In conducting research for my archaeological mystery American Caliphate, I spent five summers investigating a pyramid complex on Peru’s north coast. I’ve written of these excavations before, but I left a few details out.
Some grisly murders took place here.
The culture that built the pyramids is called Moche. They were a warrior culture, profoundly violent, yet at the same time, their pottery betrays an unexpected sensuality.
Archaeologists are the detectives of prehistory. We investigate the past, and in the case of the Moche, our investigations often enough turned up evidence of violent crimes. One day we were excavating a platform off the back of one of the pyramids, and we came across a skeleton lying partly under a wall.
Yup, that’s a mud-brick wall dating to about 500 A.D. that’s on top of the skeleton. And here’s me getting down into the pit to work on the excavations.
Here’s a close-up. I was a little concerned when I saw the teeth in the eye socket, but it turns out one of the excavators put them there for safe keeping, so they wouldn’t get lost. And that was a relief.
And there’s the leg, just sticking out of the wall.
Then we brought him to the lab and started running some diagnostics.
He was a young man in his mid- to late twenties with perfect teeth. A thorough examination of his bones revealed hardly any wear and tear. He was a noble; someone who had enjoyed a life of luxury – up till a point. Up until the moment someone stood him on the edge of a ledge and smacked him in the back with a sword.
Those are the marks the sword made on his ribs. The blow drove him over a ledge. Exactly how he died, whether from the fall or from further injuries, we can’t know. But immediately thereafter, for reasons not yet understood, a wall was built over him.
Are we going to solve the case? Will the killer be brought to justice? I doubt it. This murder was committed more than 1500 years ago. No, our killer got away with it. The tools that archaeologists can bring to bear on the violence of antiquity are blunt. There’s only so much we can resolve.
But the tools that a mystery writer can bring to bear on the violence of antiquity are robust. I’m never going to forget that man who got smacked with a sword, then buried under a wall. He’ll turn up in my stories here and there. That’s basically how I built my story for American Caliphate, by letting the clues lead me to a place the scientist part of me couldn’t answer, but the writer part of me could run with.