I just received this email from the Gears with the answers to questions I sent about their book and writing. I will hopefully be posting about TAM and how awesome it was soon, but for now enjoy the tweets I sent and be sure to follow TnMuseums on twitter!
1. What kind of connections do you see between your popular historical fiction writing and public history/archaeology?
The two are interconnected by their very nature. That’s why we have a bibliography in the back of the novel. We’re making the best interpretation that professional anthropologists can given current data. Keep in mind that we are anthropologists and archaeologists. We are presenting a paper at the Society for American Archaeology and hosting a forum session at this year’s meetings in Sacramento on this very subject. We expect the novels we write to be subjected to peer review, and we base all of our interpretations of the events, cultures, and behaviors upon the archaeological and historical records.
Educating the public about America’s prehistoric peoples is our main goal, but we strive to entertain at the same time. So, we are very pleased that many of our books are used in college courses ranging from archaeology, history, and literature, to philosophy courses. They’re also kept in stock at a variety of national and state parks across the country. All Americans are the cultural inheritors of American Indian ideals of democracy, referendum and recall, one person one vote, and even the notion of confederation. The tragedy is that despite this, less than 5% can tell you that Cahokia, Illinois, was the largest urban center in North America prior to European contact. Only a handful know that Poverty Point was the first city in what would become the United States. (It was built 3500 years ago in northern Louisiana and flourished for over two hundred years.) As a nation we’re vastly ignorant of the origins of American democratic principles–let alone the nations, cultures, and societies that flourished here.
2. What inspired you to tell the stories of these people, and how does historical archaeology assist that process?
The formation of the League of the Iroquois was our inspiration. It fascinated us that a little-known peace movement in fifteenth century North America could shape what would later become known as “The Free World,” and change the course of world history. Dekanawida, Hiyawento, and Jigonsaseh, the heroes of the League, established a democratic system of government that sought to maximize individual freedoms, and to minimize governmental interference in people’s lives. They accepted as fact the equality of men and women, championed tolerance, provided for referendum and recall, assured the common good by allowing every person’s voice to be heard. None of these principles were part of the European way of life, but no European who heard them could deny their power. The League heavily influenced America’s founders, particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
While historical archaeology plays a small part–mostly through comparative processes–in understanding what happened in the 1400s, we rely more on prehistorical archaeology. Keep in mind, “historical” refers to a period with written records. Prehistoric time occurs before written records came into existence. There are no written records of the Iroquois from the 1400s, so we use three techniques to frame the plot: the prehistoric archaeological record, Iroquoian oral history, and ethnographic analogy. All of these things tell us that the warfare in the 1400s was intense. As we explain in our non-fiction introduction to THE DAWN COUNTRY, the archaeological record contains evidence of cannibalism and extreme brutality; mutilated bodies, crushed skulls, burned villages. Because of that, this is a war story. But it is also the story of three brave people’s struggle for peace.
3. Are you familiar with Janet Spector’s “What this awl means”, and if so, what connections can you make between her work and your own?
Yes, that’s a wonderful book. What Janet Spector tries to do is to incorporate native perspectives and voices into her interpretations of the past, and we try to do the same thing. That’s why we weave native oral history into our plots. Many archaeologists would frown upon it, because obviously oral history isn’t “fact.” Nonetheless, we’ve discovered that oral history can be very informative in helping us to understand the archaeological record.
Keep in mind that archaeology isn’t just bits of old broken pots, chipped stones, and burned bone. Those provide a fraction of the information we can garner about long lost cultures. The true focus of anthropology and archaeology is people: human beings just like us. They lived, loved, fought, cried, and died. Many, though not all, of their concerns were the same as ours: Will my children grow and be healthy? Can I keep a roof over my head? Is grandma’s illness curable? Will my husband who is out traveling make it home safely? Can I provide for my family? Will our enemies attack us again soon? Will this drought end in time that we can save our corn crop? What we are able to do in a novel is make those people, places, cultures, and environments come alive in a way that simply cannot happen in nonfiction.
Thanks for the great questions, Katie. It’s been a pleasure.
Michael and Kathleen Gear