Thursday, July 29, 2010

The inspiration of archaeology

When I walk through museums and look at antiquities I think about the people whose hands once touched the artifacts. I think about their lives and how the relics were used. Looking upon a big broadsword from the Middle Ages I wonder if it was ever used in battle...and if that blade ever killed somebody.

Going further back in time, the glimpses of ancient and mysterious civilizations brought to us by archaeologists have always excited my imagination. I believe my fascination with the dim ages of human existence contribute to my work as a fantasy writer. Archaeology can only provide a few clues to how ancient societies functioned, and then my hungry mind fills in the gaps.

Over the last couple years, I've been studying the writings of the famous myth researcher Joseph Campbell. While reading a collection of his essays called "Myths to Live By" the other night, I came across a passage that reminded me of the fantastic scope of human history and the frightening dramas that once sustained many societies.

While discussing the role of ritual suicides in ancient societies, Campbell wrote of this astounding scene discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley from the excavation of royal tombs in the city of Ur.

"Sir Leonard, as he tells, was excavating in the ancient temple cemetery of the old city from which Father Abraham is supposed to have taken his departure, when his men's spades broke into an astonishing series of multiple graves, some containing as many as sixty-five individuals laid to rest in courtly array. One of the best-preserved was of a woman named Shub-ad, buried with her court of some twenty-five attendants directly above the entombment of a male personage named A-bar-gi, with whom sixty-five or so had been laid to rest. The richly attired Shub-ad had been brought into her tomb on a sledge drawn by asses; A-bar-gi, possibly her husband, in a wagon drawn by oxen. Both the animals and the human beings had been buried in the monstrous grave alive: the court ladies lying peacefully in rows, in court regalia, wearing hair ribbons of silver and gold, red cloaks with beaded cuffs, great lunate earrings, and multiple necklaces of lapis-lazuli and gold. The girl harpists' skeleton hands were still resting on the harp strings -- or where the harp strings once had been. And the instruments themselves suggested in form the body of a bull, with its beautiful golden bull's head bearing a rich lapis-lazuli beard. For this was a mythological bull: the divine lunar bull whose song of destiny had summoned these two willing companies -- first of the buried king, then of his lady -- to rebirth through death." (from page 64)

What a vivid scene! My imagination swiftly filled in the likely fact that these willing sacrifices required some strong drugs to be buried alive, but no matter. I suppose they believed in the spiritual necessity of their performance. I assume today's leaders are happy that elaborate sacrifices are no longer necessary, at least in the literary sense. Now I wonder if there were a few courtiers who defected in the days before the great sacrifice because their faith collapsed in the face of mass death. Did they flee into the desert and take up with bandits? Were they captured by slavers? See, I've already got a start to a good story there.

Think about which societies summoned from the dust of time inspire you and leave a comment.