Foreword: Jaguar King
Archaeologists—at least some of us—harbor a furtive bit of jealousy for novelists, who can let their imaginations wander in any direction they fancy. It’s not that we don’t have imagination. It takes a daydreamer’s leap to spend years studying something that our parents are convinced is impractical and will never lead to making a living, and flights of conjecture to spin bits of broken artifacts, stains in the soil, and globally dispersed bits of refuse into a coherent (though always somewhat provisional) narrative of the ever-evolving human condition over the last several million years. Yet at the end of the day we must distinguish fact from inference and interpretation from speculation, and conclude our very sober reports with arguments based firmly on data.
Not so the novelist, to whom data often seem irrelevant and who will rarely let a fact get in the way of a good story.
I have read very few— maybe two— works of fiction about archaeology that convinced me that the author knew anything about the field. When I say this in conversation, the response is usually, “Oh, but have you read this.” I say yes, and there’s a moment of silence.
Novelists who envision stories set in the past often do better than those who try to imagine what archaeology is like. However, more often than not they will assert that the story is set in, say, ancient Egypt, throw in a couple of details they probably saw on television, and rely on the reader to fill in other details in his or her mind’s eye, most likely from the same source.
Pat Winter is an exception. She incorporates the fruits of detailed research into her novels, and plays fair with the record. When writing her Madoc novels,* for example, she knew that there was no archaeological evidence of Welsh colonists in North America, so she presented a scenario in which a fast-moving group would leave an ephemeral record almost impossible for archaeology to detect. It is consistent with the facts.
In Jaguar King,** Pat steps into one of the true areas of controversy in North American archaeology: the phenomenon that was Cahokia, the largest settlement of Native North America whose mounds are such a prominent part of the landscape a few miles east of St. Louis. She postulates a connection with Mesoamerica, which is a perennial sore point in archaeological discussion. In the 1970s and earlier, the superficial resemblances in artwork, mounds and village plans between Classic Mesoamerica and the Mississippian culture (of which Cahokia is the premier site) led to an easy assumption that the North American high cultures derived from Mexico. Indeed, direct connections between the Mexican cultures and the American Southwest are indisputable. However, those very data that show the Southwestern connection—copper bells and rubber balls, ball courts, and macaw feathers, for example—are conspicuously missing from the Mississippi Valley and points east. By the 1980s, the lack of hard evidence for Mesoamerican artifacts in the East, and close contextual analysis of Mississippian art that showed cursory similarities but substantial differences in motif and symbol, convinced most of us that the connection was tenuous and indirect at best.
The pendulum may be swinging back. We are perhaps more willing to admit that things happened in the past that we can’t see. Some of us also are expanding our sense of the scale of classical North American societies, and postulating a wider world-consciousness than we might have given Native Americans credit for in the past. When we consider that, in the Old World, the previous global warming period (the Roman Climatic Optimum) was an age of empires and saw the establishment of an economic system that connected the Mediterranean to the Korean peninsula, it is perhaps not so farfetched to think that in the Medieval Climatic Optimum, Mesoamerica became a crossroads of a hemispheric community.
I particularly like that Pat’s scenario doesn’t suggest that Mesoamerican travelers created Cahokia. Instead, she suggests that they came to a Cahokia already building, and already generally aware of a wider world. But Pat’s Mesoamericans arrived at a critical moment, and had the savvy to take advantage of it. At the end of the story, there is another critical moment, a celestial event. The event was known to
historians, but it required a realignment of the Cahokia chronology based on new and more comprehensive data, to correlate what my colleagues recognize as a qualitative acceleration of Cahokia’s development with the astronomical moment.
As Pat Winter details in her author’s note, archaeologists must be cautious and somewhat diffident to mention a coincidence of an occurrence in the sky with an archaeological chronology, let alone to speculate what the human reaction might have been. Here the novelist has the advantage. But for Pat, any advantage taken is grounded in fact, extrapolated into fiction.
Pat’s novels, including Jaguar King, present the most detailed and fully realized reconstruction of later preColumbian Native America that I have seen in fiction. She takes the earth tones and static artifacts that meet the archaeologists’ eyes and adds vibrant colors and vivid motion and emotion. Yet her concern for correctness is evident on every page. For her commitment to accuracy, for playing fair with the archaeological record even while building a living world on top of it, readers who care about the real and the plausible past of the Americas should thank her.
Professor of Archaeology
Murray State University
Part of this Foreward is from a Review by Kit W. Wesler in
Vol. 11, No. 2. Winter 1992
Copyright © 1992 by the Southeastern Archaeological Conference
*Madoc: Book I in the Madioc Saga. PAT WINTER. An Authors Guild BACKINPRINT.COM EDITION, published by iUniverse, 2000, available at Amazon.com. ISBN 0-553-28277-8. Orignally published by Bantam Books, Inc., New York, 1990. 587 pp., illus., biblio. (paper).
*Madoc's Hundred: Book II in the Madioc Saga. PAT WINTER. An Authors Guild BACKINPRINT.COM EDITION, published by iUniverse, 2000, available at Amazon.com. ISBN: 0-595-16536-2. Originally published by Bantam Books, Inc., New York, 1991. 451 pp., illus. (paper).
** Jaguar King, Prequel to the Madoc Saga, published by Booksurge/Createspace. Charleston, S. C., 2007. ISBN: 1-43921240-6, and Amazon Kindle. 550 pp., illus. (paper).