In a Recent Expedition in a Distant Land*

As this is posted, it’s 100 years since the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. When Howard Carter opened the tomb, it made headlines all over the world. Here was a literal treasure trove, not to mention a repository for all sorts of information about the way Ancient Egyptian royalty lived. This particular tomb is possibly the best-known archaeological discovery in modern times, but the fact is, there’ve been many more. What is our fascination with relics from the past? I’m neither a historian nor a psychologist, but I do know that humans are by nature curious. We want to know, and we want things to make sense. Finding out about our past answers questions. More than that, we learn that ancient people had many of the same concerns we do. Like us, they ate, worked, found partners, had children, and so on. Finding out about the past links us to it, in that sense.

Certainly, there’s a lot of archaeology in crime fiction. The opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was part of (perhaps inspired) a passion for things Egyptian, especially in Great Britain. We see that reflected in some of Agatha Christie’s work (of course, she was married to an archaeologist, and had first-hand knowledge of that life). In The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate some deaths that have been put down to a curse. The story depicts what life on an excavation dig was like at the time, as well as the way Ancient Egypt captured the popular imagination. Christie fans know, too, that she wrote several other stories that feature archaeology and archaeologists. One of her stories, Death Comes as the End, even takes place in Ancient Egypt.

Elizabeth Peters’ (Barbara Metz) historical series featuring Miss Amanda Peabody begins with Crocodile on the Sandbank. In it, Miss Peabody takes a tour of the Nile with her new companion, Evelyn Barton-Forbes. What starts out as a fascinating trip to Egypt ends up with real danger as the women get drawn into a plot involving sightings of a long-dead mummy, an attempted kidnapping, and more. Several parts of the novel involve archaeology, as the two women meet up with two archaeologists whose excavation is threatened by local superstitions.

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man tells the story of Professor Harry Steadman, originally from the University of Leeds. He and his wife move to Eastvale so that he can pursue his dream: excavating nearby Roman ruins. He’s finally gotten the permissions he needs and is getting started with the project when he is found murdered. Chief Inspector Alan Banks and his team investigate, and they find several possibilities. For one thing, not everyone supported Steadman’s bid to excavate. For another, everyone has a personal life. Perhaps there was something there that could have gotten him killed. There are other possibilities, too. Banks is going to have to sift through a lot to find out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, we see how passionate archaeologists – even amateur ones – can be about their work.

We also see that in Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind. In that novel, we are introduced to archaeologist Chloe Davis and her business partner Bill. They’ve gotten permission to excavate in Kaipara Harbour on New Zealand’s North Island. Their particular interest is the remains of a religious community that was burned down in the 1880s. This excavation isn’t going to be an easy one, though. The local community is not happy about the excavation, so the dig team isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. And, although Chloe grew up in this area, her family dynamics and other ties with the community are complicated and sometimes tense. In fact, her cousin is with a development company that wants to buy the land that the team is excavating. There are several incidents of sabotage, too, and real danger to the team. Despite this, though, Chloe and her team find out the real truth behind the fire that destroyed the religious community. And Chloe finds out things about her own past.

And, of course, I couldn’t do a post that mentions archaeology or archaeologists without mentioning Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway. Associated with the University of North Norfolk, she’s the expert the police seek out when older remains are found. In the novels, she’s worked with remains from the Iron Age, World War II, and many eras in between. She and her team have gotten used to going out in all sorts of weather in all sorts of hard-to-reach places. And Griffiths weaves the work of an archaeologist into the novels along with the actual mysteries at hand.

There really is something about discovering our past that makes archaeology fascinating. It’s dirty, sometimes dangerous work that can take years (and lots of begging for funds) to accomplish. And it’s sometimes thankless if a dig doesn’t turn up much, or what is found isn’t gold or other treasure. But the more we learn about the past, the more we learn about ourselves. And that’s what makes the profession so interesting. There isn’t room in one post to really discuss all of the archaeology-related crime fiction that’s out there. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ Moonstone.


12 thoughts on “In a Recent Expedition in a Distant Land*

  1. Really interesting post, Margot. I’ve always found the discovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb to be fascinating, and of course Christie was, as you say, so fond of archaelogy that it makes welcome appearances in her fiction. However, the other books and authors you mention are new to me, so it’s obviously a topic that excites the mind of the crime writer too. Will look out for these! 😀

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    1. I’ve always thought the Tutankhamun story really interesting, too, KBR. I don’t know what it is about that particular story, but I’ve always liked it. As for the others, I hope you’ll enjoy them if you get to them. I’ve also been reminded that Kate Ellis has a great series ‘starring’ Wesley Peterson that has a strong archaeological theme to it; that’s another series I recommend.

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  2. The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb was one of the first Hercule Poirot short stories I read, and I loved it. Hastings and Poirot in Egypt, and Poirot being persnickety about the sand messing up his clothes, etc. So much fun.

    I am making my way slowly through the Elly Griffiths books, so I look forward to her investigating more archaeological remains.

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    1. Oh, I agree, Tracy; The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb is a fun story. And, yes, Poirot is certainly not happy about the conditions! There’s an interesting plot to the story, too, in my opinion. I really like the way Elly Griffiths includes the work archaeologists do in her books. It’s an interesting way to learn about the profession.

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  3. I was waiting for you to mention Ruth Galloway and of course you didn’t disappoint. LOL I haven’t read The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb… most likely seen the dramatisation of it but hardly remember it…. and I’m intrigued so will search that out. I’ve read one Amelia Peabody book and didn’t carry on, wondering if that was a mistake because the subject really does interest me. I have a couple of archaeology crime books on my Kindle. One is a Nora Roberts, maybe Birthright (?) although I realise this might be as much of a romance as it is a crime story. And there’s something else but I can’t remember what it is at the moment. I will check.

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    1. If you get the chance to read The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb , Cath, I hope you'll enjoy it. It's an interesting little mystery, I think. And thanks for mentioning Nora Roberts. I know she does both romance and suspense novels, so it's not surprising that archaeology would show up in her work. And you've a good memory: Birthright features archaeologist Celia Dunbrook!

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  4. Goodness, I suddenly feel old! I vividly remember the hoohah that surrounded the 50th anniversary of King Tut’s excavation! The same thing happened to me last week, when they were banging on about 100 years of the BBC, and I could remember all the celebrations for the 50th. I need more wrinkle cream!
    Anyway, I’ll add two vintage mysteries to your list, if I may. First, Scarweather by Anthony Rolls, which involves an archaeological dig in northern England. Apparently Rolls was himself an archaeologist and he has a lot of fun sending up the people in his profession. And then there’s The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman, where the plot revolves around the contemporary interest in Egyptology. I enjoyed both books, but especially the Freeman. Lots of authors also used the obsession with all things Egyptian in horror writing – I rarely walk through a museum without checking to ensure I’m not being followed by a mummy…

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  5. In Sagas and Sea Smoke Susan Nicol the story takes place in L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland which is the site of a Viking village. The plot is focused on the archeologists working at the location. It remains the first Viking community identified in Canada.

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