When the Spanish conquistador Hernando Pizarro arrived at Pachacamac in January 1533, he had before him one of the jewels of the Inca Empire. This extraordinary site covers nearly 600ha and consists of three concentric areas. The Sacred Precinct, near the sea, contains the principal temples; the Second Precinct holds many monumental mudbrick buildings, including elite residences known as ramp pyramids, as well as streets and stately courts and plazas; the Third Precinct, the largest and least explored, has today been consumed by the desert, whose dunes cover the buildings forming the suburbs of Pachacamac. ‘We arrived,’ Pizarro says, ‘in this city that seems very old because most of the buildings are in ruins.’ Archaeological research has since vindicated his judgement; the site’s long occupation is summarised in the table on p.26. The conquistador described the city as extremely large with beautiful buildings featuring ‘terraces as in Spain’.
Nearly 500 years later, as the morning mist lingers over the immense ruins, I think about how the site appeared at the height of its splendour. Over the course of my excavations, I have also tried to understand what the city was like before the Incas arrived, when both the site and its inhabitants were known by the name of Ychsma. For 25 years, I have been conducting research in Pachacamac under the auspices of the Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB Foundation, and the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research, to establish a better understanding of the city that Pizarro described.
The terraced buildings that caught the Spaniard’s eye are what we now call pyramids with ramps. After dedicating more than a decade to the systematic excavation of these buildings and piecing together the political power structure of the chiefdom of Ychsma, we are now interested in its main deity, who was also called Ychsma, before being renamed Pachacamac by the Incas. They made his worship one of the main oracular cults of their empire and organised amazing pilgrimages in the god’s honour.
To be a pilgrim
According to the conquistadors this custom was extremely popular, and the Spanish recorded some details about the cult. The faithful came from all parts of the Empire, travelling for hundreds of miles in order to see the famous oracle. Arrival at Pachacamac only marked the beginning of their devotions, as they had to subject themselves to prolonged fasting, praying, and making offerings to the deity. Over time the pilgrims progressed through successive courts, which took them ever closer to the sanctuary. The entire process took over a year!
Such behaviour raises many questions. What motivated the faithful? Why did they bend to such strict rules? What benefit did the pilgrims seek? Why was the worship of Ychsma-Pachacamac so popular? Was it just for his abilities as an oracle, or for other reasons? How old was the pilgrimage custom? Was it instituted by the Incas, the Ychsma, or could its origins lie even further back in time? Such questions cannot be safely answered by recourse to colonial texts alone, and the Incas and their predecessors did not create written records, so it is to archeology that we must turn.
The protocol that the pilgrims followed also held sway at all the great pilgrimage sites of the Inca Empire, such as the island of the Sun of Titicaca, or the Coricancha of Cusco. Indeed, the snippets of information that are known about the Pachacamac pilgrimage and oracular worship have been used to create a model for interpreting the site not only at the time of the Incas, but also in previous periods. It has also been applied to other sites across the Andes, which are more or less distant in time and space. Given that this interpretation is primarily built on conquest-era documents and the conquistadors’ perceptions of what they saw, it is important to verify their statements. Some details, such as fasting and praying, are by nature archaeologically intangible, but others could be tested to support, qualify, invalidate, or confirm the interpretation of these texts. So, we began an excavation programme to better understand the character of the pilgrimage, its longevity, and its popularity. The places that we targeted were selected to answer questions relating to the logistics of the pilgrimage, the types of rituals that the pilgrims carried out, and their place of origin.
The main cemetery of Pachacamac
Excavations carried out near the Sacred Precinct revealed an intact portion of an extremely important cemetery lying in front of the Pachacamac temple. More than 300 pre-Inca burials were extracted from this burial ground, one third of which came from the same large funerary chamber (see CWA 54). Palaeopathological and bioarchaeological studies revealed that an unusually high proportion of the deceased were afflicted with various trauma. It is a trend that was also observed in the Inca-period tombs. This discovery sent me back to the texts, where I noted that among the many attributes of the oracle of Pachacamac was a reference to his role as a healing god: ‘They came to this demon on pilgrimage in the hope that he would heal their diseases.’ Pachacamac was also presented as a creator god associated with the earth and fertility. The cyclical view of the world and life among the ancient Andean people also links these elements – even though it may seem paradoxical to us – to night and death. It is understandable that for all these reasons the pilgrimage became extremely popular.
