Worldbuilding in archaeology

Image: Maze #3 by Robson# (CC BY 2.0)

Whether you’re writing high fantasy or hard science fiction, you’d better be sure you have the kinks of your world ironed out (or alternatively, emphasised to their full lurid potential), otherwise the reader will soon cease to suspend their disbelief. It’s no good having your protagonist discover a brilliant piece of old alien technology if you haven’t worked out why on earth it was hidden on that space ship, and how it came to be developed within that ancient society. What resources were required to sustain it and who could use it? What were the social implications of its use, and why is such technology no longer deemed acceptable in the year 4053AD…

 

Archaeology may not always be the stuff of epic bestsellers, but it certainly is concerned with cultures that are just as alien as those we conjure up in works of fiction. Though we potentially have other sites to compare our results with, possibly reams of scholarship as well as historic and cartographic sources, the past is still just as remote as an imagined civilisation in an alternate universe. Since no archaeologist I know owns a TARDIS, we have to make do with piecing together what pieces of evidence we have to build up a narrative of ages gone by.

 

We have to be worldbuilders.

 

Dungeons, dragons and archaeology: the problem with tropes

 

I recently played Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy tabletop role-playing game, for the very first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but in the past I had harboured some misgivings about it, namely because it seemed at least superficially to attend so closely to those well-worn fantasy tropes that have become gospel since a certain Tolkein wrote some funny tale called The Lord of the Rings. I was worried that what was pegged as an imaginative experience would just be reduced to adhering to convoluted rules relating to different ‘races’ and ‘classes,’ with the same old story of floaty elves and grunty dwarves.

 

Luckily, our DM (Dungeon Master) had worked out his own creation mythology for the fantasy world we were inhabiting, which allowed for not only sustained internal logic but also flexibility in terms of the interpretation of different races and their beliefs. Extensive worldbuilding emancipated our game from those well-worn raggedy tropes so we could tear them apart completely, if we so chose.

 

It occurs to me that the same is possible in archaeology. Of course, as professionals we base all our speculations on as much material evidence as possible, but narrative is also key in the process of archaeological interpretation. If this isn’t acknowledged, then the very fallibility of our analyses is carefully swept away under the proverbial rug, or hidden away in the spoil heap. All archaeology involves worldbuilding, but what kind should we aspire to? I say: one that acknowledges and does not rely on tropes.

 

 A storm in a ‘Minoan’ ‘eggcup’

 

As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I wrote dissertations pertaining to the Cretan Bronze Age (c. 3000-1000BC). I love Crete and its archaeology, but one aspect of its scholarship has perpetually left me aggrieved: the perpetual usage of inappropriate nomenclature for its material culture. For a start, referring to the Cretan Bronze Age as ‘Minoan’ is a result of enduring tropes of Classical mythology being assigned to the archaeological record. Obviously, there’s no evidence that King Minos actually ruled there and that a minotaur was wandering about at Knossos. Thanks to the British archaeologist Arthur Evans (who led the excavations at that site beginning at the turn of the 20th century, and to whom the first application of the term to Bronze Age Cretan archaeology is attributed), the mythology is inextricably linked with the archaeology.

 

You might ask, who cares? The thing is, language, and especially the names we use to refer to things, are very powerful in terms of worldbuilding. When you consider that Minoan court-centred buildings such as Knossos are commonly referred to as ‘palaces,’ despite the blatant fact that there is certainly no indication of a monarchy in the modern sense existing, you can see just how misleading this is. True, archaeologists and tourists alike are seduced by the glamour of Evan’s worldbuilding at Knossos, but the civilisation he created is in some elements pure fantasy. It’s easy to become sentimentally attached to the terms that he used to weave his vision of the Minoan world, and in truth the word ‘palace’ is a useful shorthand to refer to certain types of structure which existed in the Cretan Bronze Age. The problem isn’t so much that Evans let his imagination run wild when worldbuilding on Crete, it’s that he let Classical tropes take the reigns.

 

Perhaps this is all just a storm in a teacup, or shall I say ‘eggcup?’ One form of Minoan pottery, also known more neutrally as the ‘footed goblet,’ is sometimes called an eggcup. It’s a cute name, and the imposition of such an anachronistic term on the archaeology is somewhat comical-and absurd. It also conjures up images of a certain English gentleman earnestly cracking the top of an egg at the breakfast table in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos…

 

New frontiers in worldbuilding

 

The history of archaeological scholarship is an interesting story in of itself, and this is no more true than in the case of Bronze Age Crete. Whilst Evans’ narrative should not be forgotten, I hope that future world-builders in Cretan archaeology will be able to reference his and others’ stories about the Minoans whilst challenging the same tired tropes that have too often dominated the field.

 

It’s time to take a new thread, weave a new story, and leave the labyrinth…

 minotaur

Image: Minotaur by john roberts @ 36peas.com  (CC BY 2.0)

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