration in other valleys for confirmation.

Fung and Williams (1977) proposed that the Casma polity dominated the Casma Valley by the beginning of the Middle Horizon, perhaps even earlier. They contrasted the absence of pyramidal mounds, which are considered ceremonial structures, with the presence of rectangular compounds, which they presumed to be administrative. Fung and Williams characterized Casma political organization as more secular, in which, “in contrast to earlier times, religion and the priesthood were overshadowed by the government” (1977:138; my translation). They asserted that this secular orientation is reflected in the settlement pattern, which is centered on administrative or defensive sites in strategic locations.9 The pattern thus described by Fung and Williams (1977)—lack of pyramidal mounds, proliferation of rectangular compounds, defensively located administrative centers with few ceremonial structures—conforms to my observations of the location and spatial organization at the site of Cerro la Cruz. This pattern also agrees with my observations at the Casma capital city, the site of my current field research, which is described below.

The Casma Capital City of El Purgatorio

Perhaps the most critical aspect of creating a preliminary model for the composition of the Casma polity is to examine the capital city, which is thought to have been located at the site of El Purgatorio in the Casma Valley (Collier 1962:416; Conlee et al. 2004:211; Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990:198; Tello 1956; Thompson 1974:19; Wilson 1988:334, 1995:204). This characterization is based primarily on the abundance of Casma-style surface ceramics and the immense size of the site. Prior to my current project, El Purgatorio had only been described briefly in various surveys of the Casma Valley (Collier 1962; Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990; Tello 1956; Thompson 1964, 1974; Wilson 1995), and only limited previous test excavations had been undertaken by Thompson (1974). Due to the site's location along a prehispanic road, Tello also suggested that the site may have served as a tambo, or way station, during Inca times. We are currently (p.36)

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Map 2.1. Map of the lower Casma Valley showing the locations of El Purgatorio, Chankillo, and Pampa de las Llamas-Moxeque (after Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990).

investigating the site of El Purgatorio to obtain further information on the structure, extent, and impact of the Casma polity on Peruvian prehistory (Vogel 2011; Vogel, Falcón, and Pacifico 2010). The results of this research are contributing to a wealth of evidence for the Casma as a polity and illuminating the connections between Casma polity sites.

El Purgatorio is a truly monumental urban site, located in the lower Casma Valley, toward the southern end of the north coast of Peru at an altitude of approximately 180 m above sea level (map 2.1). Situated between the Nepeña Valley to the north and the Culebras Valley to the south, the Casma is the most extensive of the three valleys, with the greatest amount of arable land. Covering approximately 5 km2, El Purgatorio is the largest site in the Casma Valley from any time period (figure 2.7). It sits on the northeast side of the Casma River within sight of two important Formative period sites, Chankillo and Pampa de las Llamas—Moxeque (map 2.1).

The site consists of three sectors, stretching across the base of Cerro Mucho Malo (also known as Cerro Purgatorio) on its western and southern sides as well as up its valley-facing slopes. The majority of the (p.37)

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.7. Georeferenced 2007 Google Earth photograph of El Purgatorio in the Casma Valley. QuickBird/Digital Globe, Inc. Image 07MAY26155810-S2AS-005726208010_01_P001. Courtesy of Digital Globe, Inc. and The Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.8. View of El Purgatorio Sector A with Cerro Mucho Malo in the background. Photo by author.

monumental architecture, which consists of several large compounds with complex internal structures, is located on the western side of the mountain in Sector A (figure 2.8). Although these compounds are freestanding, some have annexes (attached rooms or patios) or other associated structures filling in the spaces between compounds. In Sector B, numerous habitational terraces extend a considerable distance up and on top of the hillside, which is crowded with densely packed smaller structures and at least one small cemetery (figure 2.9). On the south side of the hill supporting Sector B is a third zone, Sector C, which consists of three looted cemeteries, a few additional compounds, several agglutinated room clusters, and a number of smaller associated structures. In both size and variety of architecture, El Purgatorio shows evidence for a large and socially stratified population, with a minimum of two but more likely three social classes (i.e., elites, intermediates, commoners).

Analysis of the construction techniques at El Purgatorio revealed that the site's builders utilized a mixture of adobe and uncut stone, the same pattern noted in my research at Cerro la Cruz, with an important (p.39)

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.9. View of El Purgatorio Sector B showing residential terraces. Photo by author.

(p.40) distinguishing feature: layers of organic material (composed of maize stalks and cobs, reeds, leaves, etc.) as construction fill. Tello (1956) noted, and my project confirmed, a scattering of Casma-style ceramics over the entire site surface in all three sectors. When approaching the site, one is confronted by an almost labyrinthine conglomeration of walls, but no major mounds are present—only a few medium-sized platforms are located within the compounds. These platforms are often fronted by a rectangular plaza in a pattern I call the platform/plaza complex. Although there are at least eight of these complexes, the relatively small size of the platforms is remarkable in a valley known for some of the earliest large mounds in Peru.

