As this is posted, it’s the 94th anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. That find taught us much about what life must have been like during Tutankhamen’s time, and that’s such an important aspect of archaeology. Whenever there’s a find, it’s not just the actual objects that matter. It’s also the windows they offer on life in a very different era. That, too, is fascinating.
We see that aspect of archaeology in quite a lot of crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. Finding out what life was like at another time is a sort of mystery in itself, so it makes sense that we’d see that theme in the genre. And that’s not to mention the monetary value of such discoveries, which can be considerable.
There are plenty of examples in crime fiction, too. For instance, fans of Agatha Christie will know that her second husband was an archaeologist, and that she accompanied him to the Middle East. The theme runs through a few of her stories, too, such as Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, who is killed one afternoon in her room. She has accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and all the members of the excavation team come under suspicion. At one point, there’s a discussion of the value of what the team finds. It comes out that Dr. Leidner is a lot more interested in pottery and other daily-use objects than in gold. And it’s only partly because he has to pay the workers much more if they find gold. As much as anything, it’s because pottery and other such objects really show what life was like.
In Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man, we are introduced to archaeologist Harry Steadman. He’s a professor at Leeds University, until an inheritance frees him to do what he wants. And what he wants is to excavate Roman ruins in Yorkshire. He goes through the process of getting the necessary permissions, hoping that he will make some noteworthy finds. But instead, he is killed by blunt force trauma. DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate, and find several leads. For one thing, there are those who didn’t want the victim doing any digging. For another, there are the inevitable academic politics at Leeds. And those aren’t the only possibilities. It’s a complex case, and as Banks works through it, he learns that Steadman wasn’t in it, as they say, for the money. He was genuinely fascinated by what he might learn about life in Roman Britain.
Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway will know that she is a forensic archaeologist associated with North Norfolk University. In The Crossing Places, the first of this series, she is asked to lend her expertise when a set of remains is discovered. DCI Harry Nelson suspects that the bones may belong to Lucy Downey, who disappeared ten years earlier, and he wants confirmation of his theory. But Galloway can’t provide that. The bones turn out to be much, much older than ten years. In fact, they belong to an Iron Age child. In one plot thread of this novel, that find spurs Galloway to arrange for an excavation in the place where the bones were found. She’s hoping to learn more about the people who lived in the area at that time. Even small things such as a bead bracelet can provide fascinating information, so it’s no wonder she’s eager to dig. Those Iron Age remains don’t really solve the Lucy Downey case. But they do give a perspective on the search to find out about life in different times.
We also see that in Kate Ellis’ series featuring DS (later, DI) Wesley Peterson and his friend, Neil Watson. Watson is an archaeologist who, in The Merchant House, has discovered a four-hundred-year-old home that originally belonged to a wealthy merchant named John Banized, and his wife, Elizabeth. The dig team has only six weeks to learn what they can from the place, because the area is set to be developed as a block of new residences. In the process of their excavation, Watson’s team unearths a pair of skeletons in the basement of the house. As they wait to get forensic information, Watson searches for a diary that Banized kept. He’s learned that it was passed on from generation to generation. So, if he can find a modern-day descendent of the family, he may learn much about life during Banized’s era. That story unfolds as Peterson also investigates a modern-day mystery – the murder of a young woman.
There’s also Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte mysteries. Tayte is a genealogist, so his stock in trade is tracing families’ lineage. And as he does, he often finds letters and other everyday objects that throw light on the past. That’s what happens, for instance, in In The Blood. He’s hired by wealthy businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s lineage as a gift for her. The trail leads to Cornwall, and Tayte gets the ‘green light’ to go there and follow up on the leads he’s found. He finds that Sloane’s wife has modern-day distant kin in England, but they don’t seem eager at all to help him put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the meantime, we meet Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel was lost two years earlier in a storm. Just before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret. He never got the chance to tell her what that secret was, but construction on their house has revealed it. There’s a hidden set of steps that leads down to secret basement. In the basement is a very old, carved, wooden writing box with a love letter in it. Fallon tries to find out who might have owned the box, and her trail leads her to Tayte. Each in a different way, they find out the truth about things that happened hundreds of years earlier, just from an everyday writing box.
There are even thrillers, such as Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, that involve excavations. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is hired by a breakout biotechnology company called Genetrix. The goal is for him to develop a new anti-depression medication. He meets and falls in love with a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, whose family owns a house that’s several hundred years old. In the process of renovating the house, she discovers ergot growing in the old basement. That discovery provides answers to some bizarre questions haunting her family. And it opens up real possibilities for Armstrong’s research. But it also has frightening consequences.
There’s just something about discovering very old objects. They give a window on what life was like during a particular time. And they add to our knowledge. Little wonder there’s so much interest in them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s You Can Make History (Young Again).