How do I make an ancient culture without borrowing from known ancient cultures?

Blake Steel 07/11/2018. 9 answers, 4.534 views
civilization worldbuilding-process ancient-history

Everywhere I've looked, the way we traditionally make a civilization or society feel ancient is by applying ages or architectures from our own history, hence my term "bronzification." A similar problem occurs with Aztec or Mayan structures.

Are there more subtle ways to make your audience feel like the civilization or society is ancient? Certain art styles, colors, legends, etc?

Specifically, looking for aspects about the civilization, not how to describe it.

The setting I'm basing my question off of is very Tolkien-esque and I'm trying to work in a long-dead culture, but I'm not wanting to take from common or traditional "ancient" cultures, while still creating a civilization that feels ancient to the audience.

9 Answers


Erin Thursby 07/16/2018 at 06:27.

There is no universal color or art style that would indicate that something is ancient.

Old stuff would look old. There would be decay.

It would be different than what's current.

Now that you have a Medieval-type world with magic, you've narrowed the question and opened up possibilities.

1) Their understanding of magic was different. Some of their old spells still stand, preserving old places. There might still be a building standing, no roof, things growing everywhere inside, but a beautifully maintained fountain.

Example description: Using detect magic, you can see that it's some kind of combined preservation and constant cleaning spell, more complex than anything you've ever seen. There are bits of the magic clinging to parts of the room, and in those places, you see gleaming bright purple tile, crumbling walls standing when they ought to have fallen many hundreds of years ago, next to foliage growing through, and even, a giant oak. The branches shadow the space, replacing the ceiling with sky and greenery. The magic is strongest at the fountain in the center of the room. The fountain looks as though it had been built yesterday, with the bright purple and white tiles and crisp, clear water. --This description uses the setting and the things that have grown there to establish that it's old--oaks take a while to grow, and with the magic slowing the decay, the characters have no real way of knowing how old exactly it is, but it gives the impression of age. Show the decay and use magic liberally as part of the setting. Even if they can't detect magic, the old tree is a great establisher of age.

2) Have the characters discover things that they have no idea what they are used for. They might have all traveled by floating discs at high speed. But the characters don't know that, they just see all these now non-magical discs scattered all around the city. Essentially they were cars/transport. Don't EXPLAIN everything to the characters. Leave an air of mystery. Describe objects that you know what the civilization used them for but that any outsider coming in a hundred years later would not know. Discs are one idea, could be anything.

3) Fashion. Scrolls or wall art might also be magically maintained so that you have pieces of the culture right the heck there and in full color. As to how they dress, if that's depicted--just make it something strange to the current folk. So, like those cone hats from Medieval times, or the super curly-toed shoes--those are pretty dang weird to us, so you have the option of making up some bit of fashion frippery that isn't common to your "modern" folk. Can be anything. Painted nails, chains from the earrings to nose rings, a lack of pants, wearing only pasties, wearing the largest shoulder pads possible, jackets made only of spikes, and so on. Depends on the actual feel of your culture as to what they might do and that's up to you.

4) Colors. So for Egypt, we have something called Egyptian blue. It's the signature color of Egypt, and one of the earliest pigments. Your civilization can have its own signature color or even a combination of colors. It can be any color. Or any combination of colors.

5) Things are lost. For a lot of old cultures that were looked at by Medieval times, they were looked at with a sense of wonder...The Romans weren't that long ago, and yet, they knew how to engineer and do things that people of Medieval times just couldn't do, especially a few hundred years in. The Dark Ages, Medieval times, whatever you want to call them, ARE in fact the inspiration for Tolkien's world, so you can echo that by a sense of wonder at older civilizations--the secret for greek fire, lost mostly, architecturally the way the Romans built pretty much everything--lost for hundreds of years...My point is, there's the way we in the 21st century look at the Greeks and the Romans, and there's the way the Medieval culture looked back at them, and it was totally different. We've found remnants of gear-driven stuff in Greece, advanced clocks, things of that nature. And they had plumbing in the Roman towns--something that totally went out the window a few hundred years later.