Unlike the Casma frontier site of Cerro la Cruz, El Purgatorio is not surrounded by perimeter walls or any other obvious traces of fortifications. However, the two sites show many architectural similarities in the form of large walled compounds and terraced slopes crowded with residential structures (figure 2.10). Both sites manifest a spatial division between the areas dominated by the compounds (more elite and public architecture) and the zones of small residential terraces (for commoners). There are similar construction techniques at both sites: a combination of adobe and uncut stone construction and the use of the case-and-fill technique, in which two opposing walls of stone or adobe are filled in with layers of dirt, rock, and compacted organic matter. However, the quantities of adobes used and the extent of construction are far greater at El Purgatorio, differences which are not surprising given that this site is approximately five times the size of Cerro la Cruz. In addition, similar vessel forms have been recovered at both sites: ollas, bowls, face-neck jars, tinajas, and so on. But the variants of the Casma Incised and Casma Molded styles at El Purgatorio tend to be more ornate in their decoration.

Our research at El Purgatorio is beginning to identify a pattern for Casma polity mortuary practices. So far we have located at least four cemeteries at El Purgatorio, as well as burials placed in the architecture of the site after its abandonment (Vogel and Vilcherrez 2009). The primary criteria I used to identify burial style were body position, the style and placement of associated ceramic vessels, and radiocarbon dating. Using these criteria, Casma-style burials are tightly flexed, usually found in a seated position but occasionally on their side, and often associated with one or more of the Casma-style vessels (Molded, Incised, or Black-White-Red). Frequently a ceramic or gourd bowl is found atop the individual's (p.41)

A Time and Place of Transition: The North Coast of Peru, AD 900–1350

Figure 2.10. Georeferenced 1969 aerial photograph of Cerro la Cruz. Photograph by Servicio Aerofotográfico Nacional del Perú (#170-69-712).

(p.42) head. For those Casma-style burials that could be dated thus far, 2-sigma calibrated radiocarbon dates place them mostly in the Late Intermediagte period. While some of the Casma-style burials show clear indications of thin textile wrappings, the remnants of these textiles usually crumble to dust and are rarely well preserved enough to be removed along with the body. Nevertheless, the impressions left behind suggest that Casma people wrapped their dead in textile shrouds for burial, but probably not in layer upon layer of textiles.

Due to the persistence of these patterns in the material culture, I now use the following data sets as archaeological indicators of the Casma polity: ceramics in the Casma Incised, Molded, or Black-White-Red styles (figures 2.22.6) and an architectural style consisting primarily of rectangular compounds with enclosed patios and small platforms such as those found at the site of El Purgatorio or within Compound B3 at the site of Cerro la Cruz. In some cases, adobe walls with stone foundations replace the uncut stone construction. Settlement patterns are currently not well understood but seem to include defensively located and fortified sites, often located on terraced hillsides. Such is the case for the hillside site of Cerro la Cruz in the Chao Valley, which is described in chapter 4.


To create a foundation for my argument that Cerro la Cruz was a frontier site on the periphery of the Casma polity, this chapter situated my case study in the relevant temporal and cultural context. A concise overview of our current understanding of the Middle Horizon and Late Intermediate period on the Peruvian coast was presented so that the evidence for events at Cerro la Cruz may be placed within the framework of the regional culture history. In addition, I described previous research on the Casma polity as well as my ongoing investigations at the Casma capital city of El Purgatorio in the Casma Valley. Now that the site of Cerro la Cruz can be seen in light of the political landscape of its time, the next chapter explains the theoretical approach that I applied to the research design and interpretation of the results.


(1.) See Quilter 2002 and Chapdelaine 2010 for more extensive discussion of recent models for Moche political organization.

(2.) Ongoing investigations at the Casma capital city of El Purgatorio are aimed at fleshing out our understanding of Casma polity organization (e.g., Vogel 2011; Vogel, Falcón, and Pacifico 2010).

(3.) Conrad 1990; Donnan and Mackey 1978; Dulanto 2008; Keatinge 1982; Kolata 1990; Mackey 1982, 1987, 2002, 2009; Mackey and Klymyshyn 1990; Moore 1996a, 1996b; Moore and Mackey 2008; Moseley 1975, 1990; Moseley and Cordy-Collins 1990; Parsons and Hastings 1988; Pozorski 1980; Pozorski and Pozorski 1997; Rowe 1948; Shimada 1990; T. Topic 1990; Topic and Moseley 1983; Topic and Topic 1978.

(4.) Chala is the indigenous term for the arid coastal desert habitats of Peru, which support only xerophytic vegetation unless made productive by irrigation (Topic and Topic 1983:240).

(5.) Yungas is the indigenous term for the low-altitude (500–2300 m), hot, dry habitats which are characterized by scrub vegetation and cacti (Topic and Topic 1983:240). Yunga is the Quechua name for the language spoken in the northern half of the north coast, sometimes referred to as Muchic (Rowe 1948:27).

(6.) In addition, the vessel form she describes as a large bowl appears to correspond in my classification system to the tinaja vessel form, a large storage jar.

(7.) Wilson (1995) believes the site of Huanchay to have been established during the Early Intermediate period but to continue to have been occupied into the Middle Horizon.

(8.) It is expected that investigations at other Casma polity sites, such as my current project at the Casma capital of El Purgatorio, will augment this description (e.g., Vogel 2011; Vogel, Falcón, and Pacifico 2010).

(p.188) (9.) Unfortunately, Fung and Williams (1977) provided no further discussion of settlement patterns; however, Wilson's (1995) survey results supported their hypothesis.