Depicting Archaeology In A Novel and Not Making It An Indiana Jones or Lara Croft Adventure
Hey ya’ll, I’m Pam Headrick, owner of A Thirsty Mind Book Design. However, today I’m talking to you as Min Edwards, Author of Contemporary and Romantic Suspense novels. And I’ll soon be changing my hat yet again to encompass Archaeological Adventure stories. I love to read almost everything so why not write it, yes?
As the title of this blog suggests, I’m not a fan of ‘comic book archaeology’ although I’m familiar with some projects which could be categorized that way. I have a BA as well as an MA in Anthropology with specialties in North American Paleo-Indian studies, the archaeology of the frontier, and archaeological illustration. I’ve been passionate about archaeology since I was a pre-teen and my brother brought home from his high school library Gods, Graves and Scholars by C.W. Ceram, the pen name of a former Nazi propagandist. How his book got into our very conservative library in the Texas Panhandle, I’ll never know but I’m glad it did.
I guess as most fields of study were doing during the late 20th century, archaeology was finding its way to modernity. The things I studied and the ‘truths’ I learned at Texas Tech University in the 70s are nothing like the reality of archaeology in the 21st century. For one thing, today archaeology is fearless. We were timid way back then in spouting new theories. The Old Guard held sway. We all aspired to the greatness of finding a gold-filled tomb or a lost city buried in the jungle... and some of us did. But we didn’t step past the established lines of ‘known’ history or pre-history. Interpretation, in my mind anyway, was a little stilted then.
Today you hear almost every day that the ancestors of man are older, there wasn’t a smooth line between early hominids, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. There was overlap, there was—gasp—genetic mixing. Now we’ve found that those of us of European extraction carry from 2-4% Neanderthal genetic material in our genome. Some Melanesians and Australian indigenous folk are a mix of Denosovans (a new name in the hominid chain, at least to me), Neanderthal and Homo sapiens. In addition we all have a tiny bit of an unknown DNA in us... dare I say alien? Okay, maybe not. But the field has really loosened up. We’re not so afraid of stepping on that ‘far-out’ interpretive limb.
Still as a way to support yourself, you’d be better off hiring out to perform entertaining monologues at cocktail parties. Archaeologists can tell great stories but it’s pretty hard to make a living for yourself.
So now, we’re down to the crux of my new conundrum. How do I tell a good story about archaeologists doing what they do? How do I romanticize the day by day drudgery of field work with the occasional whoopee moment without reverting to whips and guns (and Gerard Butler or a younger Harrison Ford)?
And a little story about the drudgery I’m talking about... A few years ago, one of my colleagues was running a project in the Hill Country of Texas in the summer. Right there we see a problem. It’s hot and the rattlesnakes are everywhere. On top of that, the project was examining a cave, and it was the living room of a colony of bats. Not good either. And the excavators for the project were volunteers, enthusiastic but I’m betting this situation wasn’t what they were expecting. So, these people were paying to get a taste of what ‘real’ archaeology was... in a bat cave, in the summer, in the Hill Country, where the surface of their excavation was several meters deep in bat guano... fresh, bug infested, truly nasty. I heard no griping that day from the excavators, bless their hearts, but I think I threw my boots away when I got home... and yes, I griped a lot!
This is real archaeology. Not too much romance to this project. And adventure? Well, I suppose. However, could I build a novel around it? I don’t think so, but it would be a good story to tell at that cocktail party!
I don’t have the final answer to my question yet, how do I make real archaeology thrilling and/or romantic, but I’m researching and writing, coming in to the finish line on the first book in the series. I’ve already added a bit of archaeology to one of my novels, Stone Bay, actually my first novel. The story revolves around the rehab of an old farmhouse, an unstable cave system, and the discovery of a tragedy which took place during the War of 1812. I’ll add a short excerpt from this novel at the end of the blog.
So join me in the next few months when I introduce you to the world of Talon Global and its CEO, Marc Talon, a Renaissance man to be sure. He’s extended his family’s business interests far beyond shipping, to real estate development, environmental research and his newest passion: TARE: Talon Archaeological Research and Exploration.
Let me show you where my thoughts are going though, the authors I love to read and who I think are successful in depicting archaeology.
· Jean Auel, particularly in her novel The Clan of the Cave Bear although the theory behind the novel, the mixing of Neanderthal and Homo sapiens genes, was before its time.
· David Gibbins, he’s an actual archaeologist. His first novel Atlantis introduces the reader to some remarkable technology. I believe he has 8-10 novels in publication.
· Nora Roberts in her novel, Birthright. She did a good job depicting a working archaeological project.
· W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, People of the Earth. These two have many novels in this series, building their stories around tribal histories and what is known of the peoples of North America before the invasion of the Europeans.
· Kirk Mitchell, a veteran law enforcement officer, writes Southwestern mysteries with two protagonists, one an FBI agent, the other a Bureau of Indian Affairs investigator, who solve their cases using modern forensics, often at odds with traditional tribal belief.
· Tony Hillerman and his daughter, Anne Hillerman use Navaho Tribal police as protagonists, but occasionally archaeology and artifacts come to visit the plots. It’s always fun to read about New Mexico and northeastern Arizona anyway.
· James Rollins and his Sigma series. His books aren’t about archaeological sites per se, but his stories touch on past cultures occasionally. He does extensive research, which he outlines in his back matter notes. And his bad guys are soooo bad... his good guys so sigh-worthy
And of course, some interesting websites about archaeology:
· The website of the Texas Archeological Society http://www.txarch.org/
· Maine Archaeological Society http://mainearchsociety.org/
· Maine Historical Preservation Commission http://www.maine.gov/mhpc/archaeology/prehistoric_archaeology.html
· The Smithsonian Magazine http://www.smithsonianmag.com/
· Colorado Archaeological Society http://www.coloradoarchaeology.org/
· Monte Verde, Chile. A Pre-Clovis early site. I illustrated several tools and constructed maps for the multi-volume report. And I held stone tools in my hot little hands which dated far earlier than the post-Ice Age Clovis culture: https://anthropology.net/2008/05/08/earliest-known-archaeological-evidence-of-americans-found-in-monte-verde-chile/
Archaeology Magazine – the publication of Archaeological Institute of America http://www.archaeology.org/
And now a peak at Stone Bay, my debut novel. The theme is the rehab of an old house and what’s found there... Unfortunately when I was rehabbing my own farmhouse I only found inside one of the walls a bound book with lists of supplies sold to some sailing ships in our waters, Cobscook Bay, an arm of the Bay of Fundy. It was dated to the first part of the 19th century. The original owner of my house was a ship’s chandler, one who supplied ships with stores and equipment needed on their journeys. The find was exciting to me, but too bad it wasn’t a box of gold or a journal of British troop movements as Amanda and Kevin found in Stone Bay.
In this scene Kevin and Amanda realize that there might be something else hidden in the cave under Amanda’s house, the cave where they’d found the body and the journal dated 1814 containing British troop movements and the personal thoughts of the American spy.
“Amanda, we need to see what’s behind these rocks. I’m glad we strung work lights in here the other day. Take the camera and get me some ‘before’ photos, would you? Lean that hammer against the wall for scale. Sorry, I know you know how to do this. I’m just a bit excited because I think our friend Peter may have put his ‘treasure’ behind these rock falls. It’s not a very good attempt, but then it didn’t have to be since the cave began to collapse shortly after. Of course he didn’t know that.” Kevin realized he was babbling but couldn’t seem to help himself.
Amanda, taking no offence at Kevin’s instructions, set to work recording their efforts, and in a short time, Kevin had the first pile of rocks carefully removed. There in the wall was a niche, dark but appearing clear of debris.
“Damn, I need a flashlight. I’m not putting my hand inside that hole.”
“You are such a sissy. Wait a minute, I think there’s a flashlight on a shelf in the cellar.”
Amanda quickly retrieved the light, and Kevin shined it into the niche.
“What do you see? Come on, don’t keep me in suspense.” Excitement danced in her eyes and her body twitched as if little arrows of lightning shot through her body.
Kevin laid the light down, and reached in the first cavity, dragging out a canvas bag, a very old and very heavy canvas bag. It was surprisingly devoid of rot, but then the cave was dry and had been for probably centuries or longer. He sat back with the bag in front of him on the floor and looked up at Amanda. “I think we need to call an archaeologist. We need Mark.”
“What? No! This is on my private property. Mark said that the State couldn’t claim anything that’s on my private property. Didn’t he?”
“Calm down. Yes. He said that, and I’m sure he’s correct. But we need him to come look at what we’ve found.”
Min Edwards is the pen name of Pam Headrick, owner of A Thirsty Mind Book Design. She holds advanced degrees in Anthropology with a focus on archaeology and geography as well as geology and art. She’s published four novels in two series: Stone Bay Contemporary Romance and High Tide Romantic Suspense. And later this summer will publish the last (perhaps) novel in the High Tide series, Precious Stone.
You can visit with her or contact her on her website at www.minedwards.com or her business site at www.athristymind.com. Her Amazon Author’s page lists her current titles published in digital and print format, Stone Bay, Stone Cold, Stone Heart and Stone Fall.
You can also find her on social media:
Twitter @ MEdwards Author
Facebook @ Author Min Edwards