About a thousand years ago, a series of earthquakes in the Andes shifted the course of the rivers that drained into the Pacific. Along the coast, the great pyramids, from which the Moche lords watched over their irrigated fields, fell into ruin.
No longer alongside the rivers, these palatial structures of the divine lords bore witness to a people losing their religion. The age-old problem with divine kingship: if the weather kicks you in the teeth, how much of a god are you? All-powerful and you can’t even bring in the crops? One by one, as the fields dried up, these Moche kingdoms fell into ruin.
About five hundred years later, Spanish soldiers arrived, intent on redistributing the wealth of ancient Peru. Armed with Toledo steel swords, Bibles, nearly-useless guns, and fighting dogs, they began the decades-long process of robbing a continent as they simultaneously went about converting the population to Christianity.
Those old pyramids, ruins even then, were still powerful. They’re still powerful today, drawing shamans and spiritualists by the thousands. And the images on those pyramids, images of divinities unknown to the Spaniards, had never been forgotten.
About five hundred years later, I joined a team of archaeologists excavating one of these pyramids. Like a three-day-old sand castle, it held some ruined sway over a swath of coastline. Called El Brujo, the sorcerer, this pyramid was especially interesting because it was here that the Spanish built one of the first Christian churches in South America.
El Brujo - the ruins as they look today, with roof tents to keep the images safe from weather
So what was that like? A few priests out here on the edge of the known world, the inquisition burning hotter than molten Toledo steel, what would it have been like to convert the natives?
El Brujo Pyramid after a thousand years of neglect, and a little excavation
Place on Pyramid We Were Pretty Sure We'd Find Something Really Interesting
Really Interesting Image We Found on the Pyramid -
CHECK OUT THOSE GOGGLES - THEY'RE LIKE SQUARES WITH DOTS!
Not so hard, if you read their reports. The archives are filled with storied accounts of effort, of sermon, of initial disbelief, and of eventual acceptance of this powerful new faith. But that’s not the way it happened.
A few priests, out here on the edge of the known world, would very likely have been scared nearly out of their minds. Fail, and the inquisitors might cast an eye your way. You don’t want that. So you must not fail. And if conversion means you turn a blind eye now and again when one of your new converts paints an image of an old god next to your old god, then you dare not cause a fuss.
Aerial Image of the Ruins of the Church - as taken from my photo balloon
Over the course of our excavations, we found evidence that suggests that these priests, in order to get their job done, had to extend an extraordinary courtesy to their converts -- they allowed their own native religious imagery to sit alongside Christian imagery. And that was not a decision they would have taken lightly. If the inquisitors caught a whiff of that, these priests would have been burnt alive.
Moche Imagery found on the walls of the church - THOSE SAME SQUARES WITH DOTS!!!!!
We learn more about the past with each each shovel of dirt. As as we learn more about it, we unearth more opportunities to illustrate our shared history by populating a corner of time and space with our fiction. This is the moment in time I was exploring in my archaeological mystery AMERICAN CALIPHATE.