Getting the Archaeology Right in Fantasy Fiction

“Getting the archaeology right” doesn’t actually matter that much when it comes to fantasy. The fact is, when it comes to secondary worlds, a lot of the absolutely basic assumptions don’t make any sense. Why are there people in this world, whose history—whose natural history—is so different from ours? If dragons and elder gods and all that were around for hundreds of thousands of years, why are the horses and carrots and stews and pie in that world exactly the same as ours?

Once you’re willing to swallow that horses are the same despite gryphon-related predation pressures, why strain at faceted diamonds a few centuries too early?

Even if something is set in an actual time and place, the sort of mistakes that archaeologists notice don’t matter that much. Writing about anything—mainly horses and guns, but really, anything—will upset people who know the subject well, but there are very few works that fail artistically because they annoyed experts.

Nobody can do all the research about everything, and specificity works better than generalities, even if the specificity is wrong, because most readers aren’t going to notice things that are wrong. Provided it’s not wrong in well-known ways—for one reason or another, readers are able to accept “hello” in a pseudo-medieval setting but will reject “okay,” even if those words were both late coinages. Potatoes in medieval Europe will be rejected, while orange carrots are accepted, although those were introduced at about the same time.

And even though people might notice a subset of blatant anachronisms, even those aren’t necessarily going to actually cause them to fall out of the work. There are lots of people who are annoyed by the potatoes in The Lord of the Rings, for instance, but that’s seldom sufficient to cause them to reject the work as a whole.

There are a couple of things that archaeology can do, though. One of the pleasures of reading fantasy is seeing people in situations that are greatly different from our own, and seeing how people did things in pre-modern times is a short-cut to differences of that sort.

In one of my early manuscripts, which is deservedly never going to see the light of day, I had a bunch of convict laborers being taken out to a work site. And I had them brought there by ox-cart. The reason why I did that was because I had the default assumption that when people are going long distances, they go in vehicles. It was set in olden times, so they had an old-timey vehicle, but I didn’t look hard enough at the default assumption. Prisoners wouldn’t have gone in a cart—they’d have walked. Getting the precise details of a 12th century ox-cart right doesn’t matter nearly as much as noticing whether or not there’d be an ox-cart there in the first place.

Similarly, there’s a tendency when writing in pre-modern settings to have people cooking in iron pots or skillets. Iron is old-timey, it’s not too different from what we use now, good enough. But the fact is, right up until the industrial revolution, for every iron cook-pot that’s been excavated, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of clay cooking vessels. And glazed cooking vessels come in relatively late, and are relatively uncommon.

There are a lot of reasons not to make cooking vessels out of clay. Ceramics are excellent insulators, heavy, likely to shatter if dropped, and will occasionally explode when heated. In addition, unglazed pottery is porous. Those pores retain flavors and fats from everything that gets cooked in them; when that fat goes rancid, the pot will taint everything cooked in it. But the reason why pottery was preferred over the conductive, resilient, and much less explosive iron was because people could throw pots in their spare time. Not that every single person living in pre-industrial society could manage that, but it was a sort of common adult skill—a bit like being able to set up a wireless network, or change the oil on a car.

That isn’t to say that there need to be more scenes where the stalwart heroes have their pots explode because of thermal shock (though I’ll admit, I’d like that.) But before machines did more of the heavy work of mining and refining and fashioning tools, people had a different relationship to their tools, and a glimpse of that in a story can go a long way.

Close attention to ancient material culture can cause dozens of similar insights into different ways people used to interact with their world. Light, let’s say. Oil lamps are a pretty common find, as are amphora used to transport and store olive oil. And using one of those lamps tells you that those lamps don’t give that much light.

Modern lighting is amazingly clean and bright, which causes the default assumption that if the light is on, you can see things. Oil lamps, or tallow candles, or even medieval fireplaces, simply didn’t give that much light. And when lamp oil was coming from overseas, and was also one of the best sources of calories available, people didn’t burn any more than they needed, not unless they were extremely wealthy. So there’d be a little bit of light; just enough to do let them see what they wanted to see, and no more than that.

There are similar things that could be mentioned about food storage, about the shapes of storage vessels, about the differences between dirt floors and stone floors, between ancient sheep and modern sheep, and so on, and so on.

Which is what archaeology does have to offer. Getting things wrong doesn’t necessarily matter. But getting things right, even just one or two small things right, can convey an authenticity that will carry the weight of any number of wrong assumptions.

History gives some of the same benefits for fantasy, as well as things that archaeology can’t offer. But history is what people who lived in those times thought was worth writing down. They had their blind spots, the same way we do; if all that survived of the culture of the 21st century were some histories, and a few novels and screenplays, it would be hard to figure out how we interacted with our wifi networks. Fiction that was based on those histories and novels might get some things right—it might get a lot right. But looking at the material culture could help people understand things about our lives that our history books don’t discuss.

This article was originally published September 23, 2015.

Alter S. Reiss is the author of Sunset Mantle as well as an archaeologist and writer who lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel. He likes good books, bad movies, and old time radio shows.


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