Sunday, February 24, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Pots and Pans

Hmm...I had something in mind for the garage sale earlier this week, but I didn't make a note and now I can't find it in my head. Oh, well, if it's any good I'll think of it again and meantime I still haven't filed that issue of Fortean Times, so let's see what else we've got.

Ah, here's something for those of us with World-Builder Disease: World's Oldest (so far) Pottery found in China, about 20,000 years old. It's about eight inches deep and six to ten inches in diameter. The picture shows a plain terra cotta colored sherd with ridges in it, though I don't know enough about pottery to guess whether they're decoration or tell something about the manufacturing process.

The reason this is a big deal, of course, is that traditionally pottery has been assumed to have been invented in agricultural societies, of which there were exactly none 20,000 years Before Present. Hunter-gatherer societies were assumed to be mobile (an assumption increasingly questioned these days) and pottery is bulky and fragile to move around a lot. However, I doubt I'm the only person not particularly surprised. Archeologists are constantly turning up artifacts and evidence that challenge and even disprove their assumptions; and news sources are constantly overstating the firmness and universality of those assumptions, too.

For one thing, Catal Hoyuk is a pre-agricultural city, though it is Neolithic. Hard as it is for us to imagine a permanent urban settlement without a sizable rural agricultural support infrastructure, the evidence is right there in Turkey.

For another, this is far from the oldest ceramic found. Some Paleolitchic "Venus figurines" are made of fired clay and are older than this pottery. Furthermore, evidence of cooking practices that could easily act as gateways to the discoveries necessary to make ceramic pots and pans a reality is abundant and non-controversial. Humans have used earth ovens (basically digging a pit and filling it with hot coals) and baskets, which can be lined to make them waterproof, for millenia. Probably for about as long as we've been cooking; which, since we can't maintain breeding weight on a raw-food diet and have evolutionary adaptations suitable for living primarily on cooked foods, must have been a very long time, possibly since before we were homo sapiens.

Which is all scientifically very interesting, but what does it do for a storyteller?

Why, what but give us a viable platform for imagining unique settings for our stories? Whether science fiction, fantasy, or historical, we tend to default to a handful of tropes when depicting alien societies, but this is far from necessary. What was prepared or served in that pottery (Alcohol? Soup? Porridge? Candy?)? Who prepared it? Who invented it? On what occasions - special or mundane - was it used? Imagining all this gives us a chance to free ourselves from our imaginative ruts. Maybe you don't have the patience or skills to do the research (much of it probably in Chinese archeological journals) necessary to reconstruct the society the produced the pottery; but that doesn't stop you from imagining a hunter-gatherer society unlike any ever imagined before, putting it on an extrasolar planet, and landing a spaceship in the middle of it. It doesn't stop you from imagining a magical world of hunting-gathering kingdoms in which witches use pottery vessels to brew up either trouble or solutions to problems.

Writers who have also worked in ceramics may have practical knowledge that makes the whole question of when and how pottery was first made look very different than how it looks from an academic angle. Someone outside a discipline may have difficulty trying to introduce a valid insight into the discussion; may not know how to express that insight properly, or who to express it to. But encapsulating that insight into a story - now, that's quite another matter. That's a way to get your own ideas out into the public discourse without feeling arrogant or risking rejection. Everyone responds to story imagery, if it's done well.

Fiction writers can and do change the discussion. It is not through publications in scientific journals that we see the past, but through stories written using that material - or, all too often, ignoring it. Fiction writers can speculate where archeologists can't. Fiction writers can take a potsherd and build a convincing world; and their audiences, including archeologists, can stretch their minds into new shapes around that world, and see new possibilities in the evidence.

Maybe even, by that roundabout way, enable themselves to make the hypothesis that eventually wins out over the others to become enshrined as fact.

Don't laugh. It happens. Our minds work that way.

1 comment:

  1. 20,000 years! Yes, I can see that first person playing in the mud and some of it falling into a fire pit then when the ashes are cleared away discovering the mud has turned into a kind of rock! Eureka! I've just invented pottery!