I’ve been reading a book called Women’s Work, which is about archeology and what we know of what women in pre-history did, on the assumption partly, that this sets what women like to do/the type of work our ancestresses were selected for.

Rest assured I did not forget I was in the middle of a cover workshop, and I’ll return to it next week, but after 2 weeks in Portugal and a 35 hour journey back a week ago, I had the world’s worst case of plane crud. It seems to be a little better, though worse than yesterday. I hope to resume it next week, but it’s arduous work. So for now, we’ll discuss other things.

Like imperfect work, and the effects it can have on the world.

If you’re like me suggestions that your work is less than perfect make you cringe, and you actually spend time being embarrassed over typos (well, no, not in blogs. I do them for free and don’t even proofread.) when the copy editors point them out.

So you probably think, having got the tenor of my personality from years of writing here, that I’m going to tell you not to do the work if you can’t make it perfect.

Heaven knows it’s what I tell myself, often enough, particularly when I’m feeling sick and therefore everything I write feels like crap.

I’m not going to do that, because if I had a dime for every time I thought something I finished was without flaw I’d be even poorer than I’m now, because I’d have none.  Coincidentally (?) I went to the Da Vinci exhibit in DMNS for a late mother’s day present from my family, and there was a quote I can no longer reproduce, but which goes something like “The greatest danger to an artist is thinking his work is perfect.”

This morning, while having coffee and postponing the evil hour of getting dressed and sitting down to work, I found myself reading the author of Women’s Work, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, talking about how imperfect the first excavation of Troy was.  Heinrich Schliemann, through no fault of his own but being born when he was, had no clue that archeology should be performed in layers, or that there might be more than one Troy on the site he excavated.  He assumed the remains of the site were emulsified and the same through and just carelessly digging.

Barber explains all that, and how frustrating it is because for her own purposes she’d like to know when a set of faience and gold beads might have been used in a cloth.  And then, speaking of reading his diaries, she talks about how much Schliemann inspired her when she was young.

As a bookish and history-minded girl, he inspired me too, and I might have had dreams of following in his footsteps.

So, how many people did this imperfect man — beyond his issues with digging up the site, he actually faked some finds, in order to make them more impressive — inspire, and how much did his, admittedly by our standards, muddled work contribute to future and perhaps even better work?

I’d guess a lot. Without him, we might not have anything like the knowledge of the past we now have, or the understanding of how to dig a site, for that matter.

Also, let us remember he was in his sixties when he did this work, after a life of daydreaming of doing it, while doing more mundane, every day work.  And this at a time when life expectancy was at a stretch to be lucky enough to live to your eighties.

So, what am I saying?

Though we work alone, writing is communication.  Storytelling is also one of the strongest, more survivable forms of communication. It can go through generations in fact.  Who is to say that if civilization collapsed tomorrow I wouldn’t tell the grandkids around the campfire of Kip who went to the moon, and that in that form Heinlein’s work wouldn’t survive a thousand years though admittedly probably having very little to do with his words (I do not have an eidetic memory, or not anymore.)

When we write we are throwing something out into the world.  We tend to think of our work as finished pieces, sufficient onto themselves, but they are never that.  One of your stories, found by chance in ten years or fifty might inspire the dreams of someone who will create something from that inspiration that you can’t even dream of, and accomplished beyond your imaginings.  Or more, it might inspire them to go out and create and do something in the real world.

Think of writing, rather than as isolated pieces as a great tapestry always left unfinished, that other hands will pick up after you’re long gone and weave new patterns into.

And somewhere, maybe, you’ll know of it, and be proud.

The only way to utterly fail is never to write.

Yes, your work will be imperfect.  Whose isn’t? But you do the best you can with all you have, and you go on.  And perhaps in the future someone will find gold beads among the dirt.

Sure, people of the future will also sneer and preen and give themselves superior airs about your failings.  But be not daunted.  Those who sneer at the past are the midgets, unable to even attempt to climb to the waist of giants, let alone their shoulders.

Real, functional human beings, let alone artists, acknowledge the burnt remains of the past as we try to build our own structures on the site, and spare a thank you to those who went before and whose imperfect work, augmented by our equally imperfect efforts might some day inspire a better future.


  1. One of the hardest things for us moderns to remember is that people didn’t know what they didn’t know. Forestry, hydrology, archaeology, medicine… We can see where Schliemann, Arthur Evens, Gifford Pinchot (first head of US Forest Service) and others went wrong. They couldn’t. It didn’t stop them from trying, and doing, and inspiring others, in some cases because of those very errors. “I can do better,” is a powerful motivator.

    After all, how many writers (and historians) have read something and thought, “You know, there’s a great idea buried in here. What if I were to try taking it and doing this?”

    1. And in just a few generations, they’ll look back at us, and laugh at how stupid we were…

    2. That’s one of the great things about the 1954 or 1956 “Modern Chemistry” high school chemistry book. It was generally hopeful, while acknowledging the past was imperfect (and thus was the present, but it could be improved upon) with various notes that went roughly, “We used to throw this stuff away as [toxic] waste, but then we realized it was a great feedstock for this other process…” And while it didn’t truly hit you over the head with the idea, the idea was planted: “waste” materials are waste material for that process and something else might be able to use such things. Go look.

    3. For that matter, both Heinlein and Asimov’s books were flawed – sometimes by the science being wrong (but not known at that time), and sometimes by imperfect characterization, info dumps, and Mary Sues.
      You know, like all artistic work – not perfect.
      One of my old professors, when I was talking to him about a grade I was unhappy with (but recognized was a fair assessment of that semester’s work), said:

      Sometimes, a grade is just a reflection of the fact that it was the best work you could do, at that time.

