A while back, I wrote about my experience with JustAnswer, a service to hook up a researcher with an expert in order to get good information on a myriad of subjects. I found it to be a good resource for quick questions and answers. But what happens when you need more?
Last year I started on a new book that’s based on the archaeology of 1,000-year-old Indian ruin sites near my home in north-central Arizona. I’ve found out that the Verde Valley of Arizona is virtually pocked with Indian ruins; the estimation is that there’s a ruin roughly every 1.8 miles. It’s no surprise that the Indians farmed this bountiful valley, and apparently they built their small community units with enough surrounding space to farm, but close enough to visit back and forth without too much travel. Seems like an idyllic existence. Unfortunately, as much physical evidence as we have of their activities, we don’t have a lot of cultural evidence for their family organization, spiritual beliefs or ritual processes. The Sinagua (named by the Spanish, Latin meaning “without water”) left no written record. The closest we can get to their cultural life is by looking at the Hopi (the Sinagua’s suspected descendents) and extrapolating backward a bit.
Luckily our modern archaeological processes are quite a bit easier to research. Sometimes. I thought getting this kind of information would be easy; just get interviews with the folks at the local archaeology organization, find out what their processes are, how they survey a site, how they report their findings. Pretty straight-forward. But in my first interview with a veteran surveyor, many of my questions brought forth the response of, “I can’t tell you that.”
Come to find out that there are SO many ruins in this area, primarily on National Forest land, and so few resources to survey, restore, protect and interpret them, that most of them just lie hidden in the brush. And because of that, the archaeology community is very careful about disclosing any information that could lead pot-hunters to the sites.
Wow, who knew? I go looking for data and I get intrigue.
But I totally understand. It’s an amazing thing to find a ruin and see a 1,000-year-old tiny corn cob (maize) lying on the ground, or to hold a piece of pottery and wonder who made it all those years ago, and what did they use it for? Matter of fact, it was these very experiences that hatched the idea of the new book in my brain, ergo the research.
Which has now become a two-pronged issue. The main one for any writer is to write authentically. It would be irresponsible to write about archaeologists bulldozing a site and grabbing artifacts off the ground. It would also be completely unbelievable. I want my book to be as real as possible, so I continue gathering research, wending my way around the “I can’t tell you that” details. As I’ve told the folks whose brains I am picking, it’s not really about disclosing in the book all the information I’m collecting. It’s more about not including erroneous information. If they can’t tell me exactly how they go about their process, I need at least to know how not to do it, so I don’t inadvertently weaken the authenticity of my story.
The second issue, the new one, is to not reveal any information that could expose a site. At first I was going to use an actual site for the location of my book, but now that’s changed. In order not to reveal any sensitive information, I’m creating an entirely fictitious site. This opens up all sorts of new possibilities, as I can configure my site any way I want: pit houses, dancing grounds, calendar stones, artifacts. None of it will be real, and yet it will be as real as I can possibly make it.
If I told you any more than that, I’d have to kill you.