We Could Learn From Digging Down*

Archaeoloists and AnthropologistsA recent article I read reported on the discovery of the 430,000-year-old remains of a murder victim in a cave in Spain. One of the things this finding suggests is that people have been killing one another for a very, very long time. That violent aspect of human nature is (at least) another post in itself.

Another thing that the article made clear is that modern science can reveal a great deal about ancient life – but not everything. In this case, experts have established how the victim was probably killed, and what the likely weapon might have been. But with an ancient murder like that, there’s no way to tell who the killer was or what the motive was. We can suppose, but there’s no longer any evidence to bear on those matters.

And in real life, that’s the sort of unanswered question that forensic archaeologists often face. How does that translate into crime fiction? After all, crime fiction fans usually want answers to the who/how/whydunnit questions that come up in a novel. Not every tiny thread needs to be knotted, but most fans want to know what’s behind a murder.

Some authors manage that balance by writing about murders that aren’t so ancient. For instance, Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist whose main interest when the series starts is the study of ancient human remains and fossils. He’s very good at what he does, and in Fellowship of Fear, that skill helps him solve a very modern mystery involving international intrigue and espionage. In Twenty Blue Devils, he is called to Tahiti to help solve the murder of coffee plantation manager Brian Scott. Oliver has the skills to make very solid deductions about ancient remains. But the murders he investigates are recent enough that he can also draw conclusions about motives and so forth as well.

Simon Beckett’s David Hunter is also a forensic anthropologist. When the series featuring him begins (with The Chemistry of Death), he’s given up his work in forensics and become a small-town doctor in the village of Manham. But he’s drawn back into the profession when one of the town’s residents, Sally Poole, is found brutally murdered. Hunter is somewhat of an outsider, since he’s only been in town for three years. So a certain amount of suspicion comes his way. Then, another woman goes missing. Hunter works with the police both to clear his own name and to find the killer before there’s another victim. In this novel, as well as in the other novels in this series, Hunter investigates murders that are modern enough so that witnesses can be interviewed and so on. The same is true of Kathy Reichs’ Temperence ‘Tempe’ Brennan novels.

What about fictional murders that take place in the more distant past? How can an author credibly ‘fill in the gaps’ as to killer, motive and the like? One way is to use letters, diary entries and other written records. Humans have been using written symbols for many thousands of years, so it’s logical a forensic anthropologist or archaeologist might use those records. That’s what Beverly Connor’s Lindsay Chamberlain does. Chamberlain is a University of Georgia forensic anthropologist whose specialty is archaeology. Beginning with A Rumor of Bones, Chamberlain investigates old (sometimes very old) murders as well as newer murders. She certainly uses forensics clues such as skeletal evidence. But she also uses clues such as diary entries to piece together the whole story of even an ancient murder. Kill Site, which hasn’t been published yet, will focus on a Paleo-Indian dig site. Many Native American nations don’t have what we generally think of as written languages, so it’ll be very interesting to see how Connor approaches that story.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that Galloway is a forensic archaeologist associated with the University of North Norfolk. As such, she is interested in ancient sites, and is skilled at reading the stories that remains have to tell. In The Crossing Places, for instance, she uses her knowledge and skills to determine that some newly-discovered bones are not the remains of Lucy Downey, whose disappearance DCI Harry Nelson is investigating. Instead, the bones belong to a girl from the Iron Age, and they suggest all sorts of interesting lines of research for Galloway. At the same time, she also gets caught up in Lucy’s disappearance and investigates that as well as the disappearance of Scarlet Henderson, who’s just recently gone missing. This novel doesn’t tell the reader who the Iron Age girl really was, what her family was like or precisely why she died. Instead, the focus is more on the modern cases. Yet, a lot is suggested by the original discovery, and I can say without spoiling the story that Galloway draws some interesting conclusions based on those ancient remains. Her conclusions are realistic, though.

Some authors, such as Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, take another approach to telling stories of ancient murders. In their Anasazi trilogy, for instance, there are actually two plot lines. One concerns archaeologist William ‘Dusty’ Stewart, who takes a team on a dig in New Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. His goal is to find out more about the Anasazi people who lived in that desert’s Chaco Canyon. When he and his team discover the remains of eight women who seem to have been buried in a mass grave, forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole joins the group. Her role will be to study the remains and try to establish how the women died. There isn’t much evidence to suggest who the women were or why they died. But both Cole and Stewart use their skills, as well as what they know about that period of time, to deduce what probably happened. The other plot line ‘fills in the gaps’ about those deaths. It’s the story of 13th Century Anasazi War Chief Browser and his deputy and closest friend Catkin. When they discover an unexpected body in a gravesite intended for Browser’s son, they start to ask questions. Then there’s another attack. Now it seems that a very dangerous force is at work among the Anasazi, and Browser and Catkin work to find out the truth. In this case, the modern-day scientists don’t really have letter, diaries or other written evidence; and they certainly can’t interview suspects or witnesses. So the authors chose to tell the story from the perspective of someone who might have been able to talk to witnesses and suspects. It’s a dual timeline approach, and admittedly, we can’t know precisely what one 13th-Century member of this group might have said to another. But it’s credible because the story is based on things that we do know.