6) New can be old. Ok. Modern day. Imagine an apocalypse. Now imagine that the society builds back up to Tolkien levels, and magic is introduced. What components of our civilization would survive 300 or 1,000 years later? It would be ancient from the perspective of the people. The thing most likely to survive might well be plastic.

7) Legends. I'm not going to give you legends. You have to figure out both the cultural tilt of the current society and what their own lore and modern stories are told vs. how their viewpoint might shape whatever is left of the old society. The old society might have a pantheon, or they might have believed in no god at all, or that there was one god, watching, and it was important to give that god a good show or the god would destroy the world. That's one idea. I am sure you have ideas of your own that are not mine. Greek and Roman myths survived because priests of the Christian religion wrote the pagan myths down. There's no way to know what was lost or gained in these stories.

8) Ask: Is your civilization iconic or mostly unknown? Government, religion, fashion, and morals might not be directly on display in a way that the characters understand. Picture a mural of senators debating from Roman times. Now, what if you didn't know they were debating? What if you didn't know they were senators? What conclusions might you draw? For us in our world, the Roman senate has culturally served as a model for some of our art. We recognize it instantly. So the question is, has any part of the culture become a cultural touchstone for the "modern Tolkien culture"? Or is it totally undiscovered? With no part of its stories and lore passed down, how it's seen will depend on this factor. We know a little something about the Greeks and Romans because of books which were written and copied. We know less about the Aztecs because their stories weren't passed down as much. Mostly, we have to guess. Decide how much and what parts of the old culture has influenced the new, and how much might be open to misinterpretation. Like Regency France was influenced by classical Greek sculpture, so you might see gowns there following some of the same lines. Therefore--put it in one of two categories a) An iconic ancient culture (ie Egypt) or b) A super mysterious culture that's known but hasn't had an appreciable cultural impact on the world (Aztecs). Now an iconic culture can still have plenty of mystery (the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians certainly do) but they might have bestowed some recognizable ideas and fashion on the world. There are some I consider in between--I think Celtic, in my eyes at least, is a good example of an ancient culture squarely in between the two. Lots of what we think we know of them is largely conjecture, but much of their iconography has had a cultural impact.


Willk 07/11/2018.

Make it seem old by incorporating relics that are even older.

May I recommend the master, H.P.Lovecraft. He does a great job in The Shadow Out of Time. This suits your purposes too because both alien races are utterly inhuman.

In certain places I beheld enormous dark cylindrical towers which climbed far above any of the other structures. These appeared to be of a totally unique nature, and shewed signs of prodigious age and dilapidation. They were built of a bizarre type of square-cut basalt masonry, and tapered slightly toward their rounded tops. Nowhere in any of them could the least traces of windows or other apertures save huge doors be found. I noticed also some lower buildings—all crumbling with the weathering of aeons—which resembled these dark cylindrical towers in basic architecture. Around all these aberrant piles of square-cut masonry there hovered an inexplicable aura of menace and concentrated fear, like that bred by the sealed trap-doors.

The city of the Great Race (in which the narrator is a guest) is very old. But within it are relics of something much older - things from the race of beings that were on the earth when the Great Race arrived from space. These old things were driven down into the earth by the newcomers, and the new cities built on the old. The presence of these ancient, ominous things in the new city is excellent in the story and also well suited to a D&D campaign. The city of the Great Race itself is very old, but within it are relics of something much older. Relics that the current inhabitants are reluctant to discuss...


JBH 07/11/2018.

Let's look at what we have to work with

  • Tools (overused)
  • Weapons (overused)
  • Architecture (overused)
  • Fabric (both material composition and weaving tech)
  • Dyes & Pigments (both how they were manufactured and how they were used)
  • Ceramics (both tech and aesthetic design)
  • Social mores (Aztec child sacrifice to Greek burial practices to make Charon happy, lots of superstition)
  • Government (generally tribal or feudal)
  • Medical (remember that "barber surgeon" is a medieval concept, it was worse in the Bronze Age)
  • Transport (lots of chariots, not a lot of suspension, did they have 2-axel wagons back then?)

There are a million ways to avoid using the tried-and-true metallurgy and architecture-based descriptions of bronze-age peoples. After creating this list, I'm especially fond of the dyes & pigments.

And as a side note... a lot of this will depend on how your characters react to these things. That is off-topic here, but if your characters act like it's ancient, your reader will believe it's ancient.


Cort Ammon 07/12/2018.

You are putting yourself in a bind. What does "ancient" mean? If the answer is "An ancient culture is one that's a lot like the real life ancient cultures," then there will be no way to create an "ancient culture" without making it a lot like real life ancient cultures.

If you expect your readers to use a different definition of "ancient" then we might be able to work with it. It depends on what "ancient" should mean.

One thing I associate with ancient cultures is a lack of book learning. The idea that you can learn something by going to school is relatively new. The more you look in the past, the more you see learning by doing. An "ancient" culture should have that feel.

An "ancient" culture does not have modern science. We have a particular way of viewing the world through science's lens which is taught to us from a very young age. It's what has become what we mean when we say "objective." A culture will not feel ancient if it has our modern scientific objective feel. That being said, it should be self-sufficient. One of the reasons ancient cultures had to many gods and legends and such is because they were part of a self-sufficient fabric which held people's lives together. If you need strong people to fight wars and work the field, you don't have a doctrine built around BMI and whey powders. You have the legends of great strong people which have some hints as to how to become strong wedded into the story.

Ancient governments were typically much less centralized than ours are. It's hard to manage governments the way we do today without modern communications. You'll see more decentralization as a result.

But all of these are just aspects of what I associate with the word "ancient." Your first job is to figure out what you mean, without using the word itself. An internet-stranger will never be able to second guess what you mean by "'ancient,' but not the way we usually think of 'anicent.'"


Paul TIKI 07/11/2018.

The easiest way, in my mind is to simply erode things. You have already decided certain things about the "ancient society" and what level it reached. So decide what would happen to the common materials used if not maintained over time and climate. A large concrete and steel structure in a very dry climate might suffer from wind erosion. Windows would likely break to some degree. Edges would blunt, dust would drift in. More humid areas would breakdown faster. It all depends on the materials used, of course. Stone will last a lot longer than wood. Steel can rust, Reinforced concrete will crumble.

Colors would be kind of a non issue, except for the natural breakdown of paint pigment. Yellows and pure reds fade. In addition, surfaces will get muted with dust and dirt.

Legends can be whatever you want, really. How much knowledge passed from one civilization to the next?


lly 07/12/2018.

Everywhere I've looked, the way we traditionally make a civilization or society feel ancient is by... "bronzification."

Are there more subtle ways to make your audience feel like the civilization or society is ancient? Certain art styles, colors, legends, etc?

Specifically, looking for aspects about the civilization, not how to describe it.

Without getting into what happens if you add in Tolkienesque races and sticking only with humans,

war never changes. Technology and social organization change.

Before the development of intensive sources of food (for us, farming; for magicians, maybe something else), (a) you're not going to have the manpower for large-scale construction or supporting the development of advanced technology and (b) you're not going to have much of an ability to organize it, since you're not going to have any way for assholes with weapons to keep most of their slaves from running off. You could probably get some simple heavy things built by people following their priests.

These guys aren't going to leave much. Their homes would've been in mud, thatch, bamboo, wood, &c.: easily raised, easily infested, easily burnt, easily left, and only detectable to our society by, e.g., advanced imaging and meticulous interest in former postholes.

You could think of monumental astrological or religious structures they would be able to erect and then pointedly try to avoid, e.g., Stonehenge, the Nazca lines, burial mounds, and other things people actually made. The fantasy trope would be for them to be Maerë Su nature mages, tending enormous groves of inhabited or sacred trees. You could have them leave their marks in stone: something like Mt Sipylus could actually record their faces instead of just being thought to.

