Sometimes, unfortunately, somebody has to die. For the sake of the plot, one way of dying may seem more appropriate than another. This means research of a kind that normal people never have to do.
This week's death scene involved a knife wound to the belly. I learned all kinds of things about slow death as caused by damage to many organs: the vena cava (near the spine, so more at-risk in an attack from the rear than from the front); the liver, kidneys, and spleen (which have many connections to blood vessels); the bowels (which tend to slide away from a slow penetrating object such as a knife but if nicked can lead to septicemia); and the stomach (gastric leakage can cause peritonitis). Any stomach wound is likely to result in incredible pain but would probably take hours to days to kill someone and may not actually prove fatal.
In fact, modern medical care can repair almost any injury in the lower torso, as long as emergency facilities are close by. That should be some consolation to anyone worried about being struck with a ritual obsidian blade.
I was working on a priest's prayer in Swallowing the Sun and needed several synonyms for mist. The thesaurus gave me a brand new word: brume. Not only does brume mean mist or fog, but it also relates to a specific season. So I have steam for summer, brume for winter, and mist and fog for spring and fall. That's not quite enough seasons for the Arizona desert, which has foresummer, marked by haze.
My research efforts don't always yield what I was hoping for. Take jojoba, for example.
Jojoba, Simmondsia chinensis, is a drought-tolerant plant found in the foothills mainly to the north and east of the low-desert Hohokam country. Jojoba seeds are known to have been used by peoples of the Southwest for shampoo and in medicinal preparations and may have been consumed as a food or beverage (in limited quantities) when roasted.
I thought I could have jojoba oil serve as a fuel for portable lamps inside the massive greathouses and interior rooms of house compounds of my People of Two Rivers. Jojoba seeds are about 50 percent liquid oil, and even though extracting that oil is difficult, the Hohokam would have had the technological capability to do it. If the lamps were limited to the religious enclaves (the workrooms of the rain priests and the priestesses), the effort might have been deemed worthwhile.
But gathering the jojoba seeds would have involved either going long distances or trading with people of the uplands, followed by the physically taxing labor of grinding or pounding the seeds to a paste, pressing the paste between flat, weighted stones, pouring off the oil, and straining it through cloth (and possibly melting it) to separate the oil from the meal.
That seems like a lot of effort when tallow from deer is easier to produce and would have been readily available locally. To make candles, deer tallow can be rendered down through boiling and then poured into ceramic vessels with braided cotton or yucca-fiber wicks suspended in it while still liquid.
In my mind, the ease and availability of tallow and the safety aspect of carrying a candle rather than a liquid in a lamp combine to make my original notion of jojoba oil lamps unlikely. It's still appealing as a luxury good reserved for the Smoke Mothers, perhaps, to show their elite status.
The turning of the sun.
The Hohokam of central Arizona had several ways of marking the sun's movement. The most amazing one that remains is Hole-in-the-Rock in Papago Park, Phoenix.
The sun shines through the hole in the top of the rock formation and into depressions in the ground below during the solstices.
In my "Tales of the Watermasters" series, I imagine the lighting of huge fires, which could be seen from all the largest villages, at the time of the winter solstice. I call this the New Fire ceremony. I'm a few days off in the final editing of "Swallowing the Sun," though: the New Fire ceremony is still about 10 chapters away! It would have been serendipitous to be working on those scenes while the solstice was actually going on. Oh, well.
The Hohokam evidently had multiple ways of tracking the movement of the sun to determine the solstices and equinoxes. For a farming people, these solar events would have been important, as they would mark changes in day length and seasonal rainfall. In buildings and rock formations, deliberate placement of holes proves the Hohokam to have been able observers of the sun, while their rock art preserves what appear to be not only the sun/moon but also stars.
But the Hohokam were latecomers among the prehistoric people who recorded what they saw in the heavens. A new analysis of Paleolithic and Neolithic cave art indicates that people watched the stars closely enough to identify constellations and represent them in animal form.
The Hohokam are known to have had macaws, but how did they acquire these tropical parrots? They certainly would have been able to trade for the feathers and live birds: shells from the Pacific Ocean, copper bells from deep in Mexico, even bison hides from the Great Plains made their way to Hohokam country in the central Arizona desert.
Long-distance trade has long been assumed to have been the means by which macaws entered the American Southwest. But Mimbres pottery found in southwestern New Mexico depicts young macaws, too young to survive the grueling hike from the fledglings' natural habitat far to the south. And indeed, recent DNA analysis of macaw bones from northwestern and southwestern New Mexico indicates that two separate cultures—Ancestral Puebloan (who used to be called Anasazi) in the north and Mogollon in the south—both acquired their macaws from a single breeding population.
Bones of several hundred macaws have been found farther south, in Paquimé, Mexico. But the ones in New Mexico date to the Chacoan era, AD 850–1150, significantly predating Paquimé, which did not become prominent until 100 years or so after Chaco culture collapsed. So where was this aviary where macaws were bred?
