Guest Post by E. C. Ambrose –

An archive, library, or internet equivalent is your usual starting point when developing the ideas, conflicts and characters you’ll weave into a narrative. While reading is a great place to begin, relying strictly on written matter to re-create a historical world can lead to limitations that prevent the reader from inhabiting the experience of your characters, or worse, expel them from the text when the details don’t add up. Incorporating material culture into your research habits can help you craft scenes with textures of reality that truly invite readers to step back in time.

Material culture is the literal stuff of society: the things that people make and use. My own journey toward a deliberate use of material culture began when someone who critiqued my historical fantasy story inspired by Mongolian culture asked, “Where are all the sheep?” While we associate Mongolian nomads strongly with horses, their sheep guide their lifestyle, provide most of their food, the wool for their clothing, and even the gers they call home. Without sheep, the culture would be transformed, and my story would lack grounding in reality.

One exercise to encourage deeper thought about material culture is “the Penny Trick.” Imagine that you are a xenoarchaeologist—studying alien cultures—and you’ve landed on a devastated planet. The only object you find is a penny. What can you learn about the culture that created it? A penny reveals that they had advanced metal-working and precision machining. It also implies the size and dexterity of the makers, and metallurgical study reveals their mining and trading reach. Iconography suggests the appearance, style, and clothing of the citizens. The penny may also include language (sometimes more than one) and national slogans. A penny reveals the values of the society, whether stated (“In God We Trust”) or implied by heads of state, monuments, and national symbols. The list goes on.

A better understanding of material culture can help you avoid many mistakes, such as the one made by the author who described a terrible fire in which 3000 yards of thread were lost! For a skilled spinner, that’s a couple of days’ work. For a weaver or warehouse owner, 3000 yards is a single cone: hardly a catastrophic loss. Another common mistake is having fictional characters own books during eras when  literacy wasn’t widespread and bookmaking involved intensive production, dependent on rare technology, expensive materials, and skilled labor. Owning more than one book in such an era would be more unusual than not.

Here are a few ways to invest in material culture research.

1. Get on the ground 

Historic homes and ships, accurate reconstructions of villages, and archaeological sites demonstrate the scale, building materials and techniques, and atmosphere of the places surrounding your characters. These sites place structures and their occupants in relation to each other, suggesting class, social roles, cultural values, and personal identifiers. 

What is the most prominent feature of a town in your historical setting? Of a public building? A home? A person’s bedchamber? What does it feel like to move through these spaces?  Do the research to understand how these places may have changed or may be presented differently from how the occupants experienced them. For instance, the statuary and walls of many early buildings were painted, not plain as they are seen today. Maps, floor plans, and video tours may serve when you can’t travel to a location.

16th century cannons from the Spanish galleon Atocha in the conservator’s laboratory

2. Visit re-creations and exhibits

Here, skilled people present what life was like in another place and time. They may be professionals or invested amateurs. They have often made the things they wear, the tools they use, and the furniture and housing they depend on. You may handle reproduction items or try on the clothing and ask about how and why things are made as they are. Many makers also document their processes online.

3. Roll up your sleeves 

Take a workshop, visit a studio, or volunteer with a project. Many traditional crafts rely on the same tools, practices, and materials that have been used for hundreds or even thousands of years. Kits, how-to books, videos, blogs, and cookbooks can help with this if you’re not able to visit an appropriate venue. To understand the daily lives of historical people, nothing beats trying to do things the way they did. What food did they cook and how? What materials are required to make the things they wore, used, and enjoyed? How long did things take to produce, and what did that labor feel like?

A selection of medieval-styole surgical tools from the author’s collection

4. Visit Museums

Historical, ethnographic, and archaeological museums can be great resources and present items that might otherwise be inaccessible. Unfortunately, these objects often lack context. Contemporary museums try to give a sense of context through the use of better displays, signage, and interpretation, but it’s something to be aware of, especially when viewing items from an unfamiliar culture. Look for chances to go behind the scenes and study objects up close. Exhibits for children often allow manipulation of things otherwise kept behind glass. Especially with any smaller or more specialized resources, the magic words “I’m a writer, and…” can open some interesting doors. 

When documenting these experiences, capture process photographs, including raw materials and their origins, and examine and document the tools and structures of production, delivery, and use. Keep in mind all of the senses and how details of production and use can inform your work and enhance your scenes. The smell of the raku kiln or the grit of clay against your fingers creates a sense of immediacy for your reader. As you imagine your characters moving through their world, consider what sounds and smells permeated their awareness and what light sources illuminated it. Think about what level of effort it took to create the stuff of that world, along with who created it and who consumed it.

Finally, remember the penny. Every object presented on the page carries with it the mark of culture and an opportunity to bring the past to life.

Former adventure guide E. C. Ambrose has carved stone, constructed astrolabes, dyed wool, and flown a hawk, and has written The Dark Apostle fantasy novels about medieval surgery. In spite of her enthusiasm for hands-on research, no patients were harmed in the writing of those books. Her 2022 release, Drakemaster (Guardbridge Books), is set during the Mongol invasion of China and features a clockwork doomsday device based on Su Song’s astronomical clock of 1094 CE.

1 thought on “Hands-on with History: Researching Material Culture”

  1. Pingback: Hands-on with History: Researching Material Culture – Historical Novel Society – North America – Sharon E. Cathcart

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