I’ve been reading Charles Trick Currelly’s book “I Brought the Ages Home”, about the establishment of the Royal Ontario Museum and the acquisition of some of its collections. I found it an interesting read, although not nearly detailed enough for me in some places, but never mind. One thing that Currelly advocated – and practiced himself – was archaeologists becoming knowledgable about the craft of whatever they were looking at. He said you couldn’t really understand what you were seeing if you didn’t know how it was made.
I remember seeing a pot at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit (at the ROM, as it happened!) that got me quite excited. It was a thrown body with an applied neck and spout, and I could tell immediately that it was done sideways. That is, the potter threw the body of the pot, bottom to top, and closed off the top of the form. Then he – or possibly she – turned the piece on its side and added the neck. I saw this immediately because of the direction of the throwing rings, the marks the potter’s fingers leave. There was nothing on the label to indicate that the people who curated the exhibit knew that, or considered it worth mentioning.
CUrrelly called people who were competent artisans “good mechanics”. This harks back to the Shakespearian use of the word – think “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and calling Bottom and his buddies “rude mechanicals”. He thought that being a good mechanic, someone who could make things, was a great help in analysing whatever artifacts one might find in a dig. Understanding how they were made, and why, helped you understand more about the piece and the area in which it was found.
I feel rather the same about my ability to do things from building a fire to tanning a hide using the brains of the animal. When I write about an Iron Age or mediaeval type fantasy world, I think about these things, because where the boots came from and whether the people had fabric – which means fibre and the ability to move it from its raw state to clothing – is important. It’s been less than a hundred years that most people simply bought whatever they needed from stores. One thing that bugged me about the movie “The Eagle” was that the women of the seal people were obviously wearing woven cloth, but there was no evidence of a fibre animal or a loom anywhere, and you were supposed to think that this was strictly a hunting culture.
This weekend I’m off to buy some fancy chickens, which will lay blue or green eggs – very excited about it, for the trip, the chickens, and adding one more bit of mechanical experience to my repertoire as a writer.