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I've got a fantasy setting set in a world based on the ancient near east ca 500 B.C. In it there are merfolk who have contact and trade with local humans.

The merfolk are physically more similar to Abe Sapien than Ariel, their upper bodies are also covered in scales, they are more piscine than mammalian and they have gills. They can stay out of water for up to 10 hours but have very limited mobility on land due to having a tail instead of legs.

Since creating stuff that you can use to carry other things inside is a very vital part of technology I want to know if merfolk would depend on humans for pottery and other things used as containers and vessels, or if they could make them on their own. If so, I would want to hear some ideas on how.

The reason I came to ask this question was actually because I had been thinking about how merfolk would deal with waste, and came to the conclusion that they would store it somewhere before dumping onto sea plants as fertilizer or throw it into a landfill to be eaten by fish and crustaceans domesticated for the purpose of waste disposal. But I'm not sure what material the container would be made of, and if the merfolk could produce it on their own.

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  • $\begingroup$ You really might consider excising the question about waste handling. That's really a separate issue, and well worth being it's own question! Also, as I'm sure you're aware, SE is a "one question at a time" Q&A forum. No two for the price of one here! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Aug 9 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ Storing waste underwater may be very impractical and troublesome. Filtering systems with bacteria, bottom-feeders, and plants might be a much better solution. Moreover, it can be realised both on small and big scales. Check how aquarists deal with fish waste. If you ask a separate question about waste management I will try to write an answer elaborating on this idea. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 9 at 5:09
  • $\begingroup$ Merfolk would probably be able to "make" pottery by farming crabs, clams, and other shellfish. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Aug 9 at 18:54
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Basic Basketry
Merfolk live in areas rich in a variety of aquatic flora. Seaweed. Just harvest and weave! Results will be much like a grass basket the terrestrial folks make.

enter image description here

Because of the fluid nature of the medium merfolk inhabit, I suspect their baskets won't be quite as rigid as the cornu shown, and unlike terrestrial baskets, oceanic basketry can't be kept dry. I suspect something like this net bag would come in handy. I also suspect that merfolk would make use of various kinds of flotsam that comes their way --- fishing nets (always a hazard!), bits of sailcloth, rope, their own super long tresses and perhaps even the hair of distressedly drowned maidens & ordinarily drowned sailors.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoting just for the delightfully practical example of underwater basket weaving. $\endgroup$
    – Cooper
    Aug 9 at 16:29
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Dead coral

I'm voting for carving pottery out of dead coral. Heat is available in the oceans, but spinning clay in a water environment doesn't work for me. But carving it out of coral does. I can imagine your merfolk specializing in "coral forestry" to create viable fields of source material.

But I think you do have a problem if we need to, for example, store toxic fluids in a fluid environment. What analogy do we have in the human world of carrying a gas in a gas (atmospheric) environment? A balloon is all that's coming to mind. We store lots of gaseous items as liquids (propane, oxygen...) but we have little reason to store a gas in gaseous form.

But your merfolk would need to store fluids in a fluid (atmospheric) environment. They'd have a similar problem. Just as we can't "pour a gas" into a container, they'd have trouble "pouring a fluid" into a container. So the coral pottery would be nice for storing solid things (hair pins... knives... gold...) they wouldn't be useful for storing, as an example, food.

So, I'll conclude with an idea that your merfolk would likely also specialize in nets, which would be better for holding food. And I wonder if they wouldn't treat fluid waste in the same way we treat gaseous waste... to ignore it or to filter it? The coral might be very good for creating filters.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer! Also somewhat unrelated but do you think merfolk using animals to dispose of waste could be plausible? Like dumping waste into a pit where crustaceans and fish are kept for eating waste. $\endgroup$ Aug 8 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ @BoaHancocklover -- Bottomfeeders eat anything and everything from shit to carcasses. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Aug 8 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ How would coral filter waste? I don't quite understand how that would work. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ @BoaHancocklover Dead coral, if I recall correctly, is porous. That means it could filter things. You're chasing some cool ideas, but remember that water ain't air. Animals aren't your problem, there are whales that make elephants look like chimps when it comes to weight-hauling capacity. But how to keep that waste contained during transport? How to overcome buoyancy in the water? Can you give me/us an example of the kind of waste you're dealing with? Because hauling even dirt will be a pain underwater (which is why humans use vacuums). $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 0:34
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A small variation on JBH’s answer: Live coral for storage, and live sponges for waste excretion.

The merfolk would grow corals to their desired shape with careful training and pruning, selecting different species depending on desired thickness, tightness of the mesh, growth speed etc. This gives you the ability to force much larger continuous surfaces than what naturally occurs, and pretty much any shape that you want. Once the desired size and shape is reached, they could harvest the coral by cutting it and drying it out (which allows them to further carve or smoothen the surface), or keep it alive and slowly growing while using it as a rougher container. Note that this is a slow and specialised process and you’d have skilled “coral craftsmen” tending to their “forests”.

Many sponges, otoh, already look like tubes or barrels - why not use them? Dead, they’re a bit too brittle (although there may be suitable species) and alive, the micro-organisms in their walls produce a constant water flow through the walls and out of the mouth of the tube - spitting out anything you put inside: not ideal! However, if you carefully grow/train your sponges to point away from your settlement, then pile up your waste just outside them, they will actively filter it through their walls (eating up anything worth metabolising) and then conveniently funnel it out into the deep. Assuming your merfolk’s waste is pretty juicy, I can imagine you’d be able to cultivate and sustain abnormally long sponges that act almost like pipes.

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Natural plastics

Did you know you can make a kind of plastic by curdling milk in the right way? Merpeople could be milking marine mammals and putting the milk in an acidic environment to rapidly curdle it while molding it into the desired shape.

Roman concrete

It's often called marine concrete because it was used to make structures in seawater and doesn't deteriorate there like modern concrete would. If your merpeople have access to volcanic ash they could mix up roman concrete, which can set entirely underwater, and make pots and containers with it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I can't imagine how you would milk a creature while being underwater. $\endgroup$
    – Toddleson
    Aug 9 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Toddleson Empty stretchy container inside a rigid container, then underpressure the inside of the rigid container? $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 9 at 15:50
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Stone jars.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plain_of_Jars

stone jar

More than 90 jar sites have been identified in Xiangkhouang Province. Each site has from one to 400 stone jars. The jars vary in height and diameter between 1 m and 3 m and are all hewn from rock... Several quarry sites have been recorded, usually close to the jar sites. Five rock types have been identified: sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia. The majority of the jars are sandstone.

Your merfolk carve vessels out of stone. Maybe some vessels smaller than these.

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Yes. Merfolk can create their own pottery with any kind of hydraulic cement (that is cement that can cure in water). Roman quicklime is one example, but there are many other hydraulic cement recipes from other cultures and eras.

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  • $\begingroup$ Would they need to obtain it from humans? $\endgroup$ Aug 8 at 23:49
  • $\begingroup$ The ingredients for quicklime are : volcanic ash, lime, and dirt. All three could be harvested by Merfolk on their own, but since volcanic ash would quickly dissolve in water, Merfolk would either harvest it themselves from the surface and keep it in dry containers or let it dissolve and keep the high concentration solution in containers. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ Looks like the lime has to be heated. $\endgroup$ Aug 9 at 0:26
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Giant Clam shells

Image credit: Wikipedia

These would be abundant enough in the sea. This picture may be an extreme example, but they come in all sizes from compact-mirror up to large suitcase. They have a natural hinge in the back, all you'd really have to do is attach some ropes like a purse string to carry it with you, and maybe a clasp to keep it closed.

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