Thursday, November 1, 2007

Mysteries in Archaeology: The Untold Story of the Iceman

My day job is archaeology, which means I tend to think in layers and I love dirt—both real dirt as in soil, and “dirt” as in good stories about squabbling academics trying to steal each other’s research. Fortunately for me, the archaeological profession is full of multilayered, dirty stories, just like the strata of an excavation.

Take the Iceman, the mummified Neolithic man found in a melting glacier in the Tyrolean Alps. His story has at least three layers: his life in ancient times, his discovery about fifteen years ago, and the saga of the international investigation and border dispute over his body.

When Ötzi, as he is now known, was discovered, his finders thought he was just another dead hiker who’d strayed off the trail in bad weather. Granted, he was a bit leathery-looking, but the folks who ripped him out of the ice and hauled him away (leaving a couple of crucial body parts behind) hadn’t a clue they’d just found one of the most sensational archaeological discoveries of all time.

Ötzi was alive 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists have reconstructed his equipment: he carried a knapsack and a medicine bag, and wore an ingenious set of leggings and a warm, furry cloak. He also had a knife, bows and arrows, and a fire-making kit. But who was he? Where did he come from, and where was he going? Despite the best techniques known to science, many questions about Ötzi remained unanswered.

Archaeologists know the kind of settlement he came from, but not which one. They say that he was probably an important man in Neolithic society, but no one knows his name or family. And everyone thought he died in a blizzard until new X-rays revealed an arrowhead in his shoulder—poor Ötzi was shot from behind. Then someone—the murderer?—removed the arrow and the evidence of the crime was covered up by 5,000 years of glaciers and silence.

The intrigue doesn’t stop there. Scientists and archaeologists from several countries collaborated in the modern studies of the Iceman’s tissues, tattoos, and diet. Did they all get along as well as the news media claimed? Or were some researchers angered as others published their findings in prestigious journals and appeared on Nova? And since the Iceman was found near the border between Austria and Italy, officials from both countries argued over who would ultimately own the mummy and build the museum to display him.

Italy won. A month ago, I visited Ötzi in his new home in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. He’s resting in a special climate-controlled case looking very small and lonely. Although the museum has done a great job of displaying the scientific and archaeological account of his death, a good mystery writer needs to tell the story of his life. Takers, anyone?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Mystery of the Getty Kouros

The saga of the Getty Kouros is a perfect example of a mystery that neither scientists nor classical archaeologists can solve. In the late 1980's the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, heard of an unusually fine Greek marble statue, a kouros or youth, available for purchase. Stylistically, it appeared to date to the sixth century B.C., but experts were divided about whether the statue was authentic. Why was it so pristine and white? Why did the style of the hair not match that of the feet? Would an ancient sculptor have mixed so many styles in one statue? The discussion was complicated by the fact that most existing kouroi are in fragments--only about thirteen exist that are in as good condition as this one.

So how does an archaeologist or museum curator proceed? The Getty Museum asked for some scientific testing of the marble, hoping geologists could determine where the marble came from and whether the surface crust was ancient or modern.

Here’s where the story gets as twisty as a good Agatha Christie novel before Hercule Poirot steps in. A geologist sourced the marble to the island of Thasos, an ancient quarry site, and said the statue had a calcite crust that could have only developed over a long period of time. This was enough for the Getty, and they purchased the statue.

But then it emerged that the provenance papers were faked(!) and there was another torso, an obvious fake, with striking stylistic similarities. The Museum purchased that sculpture too and took the kouros off display for further tests.

New results revealed that the surface crust on the kouros was much more complex that originally thought (a calcium oxalate monohydrate rather than calcium carbonate) with certain characteristics that could not be duplicated in the laboratory. Furthermore, the kouros did not have the same surface as the torso, which was apparently treated in an acid bath.

At a conference in 1992, archaeologists and scientists met to debate all the evidence. Unfortunately, no forger stood up and confessed; the scholars were split down the middle on the authenticity of the kouros. The Getty kouros remains either one of the finest ancient Greek statues ever discovered, or one of the best fakes ever produced.

Even Poirot can’t solve this one…

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Interview with Barbara D'Amato

One of the great pleasures of attending mystery conferences such as "Of Dark and Stormy Nights" and "Love is Murder" (now combined into one meeting in February) or "Malice Domestic" is meeting wonderful people. I'm honored and delighted to present today's interview with Chicago author Barbara D'Amato.

Your bio says you were once an assistant tiger handler. How did that happen? Did you like the tigers?

My husband and I had written a musical comedy called “The Magic Man.” It starred David Copperfield in his first theatrical role. When we spun off a children’s theater version, called “The Magic of Young Houdini,” I found that the stagehands did not want to handle the tiger in the change-the-lady-into-a-tiger illusion. It takes two people, the tiger’s trainer and an assistant, to get the tiger from his travel cage into the illusion equipment and out again. I worked this job for quite some time. But the trainer is a skilled person. An assistant handler, like me, is unskilled. And maybe stupid [I did like the tiger and probably didn’t fear him enough]. However, I also worked as carpenter and repair person for the big illusions for years, which was a huge amount of fun. I could tell you how the beautiful young lady is balanced on the points of three swords or levitates or how you cut a person in half. But I won’t.