      My sister – a far better writer – finished her first – and only – book several years ago. It’s still not published, nor even submitted to publishers. She is still tinkering, trying to make it perfect.

      That perfection will never happen.

  2. How do they determine which work women did in ancient times except by a circular method of assuming that they did certain things and then holding those things as what women did?

    I have no reason to suspect that anyone is wrong about what women did but apart from fingerprints on pottery, how would a person identify a division of labor that was idiosyncratic to a particular culture?

    1. Some of it is based on grave goods; when bodies are found with stuffs … there’s a tendency to assume that the bodies were interred with the tools/toys/stuffs they used most often.

      Some of it is based on literature, in those societies where there is a written record.

    2. Some of it based on grave goods and bones, some on well… guesses, yes. Including who uses what implement today. Some of it is iffy, but a lot seems solid.

      1. There’s quite a bit of forensic/medial examination of the interred remains.

        I recall one example, where the woman’s habitual grain/corn-grinding posture was inferred from arthritic changes in the joints of the knee, ankle and big toes. She would kneel over a stone and scrub the kernels across it with something to break them up for porridge or some similar thing. Primitive milling.

        1. Size of hand tools, length of weapons – the dimorphic differences between men and women determines much of that.

      2. Some is based on pragmatic observations such as women spin, the world over, and it is easily combined with child care.

      3. Read a little snippet somewhere where there was an excavation in Egypt, where they were puzzled over the function of a circle of bricks, only a brick high…

        until they saw a local person raising chickens, and who kept the chicks corralled by making a large circle of bricks, one brick high – just enough for the hen to get over, but too high for the chicks to get over.

        I take it with a grain of salt as it’s an anecdote from Tumblr, but I’ve done similar, so it at least sounded plausible to me.

    3. You also have depictions in art, although that’s not always helpful (“Could they have been more vague?”) Arthritis and work-related injuries tell a lot, over-developed muscle attachments, tooth-wear (chewing hides, stripping fibers for various things…)

    4. Some of it is inferred, some of it is based on forensic analysis. My brother is an archaeologist in Ireland (Dr. Jones, the archaeologist…) and one of the things that drives him wild is the assumptions made by people that are based on modern activities, roles, whatever. For instance, in Ireland (and elsewhere, but there are more in Ireland) there are these female figures called Sheela na gigs. There’s a lot of disagreement and discussion over what exactly they are for (protection, fertility), but for a while they were popularized as symbols of female power because of course any figure of a woman signifies female power (he falls on the side of they’re fertility icons).

        1. Well… Um… Sheela na Gigs are grinning old women showing their cooters. And I seem to recall they usually show up in monastic churches in visible outside places. So they are probably designed to break up young monks’ daydreams, or they mean something symbolic and break up young monks’ daydreams.

          I keep trying to think of something like that for Green Men, too!

  3. “I found myself reading the author of Women’s Work, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, talking about how imperfect the first excavation of Troy was.”

    Sounds like Barber was gentle in her criticism, which is nice, but it pays us all to remember that without those guys like Schliemann, there wouldn’t BE any archaeology.

    This is what enrages me about SJWs. You go to an anthropology course these days, and Schliemann is a wrecker and a raaaaacist! Horrible, should be banned!

    No different than mocking James Watt’s steam engine while enjoying steam-generated electric light. There are those who indulge in that too.

    1. There’s also counting coup against the whiners by showing that there is an equally principled argument for killing all the savages out of hand. 😛

      1. Principled, maybe. Practical, no. If there’s one thing that the Communists proved conclusively in the 20th Century, “kill them all” doesn’t work. Even when you really do get all of them, as the Chicoms did.

        1. Equally as principled and as practical as the proposals of the whiners. XD

  4. “…let us remember he was in his sixties when he did this work, after a life of daydreaming of doing it, while doing more mundane, every day work. And this at a time when life expectancy was at a stretch to be lucky enough to live to your eighties.”

    Sounds like the recipe for a lot of writer’s lives.

  5. The same author wrote “Mummies of Urumchi”, mostly about the textiles. I think it might have been in the Women’s Work book that she quotes another author saying that at least some division of labor happened because one criterion applied was “could the work be done while pregnant/watching small children.” That didn’t mean that women couldn’t hunt or men couldn’t spin, just that labor seemed to be divided on the basis of who could do what dependably over time.

  6. We’re also finding out that some of our assumptions were flat out wrong. We used to assume a skeleton’s gender based on grave goods, and now we’re going back and analyzing them and finding out that some of the people we assumed were men because they were buried with weapons were females, and that shield-maidens and Amazons (Scythian women) were real, not just legends.

          1. Hey, we don’t know what those skeletons identified as . . .

          2. Yes. I think more a case of seeing what they wanted to see in ambiguous evidence, though. Nutrition and disease can distort skeletal development something fierce – and these didn’t come from a medical school dissection, in any case.

        1. Wishful thinking and apparently Soviet radiology images weren’t as good, combined with (in some cases) not considering average population size. Not everyone grows as large as Western Europeans of the same age and sex, plus throw in bone deformity caused by growing up on horseback, and confusion can ensue.

          That and some Viking/ Iron Age women were buried with weapons, although if they were ceremonial as signs of rank or the woman’s actual personal weapons is still unknown.

          1. Although SOME weapons might be used by females, it’s more likely that they were kitchen tools/farm tools.
            Size is not the only indicator of femininity – the skeleton is quite different – broader hips, knocked-knees, narrower shoulders, different leg to torso ratios – pre-teens might be similar, but not grown men and women.

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