Hidden in a sealed part of an ancient Peruvian temple, archaeologists have discovered a feathered shield dating back around 1,300 years.
Made by the Moche people, the rare artifact was found face down on a sloped surface that had been turned into a bench or altar at the site of Pañamarca. Located near two ancient murals, one of which depicts a supernatural monster, the shield measures about 10 inches (25 centimeters) in diameter and has a base made of carefully woven basketry with a handle.
Its surface is covered with red-and-brown textiles along with about a dozen yellow feathers that were sewn on and appear to be from the body of a macaw. The shield would have served a ritualistic rather than a practical use, and the placement of the shield on the bench or altar appears to have been the last act carried out before this space was sealed and a new, larger, temple built on top of it. [See Photos of the Shield & Ancient Murals]
The discovery of this small shield, combined with the discovery of other small Moche shields and depictions of them in art, may also shed light on Moche combat. Their shields may have been used in ceremonial performances or ritualized battles similar to gladiatorial combat, Lisa Trever, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told LiveScience.
Trever and her colleagues, Jorge Gamboa, Ricardo Toribio and Flannery Surette, describe the shield in the most recent edition of Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology.
Though only about a dozen feathers now remain on the shield, in ancient times it may have had a more feathered appearance. "I suspect that originally it had at least 100 feathers sewn on the surface" in two or more concentric circles, Trever said.
The Moche people, who lived on the desert coasts and irrigated valleys of the Pacific side of the Andes Mountains, likely had to import the feathers, as macaws resided on the eastern side of the Andes, closer to the Amazon.
What symbolic meaning the macaw had for the Moche is a mystery. "We know that the Moche used many animal metaphors in their art and visual culture," Trever said. "They may have had a specific symbolic meaning to the macaw, but because the Moche didn't leave us any written records we don't know precisely what they thought."
The shield was found close to two ancient murals, one of which depicts a "Strombus Monster," a supernatural beast with both snail and feline characteristics, and the other an iguanalike creature. The researchers note in their paper that the monster is often shown in Moche art battling a fanged humanlike character called "Wrinkle Face" by some scholars. The iguana in turn is often shown as an attendant accompanying Wrinkle Face on his journeys. [Top 10 Beasts & Dragons: How Reality Made Myth]