Think Like An Archaeologist: Make a Site Plan

When I first started to write this little guest blog for Tracy Morris, I thought it would actually be a pretty short piece. She asked me to write a little something about how my training and background in Anthropology and Archaeology inform my work in science fiction, particularly in world-building.

As I tried to type up this “pretty short piece”, however, I realized I had a lot more to say than anyone would care to read in a single post. The scientific study of humankind is as fundamental and core to my writing and my thought as physics and astronomy are to the writing and thought of Greg Benford–or as linguistics and history were to the writing and thought of J.R.R. Tolkein, if you prefer an example from the fantasy side of the fence.

There is no other similarity between my writing and Benford’s writing, of course, much less Tolkein’s writing. It’s simply that a writer trained in a specialized field will tend to view most of the world through that lens. To a physicist, everything is Physics; to a linguist, everything is Language; to an anthropologist, everything is Anthropology. (We just try to pretend it isn’t at parties, so that people don’t think we’re boring.)

The challenge here is not for me to tell you how anthropology and archaeology in particular shape MY writing, because that would take forever and probably bore you to death. The challenge is to come up with just one little trick from the archaeologist’s tool kit that might be useful in YOUR writing.

Think Like an Archaeologist, Lesson One: Make a Site Plan

If archaeology teaches us one thing above all, it is to develop a sense of Space and a sense of Place. A sense of Space is the knowledge of the physical lay-out of a site, and how the site was divided up and used by the people of the past. A sense of Place is far more difficult to develop, because you have to figure out what the relationship was between the site and the people who used and abused it. What does the site mean?

No matter what kind of site you’re excavating (a sunken ship, an ancient palace, a nomadic campsite, a cemetery, a temple or a lumber camp), one of your primary responsibilities will be to develop a site plan, to get a sense, if you can, of both Space and Place. No matter how bad your art skills—and very few archaeologists are abundantly supplied with artistic talent—at some point you are going to be scribbling on graph paper to record the features in your trench, and poring over a topographical map of your excavation area, sketching in walls and rooms and trying to interpreting the function of the rooms from the artifacts and evidence you collected in each area. Your job is to figure out what the hell was going on, all those years ago, and what meaning can be attached to all this evidence.

Where were the work areas, and what sort of work did people do? Where did they store food, where did they cook, where did they dump trash? Are the figurines you found used for some sort of religious or magical function, or have you found the marks of a baby’s teeth on a favorite toy? These are the questions you ask as you record the location of every fire pit and storage bin, every pile of broken pottery, every skeleton, every stone.

This same exercise can also be extremely useful when you’re writing fiction. This is especially true if your story or novel has a setting which will be persistent for more than one chapter (much less if it will be persistent for a multi-novel series!), and doubly so if there is going to be a lot of action or plot resolution in that space. The classic example in science fiction is the ship, of course—there are a lot of famous shows and films in which a ship is a persistent setting, and week after week and year after year, the drama that unfolds in that setting gives us an enormous sense of both Space and Place.

If you’re going to tell a story of your own that revolves around a ship—whether it is a Viking longboat, a nuclear submarine or a starship popping in and out of wormholes in the distant future—if you think like an archaeologist, you’ll want to spend the time to draw up a clear schematic and deck plans of that ship. No, you don’t have to be Michelangelo or Frank Lloyd Wright. Just try to figure out all the things that an archaeologist would know after excavating a reasonably well-preserved ancient shipwreck.

What are the total dimensions of the ship in length, in width? How long would it take you to run from end to end? How many decks does it have, and how does it move? In ancient times, vessels that depended on human power were designed and built very differently from those that relied on sails, and they had very different functions. Any ship, whether it is driven by oars, wind, propellers or FTL engines, will all have a design that reflects the primary means of propulsion.

What is the function of the ship, and how does the plan of the ship reflect that function? Moreover, how can the same function yield two totally different moods and themes in the same genre? Both the Millennium Falcon and Serenity, the ship in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, were small light freighters built to travel fast and carry a small, high-value cargo. But when you look at them closely, the Millenium Falcon is a smuggler’s Ferrari, while the Firefly is a hard-working little scrapheap by comparison.


The infamous starship Enterprise was a military cruiser, but its internal space was luxuriant; it is a product of a post-scarcity SF universe, and no one ever has to share a bunk or fight for elbow room at a mess table or in the sick bay. The Battlestar Galactica is an aircraft carrier, a much more massive military vessel, but the interiors of that ship are much more claustrophobia, and they scream of scarcity—Galactica is constantly running low on space, supply, and the ability to endure in a thousand different ways.


