“Moments in history”? It sounds like an essay question on an SAT exam!
How about the stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe, one of the inspirations for the King’s Jar in my new mystery? The archaeological site in what is now Zimbabwe (the country was named for the site and not the reverse) consists of an extensive, connected series of walled enclosures and remains of other structures surrounding them. It was built on a high plateau somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries, Modern researchers have revised upward the likely number of people who lived there as they have – reluctantly at times – acknowledged that the site is evidence of a thriving, large town, perhaps a city-state. When Westerners first saw it, with typical 19th century hubris they hypothesized that it must have been non-Africans who built it since Africans were primitives. That arrogance continued well into the 20th century, with the white government of Rhodesia, for political reasons, actually pressuring scientists to say it wasn’t built by black Africans.
I was looking for a treasure worthy of being stolen in my book, and wanted an African one. The controversy about the degree to which sub-Saharan Africans had been able to create relatively sophisticated indigenous cultures as China and the West had by the 12th century led me to wonder what might prove the parallel development of societies. I started with the idea of an African artifact, but settled on the King’s Jar because it would show that the Africans not only had their own civilization but that they had high level (ruler to ruler) relations with China’s Late Song Dynasty. The imaginary jar in my story is clearly Late Song Dynasty made for royalty – the only ones allowed to possess the celadon-glazed pieces – and has a startling feature: an African white, one-horned rhino modeled on its lid. I gave my researcher a distinguished career for finding it and for convincingly interpreting its importance as proof of this African kingdom’s ongoing, mutually respectful relations with Chinese ocean-going traders.
Great Zimbabwe doesn’t appear in The King’s Jar. I’ve sketched a similar site farther north on the continent. Heck, I even created a new country, Kenobia, which has a nice ring to it, I think. But within all that fiction, I am making at least one point about a moment in history. Scientists today are much more broadly educated, but in 1871, when the German geologist Carl Mauch saw Great Zimbabwe, he was a prisoner of his age’s biases. As Graham Connah writes in African Civilizations, it would be a century before the unfortunate mythology of non-African creators of Great Zimbabwe would finally be exposed, and the real study of this site could begin.
Couldn't copy and paste it but here's a wonderful example from the Metropolitan Museum that is so close to my vision for The King's Jar: