Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Forbidden Archaeologist

I am strongly tempted to write again.

That is, to write for publication. Fanfic has kept the tools sharpened, helping me crank out that one million words of crap the apocryphal quote claims you have to work through. Except from what I'm seeing on Amazon et al, more and more of that first million words -- as Sturgeon's Law worthy as they are -- are being published regardless.

In any case.

What has specifically whetted my appetite is the stories. Those bits from history that Evan S. Connel called "pickled plums." The mysteries, but even more, those things that strike me as tantalizing hooks.

Such as: I can't remember the details right now, but a Pharonic library was uncovered during the silver age of archaeology; those heady early days when cuniform were first being translated, Assyria discovered, the Valley of Kings excavated. In any case, the first barge load of scrolls and artifacts was attacked by bandits and sunk in the Nile, never to be recovered. And one wonders what might have been learned from them.

Many are the important finds that have gone astray this way, from Peking Man on. And if you read back into history, there were entire cultures with an antiquarian bent of their own, uncovering everything they could find from a passed culture significant to them, and confounding future archaeologists by decorating their palaces with the treasures of people long gone by.

What I mean to say is there are so many spaces in real known history for an amazing artifact search; to track something from the abandoned royal city of Amarna to collections of Alexandria through the great artifact collection of Napoleon to the similar mass shipment of antiquities into Berlin. At each stop exploring cultures and histories and cities modern and ancient.

But almost opposed to that artifact-centered view, I've also grown in sympathy (though only the vaguest understanding) of modern Archaeological thought and method. And that I also want to talk about even in a work of genre fiction.

So you could say that almost what I want to write is an anti-Lara Croft. An Indiana Jones who understands and honors antiquities protection, a Nathan Drake with an actual academic background. Someone who isn't inclined by skills or nature to whip out a dual pair of pistols at every excuse. A Scully, though possibly in a Mulder universe.

The biggest problem I have is close to the heart of the dichotomy between actual Archaeology and the fictional exploits of pop-culture figures who only carry the name. And that is, in short, I don't believe in aliens.

I find the real world spectacular and surprising. But I'm up against a genre expectation of lost sciences and ancient technologies and sprawling underground complexes. Or, to get to the heart of it, to mysteries uncovered.

After reading through dusty archives and interviewing strange reclusive people in far-off exotic lands and cutting through jungle and fighting off disease and weather and animal attacks, the reader has a legitimate expectation to find something other than that the Moai of Rapa Nui were carved to honor local chiefs and walked into place with a rocking motion with ropes and lots of willing hands.

So what to do?

I could make a convincing case for a view that is minority but otherwise has academic respectability. Such as, for instance, the two waves of prehistoric colonization into the Americas (and, no, the Solutreans are not one of them). I can't do this because this would be mostly of interest to academics, and they are a tough audience. I like research, but I know my limitations!

Another temptation is to go Focoult's Pendulum on it. In Umberto Eco's novel, a small group of far too widely-read publishers made up a far too believable conspiracy theory and got themselves in serious trouble with some true believers. No real Templars were ever involved.

My problems are two; I can't come up with a good Ancient Aliens backstory that doesn't make mainstream Archaeology look like idiots. And I can't come up with any alternative explanation of early technological innovations, worship practices, etc., that isn't an insult to the peoples involved -- some of whom have direct living cultural descendants.

Part of this is what I call in my own notes a "Watt-Evans" problem. In at least one novel, Lawrence Watt-Evans framed a story in genre terms but then had events unfold realistically. Case in point being a certain prison run by an oppressive future society. His protagonist does the usual genre things to escape. All of them fail, usually quickly.

It is easy to say, "Lazy writer" when a genre protagonist gets away with something (like escaping a modern prison). The way I look at it, though, is that there are thousands of people working on that problem right now who have, shall we say, intimate understanding of the situation. Is the writer expected to come up with something none of them have? It's like asking a science fiction writer to out-do everyone in multiple fields of science and come up with the actual physics of faster-than-light travel. (Which they could then patent -- heck, they'd make more on the Nobel than they would with a novel.)

You have to cheat. The character needs an unfair advantage, or the fictional world has forgotten to take a precaution the real world does not forget. Otherwise there's no story. The Great Escape isn't much of a story if Eastwood's character spends a couple weeks thinking about it then gives up.

(Actually, there is a good cheat available to the writer; find something clever someone in the real world already did. Hopefully not one all your readers have also heard of).

So, in short, if there had been an Atlanean civilization -- super-science and all -- that sunk below the waves, the kind of evidence for it wouldn't be hidden in such a way that only an Indiana Jones could find it. If there are writings in ancient manuscripts they'd have been translated and commented on already (probably by the Greeks). If there were underground complexes GPR would have picked them up.

Well, those are bad examples. The big point is anything that's world-changing leaves a footprint. Or put it another way; there is far too much consistent evidence for the world as we understand it. There isn't a gap large enough to stick something the scale that pseudo-archaeology demands.

And the evidence, if it was there, would be diffused. Would be visible in the patterns of trade routes and evolution of cultural artifacts and genetic distributions and word-frequency analysis. In large-scale comparative studies. Not in one convenient 19th-century printing of an obscure Latin translation of a lost Babylonian text found in a bookstall on the bank of the Seine.

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