Authors who choose to tell stories of ancient murders do face the challenge of finding credible ways to solve them. There are certainly different approaches to meeting that challenge in a plausible way. It’s interesting to see how authors go about it. Oh, and in an interesting note, Elkins, Reichs, Connor and both Gears are or have been professional archaeologists or anthropologists. It’s fascinating to watch as they weave their experiences into their stories.

ps. I can’t help but think that the late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke would have found this latest discovery to be really interesting. I wish she were here to read up on it…MC


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s Traffic in the Sky.




Filed under Aaron Elkins, Beverly Connor, Elly Griffiths, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Kathy Reichs, Simon Beckett, W. Michael Gear

20 responses to “We Could Learn From Digging Down*

  1. I was just musing along similar lines when I read that news article… but you put it so much better than me – and with lots of additional crime fiction examples.

    • Synchronicity, Marina Sofia… And isn’t it absolutely fascinating news? As soon as I read it, it began to get me thinking. I wonder what sort of things we’ll learn next. I truly do wish Maxine could have been here for this; I’d have loved to get her read on it.

  2. Very interesting post, Margot. Val McDermid’s recent standalone novel, The Skeleton Road, also deploys forensics in the solving of (recent) past crimes, as well as examining their use in war crimes investigations. Fascinating, if also tragic.

    • Thanks, Angela. The McDermid is definitely a good example of what I had in mind with this post, so I’m glad you filled in that gap. I think it’s absolutely fascinating what someone skilled in archaeology and/or anthropology can learn from a set of remains.

  3. The recent Val McDermid was the one that sprang to my mind too. And in real life, the recent hoohah over the skeleton of Richard III has been interesting, seeing how much they could tell about his physical condition and the wounds that killed him.

    • I thought about the Richard III case too, FictionFan. I think it’s absolutely fascinating; I really do. And I’m glad you and Angela filled in the gap I left with the McDermid. It really does fit well with this topic.

  4. I always liked how Anthony Price in spy fiction and Ross Macdonald in the PI genre managed to tie the past with the present – Kate Ellis has written several mysteries combining crime and archaeology which I really want to try – thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – You’re right about Price and Macdonald; both do a great job of weaving past and present together. And I’m glad you mentioned Kate Ellis, too. I’ve been wanting to spotlight one of her books and just haven’t yet. I appreciate the nudge.

  5. I do find this subject fascinating which is why I enjoy the Ellie Griffiths books and those by Kate Rhodes, this combination works so well as long as the author creates a plausible mystery to work with the forensics.

    • You make a well-taken point, Cleo. The premise has to be plausible for the mystery to work. But given that, I really like archaeology/anthropology in a novel. I think Griffiths does it very, very well. Rhodes’ work is quite good too.

  6. Col

    I’m unfamiliar with any of the authors in your examples and TBR pile as it is, I’ll have to remain that way.

  7. Fascinating post, Margot! I love the idea of using diary entries to experience how the victim lived and died. It seems like by using that technique it would make her/him more real and, thus, his/her death all that more powerful. I may have to try that in my next book. Thanks for the idea!

    BTW, are you aware your Twitter handle is no longer linked? It says @wordpress, and has for a while. Sorry. I kept forgetting to tell you. To fix, it might just be a matter of unlinking and relinking your account to Twitter.

    • Thanks, Sue, for letting me know about the Twitter. I’ll see what’s going on there. In the meantime, I like the idea of using diary entries and letters and so on as well. I think they can really make a victim ‘come alive,’ even when the murder is a very old one.

  8. That was really interesting and informative Margot, and I love the way you linked with that news story. And anything featuring Elly Griffiths and Ruth Galloway has to be good!

    • Thanks, Moira. I have to say that story just got my attention and kept it. And it did make me wonder how authors handle the topic. Couldn’t agree more, by the way, about Griffiths and Galloway!

  9. Now that’s a cold case! Have a feeling that’s a murder that will go unsolved. 🙂

    I do find these types of stories interesting, as long as it’s not *too* long on science. Loved the recovery of Richard III and some background into that era. Ultimately, it’s still the characters that really make the story, for me.

    • I don’t think it’s likely to be solved, either, Elizabeth 🙂 – I know what you mean, too, about the balance between adding in the science that gives a story credibility, and keeping the focus on the characters. Like you, I believe the characters and story come first.

  10. tracybham

    My husband is more interested in mysteries featuring anthropology or archaeology than I am. I have read some of the Elkins series, which I enjoyed.

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