Written by Rhiannon Held
As a professional archaeologist and a writer, there’s one question I get pretty consistently: “Do you use archaeology in your writing?” Some of the people asking that essentially want to know if I’m rewriting Indiana Jones (No). Others assume I must use archaeology to create vast ancient civilizations for my epic fantasy world. The answer there is also no—see below for what I do use it for—but the fact that people make that assumption has always interested me.
In many ways, it parallels a difference in the academic world: in Britain, and by extension Canada, Archaeology is organized as a department under History. In the US, it’s under Anthropology. I’ve heard it explained that this grew out of the fact that in Old World, early archaeologists were often studying the antecedents to their own culture, which had written records going pretty far back. In the New World, early archaeologists were studying cultures unrelated to themselves, which didn’t have written records in many cases.
And what most people picture when they picture archaeology is definitely the Old World. Ruins, ancient civilizations, gold artifacts. The most common response I used to get to “Oh, I’m an archaeologist” is “Have you ever been to Egypt?” So when that’s your picture of archaeology, it makes sense that the fantasy world-building you’d use it for would be elven ruins, ancient mage civilizations, and adamantium artifacts.
But what about archaeology based in anthropology? I was trained in the US and my thesis was on Native baskets of the Northwest, so my grounding was very much in how to get insight into a people when they haven’t left you anything written. How do people organize themselves in groups? Where do they choose to look for food? Where do they trade? How do they choose their decorations to maintain that group identity?
I’ve found that kind of archaeology to be amazingly fruitful for urban fantasy. If the world in an urban fantasy novel is going to be anything like ours, there can’t be grand werewolf temples littering the landscape, or history would have taken a much different course. It’s more likely the creatures have few or no written records to allow them to hide from humans. Then, if you give your fantasy creatures a cohesive cultural and group identity, you can draw on plenty of human cultures for comparison. That’s the reason why I chose not to have turned werewolves in my world, because a turned werewolf is by definition born into a non-werewolf culture.
So, then, how do your fantasy creatures organize themselves? What decorations do they use to identify themselves? Studying a hunter-gatherer culture, I might look at a basket design that appears in two different valleys, and use it to explore whether the people living in those two different valleys thought of themselves as part of the same group. For an urban fantasy werewolf culture, I might give one group of werewolves taboos about using silver on each other, and the other a long history of using it for punishment—if you treat silver one way, you’re one of Us, if you treat it the other way, you’re one of Them. Group identity.
Of course, harkening back to my academic days, I have to state my assumption: to use human anthropological principles, you have to assume your creatures are at least somewhat human. Speculative fiction has certainly explored species and creatures whose reactions differ from humans’ in interesting ways, but I find having creatures that are human enough to hold a mirror up to us is just plain fun.
And the most fun part is when you illustrate aspects of human culture that are so internalized, people don’t even realize why it makes your werewolves feel so real. If werewolves have religion, it makes sense they’d have religious heresies. It makes sense they’d have origin stories. It makes sense they’d have songs. It makes sense they’d have a silly childhood games. Just like we do.
And all of that fun stuff comes from broadening our use of archaeology in fantasy away from historical temples and golden artifacts.
From the Tor/Forge June newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.
More from the June Tor/Forge newsletter:
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
- The Week in Review
- Find Tor Books at BEA!
- Goodreads First Reads: Thieves’ Quarry by D. B. Jackson
- New Releases: 5/14/2013
- Book Trailer: The Navigator by Michael Pocalyko
- Kitty in the Underworld Sweepstakes
- The Week in Review
- Waiting on Wednesday: Solstice Sweepstakes
- Book Trailer: Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler
- New Releases: 5/7/2013
- Read about Tor/Forge author @DanielKalla’s surprise on discovering the WWII-era Shanghai Ghetto in his research: bit.ly/10AKRBZ 1 day ago
- MT @RollingStone: #StarTrek is about "the nature of existence and what future democracy could be," says Cumberbatch: rol.st/12C1tMB 2 days ago
- RT @suvudu: Greek Myth in #GameofThrones: Women of the Roseroad Rebellion: Brienne as Briseis; Margaery as Helen bit.ly/19Fq9pP 2 days ago
- RT @tordotcom: Talking With Tom: A conversation between Tom Doherty and author Gregory Benford: bit.ly/14xSltE 2 days ago
- The weekend’s nearly here! And we’re here to help you kill the rest of your work week with The Week in Review: bit.ly/19EWL34 2 days ago
Urban Fantasy Sweepstakes
- An Epic Fantasy Community Comes Together. Appreciating Unfettered, edited by Shawn Speakman
- Unfettered: “The Unfettered Knight” by Shawn Speakman
- It’s a Promise You Make. Doctor Who: “The Name of the Doctor”
- Congratulations to the 2012 Nebula Award Winners
- Announcing the 2013 Spectrum Fantastic Art Awards
- “Going Native” in Steampunk: James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows
- Rise of the Planet of the Plankton
- Spectrum Fantastic Art Changes Publishers
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Rewatch: “Dax”
- Talking With Tom: A Conversation Between Tom Doherty and Gregory Benford
- Poll: What is Your Favorite Type of Man in Uniform?
- New Adult is All That—In a Bad Way
- Orphan Black’s Sarah/Paul: Tainted Love
- Seduction’s Canvas: Exclusive Excerpt
- Art is Love: On Books and Music
- Friday Beefcake: Guys with Glasses
- May 2013 Bloggers’s Recommendations: Teachers, Shifters, Linebackers, and More
- Nalini Singh’s Heart of Obsidian SPOILER!
- Exclusive Cover Reveal: Two Jami Davenport Titles!
- Welcome to the Welcome to Sanditon Mini Series
- Fresh Meat: The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad
- You Talkin’ to Me?: Criminal Language
- Fresh Meat: R.I.P.D.: City Of The Damned by Jeremy Barlow, Peter M. Lenkov, and Tony Parker
- Now Win This: Spring Cleaning Sweepstakes
- Dick Tracy and Blowtorches
- 5 Reasons to Watch Orphan Black
- The Sound and the Fury: Trailer for Berberian Sound Studio
- Fresh Meat: Smarty Bones by Carolyn Haines
- Lost Classics of Noir: Wayward Girl by Orrie Hitt
- James Gandolfini Gets Criminal Justice