If magic gave them control over metal, stone, &c. you could see great idiosyncratic or clan-based manifestations instead of

what you get after farming, when the assholes with weapons can commandeer the food supply necessary for almost everyone in the society. At that point, they like to erect giant monuments, tombs, and temples attesting to their complete awesomeness and that will almost always involve something that looks like some culture somewhere. You've got your friezes and your statues and your arches and your obelisks and your pillars and your ziggurats and your temples and your remains of temples and your palaces and your massive gardens and your menageries &c. &c. &c.

Note that if you had truly abundant food, available anywhere with no or little delay, society itself would have evolved in an entirely different way. At a high enough tech level, though, it's still going to make sense for people to specialize and use specialized tools and structures.

In either case, you're always going to see remains of defensive works of some sort, along with mass graves at battle sites and occasional caches of weapons, whatever they were.

What's going to make your society feel old is

  • 1, that people don't really have any good history for it and subscribe to multiple (and mutually exclusive) legends; and

  • 2, that its remains have become changed, broken, or obscured with time.

You start out there, with the Rosetta Stone of the Mighty Skywalkers of Uberia being used as a tavern countertop or outhouse toilet seat, even if your character becomes a linguist and realizes (whilst enthroned) that the Suttish on the left means he can read the repetitive decorations on the right as ideographs... that in fact the Skywalkers spoke an early form of Troglodytish and he can now read thousands upon thousands of years of their records.

This still works even if you have magic providing something utterly impossible to our historic Bronze Age cultures like leaving their mark in genetic code. If, e.g., some megalomaniacal king reshaped his entire population (male and female) to have his own face, you could show the antiquity of the civilization by noting how different they now appear, with some villages no longer bearing their age-old unibrows or harelips and being able to finally attract new mates from other regions, improving their appearance still more. Ditto with the devotees of the bird god Faginow now being largely beakless, their feathers having molted for the last time eons hence.


ArtB 07/12/2018.

History and Anthropology

Look at the common elements across ancient civilizations. Elements that are reoccurring are likely to appear in any new civilization discovered. Therefore, they would be at home in any new civilization you create. God kings. Burial mounds. Polytheis with warring gods. Animal sacrifice. Origin myths. Taxes. Priest caste with astronomy used for religious and agricultural use.


ironduke97 07/12/2018.

Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time does a great job of evoking this feeling. Throughout each of his books, multiple references are made to the "Age of Legends", over 3000 years ago by the timeline of the book. Characters in the book keep stating that in the "Age of Legends", things were possible that were only dreamed of 3000 years since.

If you want to make your civilization feel mystical and ancient, read at least some of the Wheel of Time series. It'll give you a good idea of what to do.


Brythan 07/12/2018.

Consider what "bronzification" really means. It's essentially saying that they made a bunch of things out of bronze that modernly we'd make out of steel or plastic. That's why bronze seems old to you, because we've found better alternatives.

To make your own bronze without making your world a copy of our world, look for things that could be recently discovered. Then you can have your characters ask why they made the widget out of chipped stone rather than glazed clay, and another character can point out that they only discovered glazed clay fifty years ago. Now, that's still a historical example. It's just history that is a bit older than normal. It's the Flint Age rather than the Bronze Age.

If you want to make it non-historical, consider incorporating magic. So the modern way isn't better steel crafting. Instead, a wizard makes star metal (which might be steel). Perhaps they don't know about forges at all. Instead of smiths, wizards make all things metal. Before that, what did they use as weapons? Make up your own history of magic and show how the ancients are doing things in the old ways.

Also note how steampunk extends the Steam Age to places where it wasn't used historically. Your ancient civilization might be flintpunk. Perhaps they built a mighty castle by first finding a gigantic stone and then hollowing it out.

I don't mean to imply that flint is the only possibility. It's an example. Wood would be another example. Animal hides rather than plant fiber clothes.

Anyway, my main suggestion is to use your characters to give the impression of ancientness. Because they perceive the civilization as ancient so will your readers. Have your characters ask why they didn't just use steel, brick, or cotton. Have another character explain how new those concepts really are. Or even better for a fantasy novel, make it new versus old versions of magic.

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