Its location has not yet been established. Maybe it was in one of the Hohokam communities. I would like to think my Watermasters had something to do with importing this beautiful bird into the Southwest and enshrining it in Puebloan art and culture.
The prehistoric Puebloan people to the northeast of the Hohokam area utilized turquoise, or "skystone," as a pigment. Crushed and mixed with other materials, it became a permanent paint. The Hohokam certainly had turquoise, because they made jewelry from it. They also had stone palettes for mixing pigments, as well as "paint pots" for storing either the raw minerals or the paint mixtures.
Ancient Mayans had another blue pigment material: the rare lapis lazuli, which yielded a deeper blue hue than turquoise. Did the Hohokam have access to this stone? There appear to be no sources in central Arizona, but they would have been able to trade with people in California or Colorado to attain lapis lazuli, as they did for saltwater shells.
Pueblo Grande Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
I can take a virtual tour of Pueblo Grande when I want to remind myself about the Hohokam village that is the setting for volume 2 (and one of the settings for volume 3) in my upcoming Tales of the Watermasters series.
During the fourteenth century AD, when this platform mound was at its greatest, it stood about 12 feet high (up to 21 feet once the structures built on top of it are factored in!) and measured about 170 feet east-west by 320 feet north-south—just a little smaller than an NFL football field. The bases of some of these structures at Pueblo Grande Cultural Park have been stabilized and show the outlines of the rooms, though unfortunately they don't give a sense of the imposing height of the original edifice.
At the foot of the platform mound was a compound surrounded by an adobe-and-rock wall more than 3 feet thick and nearly 9 feet high. What remains even now dwarfs visitors to the site. The walls of the compound were coated with caliche plaster, which would have functioned like whitewash, not only protecting the adobe but also smoothing the wall surface so that it likely shone under the desert sun.
Archaeologists have determined that the platform mound had a long history of ritual use, as indicated by horns from desert bighorn deposited by the Hohokam circa AD 900 and a smaller circular mound built before AD 1175. Several periods of abandonment, restoration, and expansion occurred before the final major construction, which might have coincided with the drought that struck the entire Southwest circa AD 1275.
During the same general period, polychrome ceramics and other new material goods appeared, suggesting either trade with new groups or evidence of large-scale population movements, and the Hohokam began to wall off their food storehouses, family and household areas, and public and ritual zones. They seem to have gone from a people comfortable and confident in their homeland to being suspicious of others but at the same time reliant on outsiders.
What caused these major cultural shifts? Archaeologists, Euro-American explorers, and others amazed by what the Hohokam built and created have speculated about the possible causes of the changes and, indeed, the eventual downfall of this magnificent and long-lived civilization. My own speculations take the form of a series of novels ... fictionalized archaeology or prehistoric fiction, as some call it.
The events and characters found in my Watermasters series may never have existed, but the essential truths of the Watermasters' existence in the Arizona desert surely would have. Who must those people have been? What would their lives have been like? How do their experiences—and their eventual disappearance—relate to our modern culture wars?
To find out, look for Swallowing the Sun, coming out soon in installments as an e-book and later this year in print.
Not everyone died before the age of 30 in cultures like the Hohokam, even though infant mortality was higher than in modern industrial nations, young men tended to die from violence or accidents, and young women faced risks from childbirth. But those who managed to survive their first three decades had a good chance of living to 70 or so. Archaeologist Christine Cave has an insightful explanation of how this could be so, based on her research into what she calls the "invisible elderly."
Those who did survive may have been treasured for their wisdom. In any case, that's how I prefer to think my Watermasters treated their elderly. Older people play important roles in all my books, as repositories of history and myth.
I rely on a lot of archaeological research in writing my books. I'll take something like the following bit of information about the Hohokam:
"[T]he command area group—that is, farmers along a distribution canal who must coordinate and cooperate to irrigate using the same canal . . . was the primary level of organization and one that dealt directly with farmers. It was the task group that worked cooperatively to construct, maintain, and repair the common distribution canal. Ethnographic case studies also suggest that a task group maintained the section of the main canal in its area and, in situations such as repairing a headgate, the group worked as a unit. This was also the level in which water was allocated to individual farmers and required labor contributions were tracked."
[Source: Archaeology Southwest ASW 21(4), "Hohokam Archaeology of the Phoenix Basin."]
Then I imagine how these task groups would actually work with real people, and I let various characters play in my head for a while until scenes and plots start to coalesce.
There were hundreds of miles of these canals in the Phoenix area long before the first Europeans stepped foot in the valley. Many of them were so well engineered that modern canals follow the same course.
I had my mother teach me to read when I was four, and I've never stopped. Now I can play with words all day long... it's the best job in the world.
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