The Incas developed the site and built a Temple of the Sun on the highest promontory, which had probably been previously occupied by other buildings that are now completely obscured. They also built an acllahuasi (a kind of convent) and an immense patio called the Pilgrims’ Plaza. All these arrangements can be viewed as an attempt to promote and control the pilgrimage and cult of Pachacamac by elevating it to an imperial level. By default, such activity indicates that the origins of the pilgrimage predate the arrival of the Incas, supporting the implications of the skeletons in the cemetery. Analyses of the different tombs and equipment does suggest, though, that the pilgrimage had a distinctly local flavour before the Inca period. DNA and isotopic studies that are currently under way will clarify this issue.
The logistics of the pilgrimage
The Inca drive to transform the site extended well beyond the structures mentioned above. Our excavations have examined four other buildings that were constructed during this period. These are officially designated E8, B4, B15, and B3 (see plan on p.28). Of these, E8 made it possible to understand the economic role of the site, while B4 shed light on the welcome that pilgrims received upon their arrival. In B15 and B3 it is ceremonial and worship aspects that have been explored.
Our economic building, E8, lies at the extreme north of the site. It consists of a large courtyard that covers 80m by 60m and is surrounded by a 2m-wide wall. At the rear are two parallel rows of 10 square sunken rooms, which appear to have been accessed via epimural paths; that is to say, from the top of the walls. At the front of these rows there is also a single, small room, which contained khipus. These are data recording instruments used by state officials in the Inca era. The khipus take the form of sets of cords of camelid wool or cotton, with knots of various types referring to quantities and categories. They can be thought of as a kind of account book. Excavations within the sunken rooms revealed they were warehouses that still contained traces of their former contents: various varieties of corn, calabashes, and other foodstuffs. These goods correspond to the product of chores: a form of tax levied by the Inca Empire on the provinces it controlled. It is possible that E8 played a hybrid role by also fulfilling the functions of tambo – that is to say, relay – for Inca officials on the road, and also the chaskis tasked with carrying messages across the Empire.
In the south-western part of the Second Precinct we excavated a building, B4, that seems to be closely associated with the activities of the pilgrims. This structure covers approximately 4,025m², one-third of which comprises a courtyard and a room, with a kind of ambulatory running around them. The pottery and faunal material from this building suggest that eating and drinking occurred here. Most of the species we identified are domestic ones that were raised for consumption, such as guinea pigs and camelids, while cut marks and intentional bone fractures are characteristic of animals that were slaughtered for food.
The archaeological data suggest that the building was intended to accommodate pilgrims, and that meals were also prepared there, giving the space a commensal flavour. During the Early Colonial Period (16th century AD) the building continued to be occupied by locals, but they were probably mixing with people from overseas. Foreign species were present, such as pigs, oxen, sheep or goats, and horses or mules. Other testimonials of this contact include a horseshoe and fragments of Spanish manuscripts dating to the early 16th century. This suggests that the building underwent a major transformation from a space dedicated to pilgrim rituals and feasts to a domestic area that probably contained stables. We can suppose that the accommodation and festive role of this space initially attracted the Spanish, who proceeded to transform it to meet their own needs.
To the west of our reception suite lies a structure covering 1,700 m² that dates from the Late Horizon (AD 1470-1533). This is our building B3, which consists of three courtyards, the inner one providing access to a raised platform. The upper part is flat, while small sunken rooms lie to the rear, and a set of four rectangular warehouses are located to the west.
The general design of the building suggests that access was carefully controlled, with the very narrow entrances only allowing one person to pass at a time. Although there are no explicit traces of activities, we found many foundation offerings. These objects, as well as the presence of benches in two courtyards, along with a possible altar and a slot for a central pole on the platform, reveal ritual use. Indeed, the complex recalls the words of Francisco de Jerez, one of the early conquistador visitors to Pachacamac, who stated that, ‘In all the streets of this city and the main gates, and around the temple of Pachacamac, there were many wooden idols and they venerated them as they did for their devil.’ Posts decorated with worked spondylus shell and metal inlays have been found at Pachacamac, though unfortunately out of context. Their dimensions could fit with the post slot we found in B3, though, so it is possible that this building served as a minor sanctuary for pilgrims during the era of the Inca Empire.
East of this shrine lies building B15, which covers an area of approximately 1,400 m² and is surrounded by a wall some 2.5m high, making the interior invisible from the outside. There was only one entrance, which was 1m wide and decorated with red paint. Within, a central building, also painted, comprises small rooms and narrow passages, creating a constricted, labyrinthine plan. It is clear that most of B15 was only accessible to a very small number of people.
