>The Club, The Wheel, The Mind

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When I’m sick – yeah, let’s just say that my respiratory system is a walking liability – I can’t read fiction. This is part of the reason I’ve fallen so far behind on my fiction reading. It doesn’t seem to be a rare affliction. When you’re sick you can’t handle emotion and, of course, all good fiction is emotion.

However, I can’t stop reading. Reading is what gets me through the stupid stuff that must happen in life, like washing dishes, cooking, cleaning. I have yet to figure out how to read in the shower. Someone must make a better, water-proof ereader.

So, instead of fiction I read non-fiction. The more tired/sick I am, the dryer my reading material. Years ago, when pneumonia put me in the hospital (ICU for eleven days) I read a collection of nineteenth century biology manuals. No, you probably don’t want to ask.

And I know I’m at least becoming somewhat more human because I either start having story ideas, or I start figuring out how what I’m reading applies to some aspect of writing.

This last month and a half, as I’ve been spiraling deeper and deeper into illness (And no, I don’t even know if it’s the same illness or a succession of respiratory bugs) I’ve been reading about the pursuit of the Indo-European language and culture.

Yes, this morning I finally decided enough was enough and this afternoon I dragged self to doctor and I’m now medicated. While I’m still not substantially better – except the fever must be down because my head is clearer – in the “up” points of this er… bug sequence I’ve been able to realize what I’m reading is both a wonderful seed for stories, possibly a setting for a series of novels which has deviled me (my last run at it was … fifteen years ago, when I was definitely not ready) and, more importantly, a world building tool.

What I’ve been reading, particularly, which attempts the reconstruction of an ancient culture that might have been homogenetic, but was almost certainly heterogenetic (same or different genetic heritage), might have been located over a region or another, and might have worked out one way or another, has made me realize how things are connected, things we don’t tend to think about.

No, I don’t know how much their guesses are true, but I do know that there are certain “rules” that tend to apply and that these archeologists use them to reconstruct a culture just like a paleontologist reconstructs a dead animal from a loose tooth. Will they sometimes be wrong? Oh, yeah, heck, yeah. Remember the dinosaurs that have changed name or shape as more has been found out about them? But still, there are certain things that apply. If you find a certain shape of tooth, you know you’re dealing with an herbivore, for instance. And if you find human craniums with largely cavity-free teeth, you know you’re dealing with a culture whose diet was low on carbohydrates. Oh, there might be some genetic freak that keeps them from getting cavities, but, more than likely, you’re dealing with a diet based on protein.

The same goes for population replacement, for instance. One population disappears, another comes in. Was it war? Maybe. Sometimes you do find a population where the graves show women of the previous population and men of the new one. You could be dealing with a Rape of The Sabines situation. Alternately, you could be dealing with some elaborate treaty and bride price, and perhaps the men of the tribe moved elsewhere to marry women from the other tribe. Yeah, that wouldn’t be total, but these graves never represent everyone, just the powerful families.

And then there’s that too – what was powerful at the time? What was “wealthy”. A man is buried in a grave that would require immense labor with only a few shards of pottery and a dagger. Was it because the culture was terribly poor, or were the gifts symbolic. You only know by comparing to smaller graves of the same culture.

I’m not going to go into details, but it is important, not just for historical fiction but for science fiction and even for fantasy to think through these details. “What does my culture use for transport?” for instance, limits how far your character can travel. That much is obvious. But it will also limit the ideas of the world; how far her parents’ married; how many languages there are in the immediate vicinity; what they eat and possibly how they pray. “What do they eat?” again limits or shapes what the culture is like. If they are mostly agriculturalists, their culture will be different from if they are pastoralists. And if they are pastoralists with frequent cattle raiding (which also correlates to weapons) the culture is yet different. (And if they eat mostly stew, you’re caught in The Tough Guide To Fantasyland.)

I confess that even with as much as I know about history and how cultures evolve, and how economics influences daily life, I’ve caught at least a couple of mistakes I’ve made in one of my cultures – where they could not possibly be settled agriculturalists with those habits.

We live in a time where the world is our backyard, where food of all seasons and all continents is available to us and transport is cheaper and easier than it’s ever been. This divorces source from event in our minds, so that we have trouble creating even complex, future cultures.

Of course, the classic work with everything integrated is Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. I’m not saying I don’t have problems with some of her extrapolations. I do. She and I come from widely different philosophical traditions and that always shows. Also, though I liked it originally, the presentation itself now seems incredibly dated to me. BUT at least she tried to show a culture integrated in all facets of myth and daily living and its natural environment. And managed to hint at a full fledged society, which of course never fits in a book.

What is your favorite such example? Do you have one? What would you like to see? How do you think archeology can help us learn world building?

17 comments

  1. >In fiction, I've always liked Andre Norton's Star Traders universe, and wondered if she got the idea from some of the archelogical evidence for widespread trading in the neolithic.I think archeology gives fantasy writers a lot of options in relatively primative cultures. They can build huge monuments and acurate astronomical tracking mechanisms, without the readers balking.I've been occasionaly checking in to see what impact genetics is having on our understanding of population replacement in early Europe. And evidence of how it was replaced.http://discovermagazine.com/2009/nov/30-did-we-mate-with-neanderthals-or-murder-themI follow John Hawks blog, he mentions almost every significant discovery. http://johnhawks.net/weblogMakes me wish for life extension tech to hurry up, so I can start a new career instead of just follow the high points of the field.

