Friday, September 14, 2007

The Friday Challenge

Well, that was a rough week. My First Rule crisis has passed — or at least, has been managed, at least until Monday. In the meantime the winner of last week's Friday Challenge, and the highly sought-after copy of either Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2, is AJW308, who came up with the completely unexpected innovation of writing and publishing an entire short story in the form of a series of Haloscan comments. Who needs ANALOG when you've got Blogspot?

Honorable Mention goes to DaveD, who came up with an idea that could probably be fluffed out into an entire novel for Tor. I hadn't envisioned awarding anything other than first prizes, so I'm at a loss. If First Prize is a signed copy of Rebel Moon, should Second Place be two copies?

In any event, winners, email me to arrange delivery of your prize or to select one of the alternates.

This week's challenge comes out of a book on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican history that I was reading before things hit the fan. In particular, I was in the midst of a chapter on the Olmecs, when it occurred to me that these were a people who had disappeared more than two thousand years ago, leaving behind no known written records other than the untranslatable Cascajal Block and a few calendars that may actually have been carved centuries later by the Mayans. Even the Olmec name is a suspect; the word "olmec" is actually from the Aztec language, and is simply the name the Aztecs applied to the people who came before them.

Given these simple facts, then, how was it that the authors of the book I was reading were able to provide such detailed descriptions of the meaning and use of so many Olmec figurines and sculptures? For example, this terra-cotta creation, which the authors assured me represented a shaman performing a magical somersault by which he transformed himself into a jaguar?

Or this tubby little spud, which was "probably dressed in male or female costumes" and revered as a household god?

Or this "infant werejaguar" who seems to be getting ready to hurl?

And what about this surly little bugger? Does this really look like the face of a household protective spirit to you?

That's when I got the idea for this week's Friday Challenge. Ready? Here it comes.

It is the year 5029, although you don't know that. By your reckoning it's the year 1872, and you are an eminent archaeologist exploring the ruins left behind by the Nacirema culture. These long-vanished people apparently had no writing, but left behind many artifacts, which years of patient and careful excavation have brought to the light of day once again. Then one day you make an astounding discovery; a Nacirema burial mound, untouched and unlooted after all these millennia! Delving into the mound, carefully logging the exact depth and position of each piece, you find four amazing artifacts, and after months of study, you prepare to publish your findings revealing the religious meaning and ritual use of these objects. Along with your study, you carefully prepare four full-color plates with which you will reveal your discoveries to the world. These plates are:

Plate I

Plate II

Plate III

Plate IV

And now the challenge. What, in your esteemed and highly educated scientific opinion, is of the meaning and use of each of these fascinating Nacirema artifacts?

As always, the prize is either a signed copy of Rebel Moon or what's behind Door #2, and you have until next Friday to post your entry. Ready? Set? Go!