A writer can learn new techniques by going back and forth between fiction, non-fiction, plays, and poetry. How did writing plays make you a better mystery novelist?

Well, I hope I’m better. One of the things you learn in plays is that you can’t black out between scenes and leave the audience hanging. Grab them right away, get them into the new scene. The mental-change problem is even more difficult in the “magical musicals” Tony and I wrote. After a magic illusion the audience is still saying, “How’d they do that?” when you’re trying to remind them of the plot. And to a large extent this is also true after songs in musicals. I suppose—bottom line—I learned to keep the main plot in the forefront of my mind.

Which of your books or stories is your personal favorite and why?

My favorite story was “Steak Tartare.” It will be reprinted in the anthology “Sisters on the Case,” which contains stories by all the presidents of Sisters in Crime and will be published in October.

“Hard Tack” is a great example of a locked room mystery—in a boat on Lake Michigan during a humdinger of a storm. It also shows a detailed knowledge of sailing. Did you write this from your own experience, or someone else’s?

I have never sailed a big luxury yacht, like the one in the book. But I’ve lived on Lake Michigan all my life. I used to sail a Sailfish out on the Big Lake. This is kind of like sailing a good-sized coffee table. But the basic idea of making use of the power of the wind, of tacking, of coming about, is the same. The difference is that in a Sailfish, there’s no cabin; icy cold Lake Michigan waves are breaking over you all the time. I did go on a real yacht in the course of doing the research.

One doesn’t normally associate dead bodies with Christmas trees. Did you grow up knowing about the Christmas tree industry in West Michigan, or did you research it especially for “Hard Christmas?”

I researched it for the book. I realized I’d been driving past Christmas tree farms all my life and never knew basic things about growing the trees. Much to my surprise, the growers say fertilizers don’t help. The important things are enough water and making sure the trees aren’t crowded or shaded, so that they grow bushy. They are also sheared to make them bushier. The experts use long, ultra sharp blades that look like big bread knives. Christmas trees are one of very few agricultural crops that are harvested in winter.

What is the story behind the story in “Death of a Thousand Cuts?”

Bruno Bettelheim was a spectacularly successful man who wrote books about child development and ran a residential facility in the 1950s and 60s for what he claimed were autistic children. He claimed that autism was caused by cold parenting, especially on the part of the mother. He told the parents of his patients that they had caused their children’s problems and he told the children that it was their patents’ fault. Even back then, researchers saw that boys were at least four times as likely to be autistic than girls and if one of a pair of identical twins was autistic, the other was much more likely to be than a randomly selected child—clear tests for a genetic component. Bettelheim was not a doctor and not trained in psychology. But people took him at his own valuation, and he ruined many lives. Living in Chicago as long as I have, I had heard early on how wonderful he was, then heard the stories come out that he was abusive to his charges, that few of his patients were autistic in the first place, and that few really improved. The Bettelheim character in Death of a Thousand Cuts is a Dr. Schermerhorn, who, unlike Bettelheim, at least has a medical degree. Early in the book, he is gruesomely murdered. Heh, heh.

What are you working on now? Is this project taking you places you've never been before?

The new book stars a woman archaeologist from Northwestern University. She visits coastal Peru, researching the Moche, who lived 1700 years ago, and Anatolia in central Turkey, researching Çatalhöyük, which was a thriving city seven thousand years ago. I’ve been fascinated by what I’ve found out in the last year about ancient cultures, but I have frequently wished that I was as knowledgeable as you.

For more on Barbara's books and stories, visit her website here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Experimental archaeology and writing

Archaeologists like experiment with early technologies like flint-knapping or pottery making because it helps them to get inside the minds of ancient craftsmen. I began making pots during college when my dorm was conveniently located near the pottery studio in Cambridge, Mass. I discovered I was a terrible potter, which immediately increased my respect for ancient Greek ceramists who achieved even wall thicknesses, delicate rims, and graceful handles in ways I couldn’t possibly replicate.

In my current job, I work with Illinois archaeologists who are interested how the transition between large, thick-walled cooking pots to smaller, thin-walled pots relates to changes in diet and cooking methods. Is it because the cooks switched from cooking with heated rocks dumped into large pots filled with water and starchy seeds to cooking over direct heat? Or do the pots change because people were switching from cooking seeds to boiling the earliest form of corn? Which pots survive repeated firings best and why?

To answer such questions, the experimental archaeologist must make lots of pots using different combinations of local clays and additives such as sand or crushed shell, different construction methods, and firings at different temperatures and lengths of time.

