Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Experimental archaeology and writing

Archaeologists like experiment with early technologies like flint-knapping or pottery making because it helps them to get inside the minds of ancient craftsmen. I began making pots during college when my dorm was conveniently located near the pottery studio in Cambridge, Mass. I discovered I was a terrible potter, which immediately increased my respect for ancient Greek ceramists who achieved even wall thicknesses, delicate rims, and graceful handles in ways I couldn’t possibly replicate.

In my current job, I work with Illinois archaeologists who are interested how the transition between large, thick-walled cooking pots to smaller, thin-walled pots relates to changes in diet and cooking methods. Is it because the cooks switched from cooking with heated rocks dumped into large pots filled with water and starchy seeds to cooking over direct heat? Or do the pots change because people were switching from cooking seeds to boiling the earliest form of corn? Which pots survive repeated firings best and why?

To answer such questions, the experimental archaeologist must make lots of pots using different combinations of local clays and additives such as sand or crushed shell, different construction methods, and firings at different temperatures and lengths of time.

The process is very similar to what a writer does when experimenting with plot complications and point of view. My latest short story (about an archaeological dig in Italy) went through five versions before I chose one to polish and submit to AHMM. I took the same basic premise but changed the villain, the hero, the point of view, and the ending—five times. It was exhilarating because I realized that I had the germs of five different stories that I could go back to later.

Whether making pots or writing a story, there’s no single way to do it. If you’re a genius, maybe you get it right on the first try. For me, what works is steady experimentation with an open mind—you have to be willing to say “what if I did it this way?”—and then do it.

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