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.