By the same token, the Red Dwarf and the Nostromo were both mining vessels which ran into unexpected trouble–trouble which cost the lives of all hands except for a single survivor. The formula yields results so incredibly different in the television show Red Dwarf and the film Alien, however, that most people probably would never notice in a million years that the two shared so many elements.


Your sense of Space doesn’t begin and end with a schematic or a deckplan, of course. It’s not just the dimensions and lay out of a space that you think about, but also how it is used. Perhaps What is the relationship between the space you’re creating and the Characters in it? Where does each Character spend the majority of his or her day, and why? Where do people work, where do they sleep, where do they prepare and eat meals? If your ship is a cargo ship, what are they carrying and where/how do they stow the goods? If it’s a passenger ship, what are the accommodations and how does the internal space of the ship reflect the relationship between the passengers and the crew? What arms and defenses are available to the ship, and where are they located? Where and how is the ship vulnerable to accident or attack? What potential disasters are familiar to the crew, and what are their contingency plans to deal with those disasters? What safety equipment is the ship supposed to have–whether it is actually aboard and in serviceable condition or not?

Of course I’m using the example of a ship here because there are so many great vessels in popular SF, but honestly this same basic concept can be applied to any space or place, and any genre of story. If your horror story depends on haunted house, draw up a floor plan. How big is the house, how many floors does it have, how many rooms on each floor, where are the bathrooms, where is the kitchen, where are the entrances and exits? What do you see when you first walk in the door? Which rooms are the ones where bad things are going to happen to the Characters, and what are the features of those rooms?

As an example of how rooms can silently speak of their function, I can pull an example from real life. When I first went to college years ago, I took a room in a Victorian boarding house; for a few decades in the late 1800’s up to the beginning of World War I, this building had served as a hospital. The room two doors down from mine on the third floor had once been the operating theater. Its location in the house and the arrangement of its windows still reflected that function many years later, despite the new wallpaper and the freshly waxed floors. It had been built on the top floor of the house in a large corner room and it had unusually long, wide, high windows in both walls to catch the maximum amount of daylight for as many hours of the day as possible. The windows set high in its walls were weirdly alienating—windows designed not for a person to look out, but to let the light in while a doctor wielded his blade on an etherized victim.

By the same token, if your epic fantasy takes place in a castle, a palace, a fortress or a temple, it might help to make a plan of the grounds and develop a clear idea of how and why this building stands in its present location. If you need help with this, there are probably literally thousands of images on-line which show the floor plans and schematics of castles, palaces, fortresses, churches and temples from hundreds of different cultures and time periods. You can open up your imagination and learn a lot from looking at them and studying both the Space and the Place of real sites. If you can convey clear mental images of your setting to your readers, it will help to immerse them in your world, and makes everything feel much more real and believable.

Monumental buildings in real life inevitably have a lot of practical and symbolic features in their architecture, and they also have important relationships to people and the surrounding terrain. For example, is this building a central feature of a major city, or is it set apart from any major population center?

The Acropolis was a heavily fortified holy mountain standing in the heart of ancient Athens. It was site of the Parthenon (The Temple of Athena the Virginal) and several other sacred buildings. By contrast, the Asclepieion, the most famous healing sanctuary of the ancient world, stood apart from the nearest city at a distance of nearly five miles. At one temple site, the people of the city celebrated themselves and their metropolis; at the other, they were retreating from the world. Both these temple sites, different as they were, emerged from the same religious and cultural tradition. The difference between the two sanctuaries was part of their message to those who worshipped there.


Whether your story is set in a tiny hut or a magnificent mansion, a sprawling city or a cozy little village, your site plan helps you to build a more solid and richer world. Nor is there any limit on how small or how large the plan can be. The reason that so many epic fantasy novels come with hand-drawn maps is that their plots often involve huge swathes of terrain. Armies are on the march, fleets are on the move, cities and castles are under siege, and bands of adventurers struggle for hundreds of miles through a hostile landscape. Where exactly did we leave that entrance to the Tomb of the Spook-Monster? How far is it from the prosperous port city built at the river delta to the sleepy little town at the headwaters, where Your Intrepid Heroine was born?

Once you make your plan, you’ll know.

About Arinn

Author, Game Developer, Anthropologist, Feminist, reformed Supervillainess.
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