This building was undoubtedly dedicated to worship. It is difficult to define the nature of the cult, but it might have been related to the earliest phase of activity we discovered, in the Early Ychsma period (c. AD 1000), when mummies were interred in funerary chambers. The sanctuary itself developed in the Middle and Late Ychsma phase, before being transformed under the Incas (AD 1470-1533). Perhaps the presence of these ancestors, whose graves lay around and below the central sanctuary, influenced the rituals conducted there. A relationship with water can also be proposed, as a pit, basin, and duct were found in one of the rooms, while this theme is present in some mural iconography and artefacts, as well as the many spondylus shells that were found.
In the ancient Andean world, the spondylus is symbolically associated with water, elites, and rituals. The presence of residues from all stages of manufacturing spondylus artefacts, as well as tools and an appropriate architectural configuration, suggest that part of B15 served as a workshop. Craft activity occurring in a religious complex is not surprising, as workshops and places of worship have been found together at other Andean sites. It is possible that patients were also treated in this complex, as hundreds of stones with magnetic properties were present among the offerings found there. Nowadays, such stones are used by traditional healers. Naturally, there may be other explanations for these objects, but it seems plausible that the occupants of B15 counted one or more healers among their number. This would be in keeping with Pachacamac acting as a kind of pre-Hispanic Lourdes, and flourishing as a popular pilgrimage site under Incan rule, primarily because of a god who cured diseases. Bringing together all of the archaeological evidence suggests that the building was primarily dedicated to ritual activity, which could involve communicating with venerated ancestors, praying for water and fertility, and even hoping to be cured of serious diseases.
Abandonment of the complex during the Early Colonial Period (AD 1533-1572) was marked with a ceremony that involved scattering offerings through the rooms and corridors (see CWA 66). These objects had been gathered from throughout the Andes: Amazonian parrot-feather ornaments and seeds; black stones from the highlands, some chosen because of their distinctive shapes; whole or worked shells from the equatorial region; cups inlaid with mother-of-pearl and spondylus in the style of Peru’s north coast, metals, and ceramics featuring Inca ornamentation. This remarkably rich assemblage highlights just how far pilgrims were travelling to Pachacamac during the Inca occupation. With the exception of the stones, all of the objects were deliberately destroyed, and their torn fragments scattered through the rooms and corridors. Afterwards, they were covered with rubble. It is possible that this reflects the size of the crowd attending the ceremony, with all of the people symbolically participating by leaving a stone, in line with a custom that is still very common in the Andes.
It seems that we are touching here on very deep concepts related to the unique beliefs of these ancient populations. The behaviour we are seeing would fit with a sense that objects can intervene at different levels, such as in the human world, as well as the realms of the gods, the dead, the spirits, and so on. By this reading, the objects become animated during the manufacturing process and are only de-animated when they are destroyed or dismantled. This is, of course, particularly valid – but not unique – to artefacts adorned with magical imagery and/or made with special materials, like most of the B15 finds.
It seems certain that these rituals played out at around the time of the Spanish invasion, as imported glass beads were found among the offerings. There can be no doubt, though, that the systematic destruction and deposition of the objects were undertaken by the local population, rather than the conquistadors. In this sense, the abandonment ceremony cannot be understood as the mere rejection of objects and destruction of a building that was no longer in use; this was a real death for the participants, which was followed by the burial of a series of entities that were active at a supernatural and sacred level. The irreversible nature of this operation and the specific context in which it took place – the chaotic hours of conquest – poignantly underscore how a new order was imposed, which left no room for ancient cults and traditions.
Cult of empire
Thanks to the excavations we are now able to address a series of questions relating to the practice of pilgrimage in pre-Hispanic times. Pilgrims of the Inca era came from the four corners of the Empire to consult the oracle, heal their sick, and bury their dead. In so doing, they perpetuated an ancient tradition, which was developed by the Inca state for religious and political reasons to foster the emergence of an imperial identity among the multitude of conquered peoples living across the Andes. Indeed, by placing the healing oracle at Pachacamac in the highest rank of their pantheon and encouraging its cult throughout their empire, the Incas became zealous promoters of this coastal god while simultaneously federating their subjects around common beliefs and ceremonial practices on a large scale.
Our discoveries at Pachacamac highlight how the close interweaving of religion and politics reinforced the ability of the largest pre-Columbian empire to exercise its power.
ALL IMAGES: Peter Eeckhout, ULB.