A few years ago I worked on an archaeological dig in south coastal Peru. Excavating aboveground stone tombs that were at least a millennium old, we found fragments of pottery, hair, textiles, pigments, copper pins, and bones left behind by 20th-century looters. We spent every day clambering around the rocky foothills, hauling buckets of sand under the blue desert sky, and drawing architectural remains while a rooster and donkey in the adjoining farm would provide us daily with nature’s most annoying soundtrack.
As a student of ancient Latin American art history, I’ve dedicated my life’s work to uncovering, reconstructing, and elucidating the visual culture of the distant past. Every time I visit, I experience the Peruvian environment so viscerally, and I can feel a sense of the power it held over the ancient inhabitants. The dramatic juxtapositions of jagged mountains and soft sand, of quiet stillness and sudden tremors, of desiccation and fertility were, and continue to be, a part of daily life. The cosmology, reflected poignantly in ancient cultures’ various art forms, makes perfect sense to me. Opposites such as life and death, summer and winter, man and woman, were understood as necessary complementary forces. The cycle of life and death related as much to humans as it did to agriculture, the movement of water, and the passage of time. Of course the Inca referred to mummies as seeds: it is a perfect and logical extension of the interconnections between oppositions and the way they seeped into all parts of society.
I remember lying in bed in my old room (I couldn’t have been more than eight years old) trying to conceptualize death. The afterlife had never been a topic of conversation in my house, and all I had to work with was my seven-year-old philosophical reasoning. I would try to push these thoughts out of my mind, but when I would begin to drift off to sleep, I would associate that loss of consciousness with death and pull myself out, afraid to fall into the lack of experience that exemplified my eventual future. Although I had probably heard of heaven, no one ever explained it in a satisfying way. I couldn’t believe. “Faith” has always frustrated and eluded me. Everyone has their own way of dealing with and understanding death. I can respect others’ points of view and concepts of the beyond, and I try to comfort those who have lost someone, to honor his or her beliefs, and to remember the lives that are gone. But when I think of my own mortality, I am transported to that midnight terror of the unknown, the absence, the inconceivable.
One day, a colleague and I were excavating a stone tomb, constructed without mortar, once plastered and brightly painted. It was set aside from the others, perched on an outcropping directly above a small modern cemetery. The stone walls met at the top, creating a little rounded fort, open on one side, only large enough for one person and her trowel. We worked as we were instructed, carefully removing the remains that the looters had tossed aside in their hunt for profitable antiquities. That day I came across a fragment of newspaper dated fifty years prior, almost to the day.
After we removed everything down to the bedrock, my coworker and I took a break. I crawled into the tomb, brushing against centuries-old cobwebs, leaned against the cool rock and looked out. The opening of the tomb directed my sight toward the landscape in front of me. I had a direct view of the soft beige mound of Cerro Blanco, the largest sand dune in the world, nestled among the jagged Andean foothills, and the lush valley below that grounded these formidable peaks.
The tomb, its prior inhabitants now completely removed, enveloped me in a complex smell that was neither good nor bad, that was foreign yet familiar, that memorialized the material that was sifted through and placed in plastic baggies. As I sat hunched over, inconspicuous from my hard-laboring companions and the even harder-laboring farmers below, I stared out at the dune. She stood there, a product of millennia of wind-blown sand, towering proudly over her stony neighbors, unaware of the impermanence of the microscopic fragments of shells and rocks that constitute her body. I saw the carefully tended crops and animals enjoying the bright sun, nestled securely in a valley whose subterranean river began far above in the ancient mountain range and would empty into the Pacific Ocean. And I felt safe.