  2. >Great piece. One comment: “What does my culture use for transport?” for instance, limits … how many languages there are in the immediate vicinityIt's not so much what the culture uses for transport, as how fast transport has evolved over the last few centuries/millenia.Modern Europeans can fly for a couple of hours and be in a different language community because European transport evolved relatively recently. So could Romans when the legion's roads were new. However, by the end of the empire, communication had been easy for a long time and everybody spoke one of two languages.However, towards the end of the Roman Empire, all of the different

  3. >Good point. Not just how far they could go, but how far they usually went. England with all its regional dialects has always fascinated me.The written word also necessitated learning the language of the elites, whether Latin, French or now, English. Printing, and widespread literacy also slowed the evolution of the main language, but what changed tended to get desciminated everywhere, not form the splitting point of a local dialect.

  4. >Pam,The funny thing is that I have those dreams too. "If they gave me just an extra thirty years, I could…" And you know dang well you COULDN'T, because you'd end up just writing. Well, at least I would. I realized I was lost when I ran the "if I won the lottery" experiment and the answer was "oooh. More time for writing."

  5. >Ori,Yes, I could probably have expressed that better — I'll plead fever as an excuse. But take horse back riding. All of a sudden a tribe could raid further afield. it could trade further afield, too. It changed the whole game.My grandmother grew up three miles from a major city. She eventually went there a lot more, but until she was about sixty, she'd visited there maybe ten times. She was neither incurious nor a home body, but her world was circumscribed by her available form of transport which seemed to be either feet or bus.

  6. >Sounds like you've been doing some fascinating reading, Sarah.I wish someone in high school had pointed me to this topic and told me I could study it a UNI. But there was a distinct lack of advice for teenagers in those days. So, I've made a study of it myself over the years.Great post.Hope the medicine kicks in and you pick up soon.

  7. >Rowena,My sixth grade Portuguese (kind of like English, in English speaking countries) teacher was an archeology student, and she took us out to help work in the escavation of a Celtic village. I've found the study fascinating since then. And, of course, I studied linguistics so I understand how language-movements can be reconstructed by the er… debris left in the local language. It even gives clues to what the culture considered important and maybe some of their ur-myths.Of course, I do suspect there's a novel waiting to ambush me. Oh, deary me.

  8. >I'm what might be called a voracious omnivorous reader – anything and everything in whatever quantity is available. I accumulate odd bits of information – like archeology, and shows like Myth Busters (as well as some of the others that will do things like make armor based on the descriptions in ancient literature/archaeological finds then see how effective they are), weird science, weirder history… It kind of accretes until something spawns from it.My personal favorite is – of course – PTerry's Discworld. When you look closely, he hasn't really covered a lot of the world, but he's thrown in so many odd bits from so many sources that you can feel thousands of years of history and mythology. (Which reminds me, I need to google that rhyme of Nanny Ogg's. I reckon there's a long history there, too).

  9. >Sarah, that's my lottery-fantasy, too. More time, and better hardware/software … pathetic, isn't it?My first shot at fantasy — which is still "In Progress", though my work on it has been sporadic over the past couple years — started out with mixed orchards and a vineyard within walking distance of each other. I'm sure other problems of that nature are still lurking in there … it's a learning curve.

  10. >Hey, Sarah. I hope the health improves. I was sick for almost all of last year – after a battery of tests and trips to the doctor I still don't know why. I tried everything. One thing I did do at the point I started getting better is to elminate all artifical sweetener from my diet. I used to have a LOT – mainly in Zero. I have subsequently learnt that the breakdown products are more acid than any food you could consume (0.5 pH), and the body responds by stripping Ca & Mg out of the body to restore the Ph balance. The Ca loss is an issue for bones, by Mg is a real issue for muscle and nerve function.Give it a try maybe?

  11. >@StephenNothing wrong with a vineyard and orchard next to each other. There are plenty of apples and pears grown in the Provence which has also got lots of wine. And you can see the same in California's central valley too.@SarahI think one of the reasons I really enjoyed Elizabeth Moon's Paks books is that she really thought about the cultures involved. I think she stretched things a bit regarding the status of women and their likely recruitment as soldiers but she provided enough handwavium to cover…

  12. >Ori,distance that is/can be travelled also varies depending on the terrain. Open steppes (and open seas) are far easier to cross than forests or mountains. The great thing about the Roman Empire was that they built roads so that travel in places where there weren't suitable waterways was far simpler. Of course they still got stuffed by mountains but it was a lot faster than it would have been without them. We just drove the 500km/300miles to Verona. It took us about 5 hours as opposed to about 10 days in Roman times and probably a month or more if the Roman era roads did not exist

  13. >Francis,Absolutely right on both comments. And yeah, I had same issue, and handwaving somewhat helps.Crashing now because I'm still half-sick. "But it's not really dead…"

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