Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ancient Grist for the Mill


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.

25 comments:

Dac said...

Wow, this is an age I know nothing about! How have I missed this??

I tried using a photo ballon on an ag plot once. Swayed too much. How did you manage that?

William Doonan said...

Dac,

Actually, the balloon was a hassle, so in the end we used a giant kite with the camera hanging from the line in a little cradle. We used a little trigger to make it take pictures about every thirty seconds, and then we stitched them together. But man, when the wind kicked up, that kite was hard to hold!

John Brantingham said...

It's a fascinating discussion, and as always, I need to say that I love your book, American Caliphate. I have a questions -- are new technological projects like google earth helping archeologists like you?

deadpaintersgallery said...

What about those mummies?

William Doonan said...

John,

You bet they are. Google Earth is a fascinating project. The fact that you can look at any place on earth and get a good look at it is incredible. Unless that place is secret. I tried looking at Area 51, and it was all cloudy. Same with the Peruvian pyramids. Although much of the world has been Google-mapped, some of it still has a ways to go.

William Doonan said...

Deadpaintersgallery,

Yes, we definitely found mummies. I'd show you some pictures, but part of the deal with getting the big excavation bucks is that the fine folks at National Geographic get a lock on the cool images, like this - http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2006/06/mystery-mummy/williams-text

Charles Gramlich said...

So many stories could be set in that world. SO many real ones we'll never know. The history of humanity is fascinating, and so little is known.

William Doonan said...

Right about that, Charles. That's what's fascinating about archaeology - you light these tiny candles in the darkness of prehistory, and you never know what you're going to find.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

Fascinating stuff! If only more priests had been inclined to such forbearance!

William Doonan said...

I hear you, Eugenia. Think of what a different world this would be.

Papa G said...

As I read the connection to the wonderful "American Caliphate" became more clear. Have you thought about writing a novel set in pre-historic times? You could say anything you wanted, you know we would believe you!

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Papa G. I'd love to write a prehistoric mystery, but it's a daunting thought. I'd worry about anachronisms, like accidentally giving my cavemen iPods.

Beorn said...

Well, that picture may be proof they had nerds even back then. Never seen someone more apt to be called-"four eyes".

William Doonan said...

Seriously, Beom! But they're not actually eyes. The guy has eyes - it's some kind of visor.

marja said...

I've learned so much from reading your posts, and each one is fascinating. In this case you included photos, which made it even more interesting. Thank you for sharing so much with your readers, and I thoroughly enjoyed American Caliphate, too.
Your friend, Marja McGraw :)

marta chausée said...

Those goggles-- they are stunning and lead to many possibilities. I thought I might like to be an archeologist back in the day. Whatever I pursued, it tended to have something to do with sleuthing. That's what archeology is, too.

Great post and i'm purchasing American Caliphate online as I type this.

Marta Chausée

Anonymous said...

How interesting. School didn't teach much about the culture of the ancient cultures of South America. I'm sure we'll learn more as more excavations are done. Enjoyed your book!
Sally Carpenter

john M. Daniel said...

Holy llama, Bill. What a fascinating photo-essay. I promise you American Caliphate is on my list tbr. It's clear that you must be a dynamite teacher.

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Marja, and thanks Marta as well. Yes, archaeology is kind of like sleuthing. We find these cold case murders that we're really never going to solve, but at least we're paying attention!

William Doonan said...

Thanks, John. I'm trying to figure out how to use American Caliphate as a textbook! Assigned reading or extra credit?? I know, I know, it's a pipe dream, but it's fun to think about!

Liane Spicer said...

Wow, fascinating stuff! When are you going back? I don't suppose you can take along an odd blogmate or two? :)

Dang, I didn't think so.

William Doonan said...

I'd love to go back, Liane. I was all set, but then I went and had babies, so now I'm grounded. I figure it's just a few years now until my children can provide productive archaeological labor, and then I'm back in business. I'll give you a call!

Anonymous said...

This is extremely interesting. I wish I had become an archaeologist.

William Doonan said...

Archaeology is a pretty great thing, my anonymous friend! I'm looking forward to my children getting older so I can employ them as unpaid laborers.

KeVin K. said...

Did you ever wonder, as you put together pieces, if you might be missing the point? A friend of mine is a cultural anthropologist and she says half her work is weeding out the assumptions she brought into her observations. I think that was an exaggeration. She kept a copy of Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries handy as a cautionary tale.

I think it would be hard to change, ignore, or gloss over facts in your chosen field. My brother-in-law is a pathologist and I made the mistake of telling him about a story I was writing about a police officer recovering from a TBI. I expected him to be interested, instead he was horrified by the liberties I was taking with medical science.

It might be safer, or less nervous-making, to write alternative history stories. That way anything you get wrong will look like part of the story.