The process is very similar to what a writer does when experimenting with plot complications and point of view. My latest short story (about an archaeological dig in Italy) went through five versions before I chose one to polish and submit to AHMM. I took the same basic premise but changed the villain, the hero, the point of view, and the ending—five times. It was exhilarating because I realized that I had the germs of five different stories that I could go back to later.

Whether making pots or writing a story, there’s no single way to do it. If you’re a genius, maybe you get it right on the first try. For me, what works is steady experimentation with an open mind—you have to be willing to say “what if I did it this way?”—and then do it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Interview with Molly MacRae

This post is my first interview with another author! Meet Molly MacRae.

I've had the great pleasure of knowing Molly MacRae for the past four years. She is a wonderful writer with a delicious sense of humor. Together, we have formed "The Mystery Cats," a writing critique group and traveling duo. Molly's new book, "Wilder Rumors," was recently published by Five Star Press.

You ran a bookstore in Tennessee. Was it anything like the one you describe in Wilder Rumors?

Philosophically, yes; physically, no. Like Marilyn Wooten’s Blue Iris Books in Wilder Rumors, The Book Place, in Johnson City, Tennessee, was a wonderful, independent bookstore selling both new and used books. And, like Marilyn, we had a nice selection of local history and natural history books. But The Book Place was in an old grocery store building, with all the charm that implies. Blue Iris Books is in an antebellum workman’s cottage, actually a slightly rearranged version of the house my parents lived in for a time in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The crooked window in Marilyn’s kitchen was in my parent’s living room, but the binoculars hanging from a nail in the window frame were my mother’s and my father built the birdfeeder Wilder sees out the window. The picture frames containing paint chips and wallpaper fragments that Wilder looks at as he climbs the stairs are borrowed from a friend’s staircase, a detail I loved as soon as I saw it.

What is the personality profile of someone who likes to work in a museum full time? How do you know?

Oh, it’s slightly strange. If you think about someone who’s happy sorting through old mule shoes, who doesn’t find it mind-numbing to measure, write descriptions, and minutely number dozens of clay marbles, or who gets spine tingles touching the finger impressions baked into a brick hand made 175 years ago, you might get the general idea. I once read a child’s description of a history museum as being “a dead circus.” That’s an interesting image, and not entirely off the mark. So, yeah, someone who rummages around a dead circus for a living might be considered a little different. How do I know? I was curator, then director of the Jonesborough-Washington County History Museum in Jonesborough, Tennessee for several years before jumping ship and taking the bookstore job.

Is your setting imaginary, or is it a real town in Tennessee?

Nolichucky, Tennessee, exists only in my mind. There are some similarities to Jonesborough, Tennesse, but there are also similarities to other places I’ve lived. I named the town after the Nolichucky River which runs through Upper East Tennessee. There is no Nolichucky Jack History Museum, though Nolichucky Jack, himself, existed. And the story of the Widow Brown and Nolichucky Jack that Wilder tells the school children is said to be true. ‘Nolichucky Jack’ was the nickname of John Sevier, governor of the short-lived state of Franklin and first governor of Tennessee. Stonewall, Tennessee, where Wilder’s aunt lives, is also fictitious, though it bears some similarities to Johnson City, Tennessee, and my old home town, Barrington, Illinois, as it was forty or fifty years ago.

Will there be a second Lewis Wilder book?

I hope. I’ve got a title and a very general outline. But it has to wait its turn.

You've written and published quite a few short stories. How is short fiction writing different from writing a full-length novel?

Short takes less pencil and time, but otherwise I approach short and long fiction pretty much the same way. You get an idea. You map it out, either in your head or on paper or screen. You write it (and revise it somewhere along the way.) You send it out to seek its fortune. So far that’s worked for me. I’ve had seven stories in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the most recent one, “Fandango by Flashlight,” illustrated on the cover.

Who are Margaret and Bitsy, and what are they up to now?

Margaret and Bitsy are the characters in the Hitchcock stories. Margaret owns a bookstore in Stonewall, Tennessee. Bitsy is her older, somewhat annoying, sister. For some reason, they’ve never run into any of the people in Stonewall that Lewis Wilder knows. But they’re around. It’s summer, you know, and it’s hot, so not much is happening. But they’re in a novel I’m getting ready to submit and another I’m working on. They’re the reason Lewis Wilder has to wait for his second book.

Don't miss Molly's short story "Wilder Dancing" in the Summer 2007 issue of Mystericale

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


When I began to write The Dead Sea Codex, I realized that I didn’t really want to go back to Israel and risk being blown up by a suicide bomber. So I cheated; I stayed home in Illinois. I used today’s virtual magic carpet, the Internet. Lucky me—I avoided the purgatory of crowded airports and multiple gas-powered vehicles to traverse oceans and time zones only to arrive sleep-deprived, sweat-stained, and thoroughly grumpy. Instead, I lounged around in my pajamas and sipped hot chocolate while dragging out all my old textbooks, diaries, and pictures from my Junior Year Abroad.

As a visiting archaeology student at Tel Aviv University in the 1970s, I feasted on the exotic. I tasted shwarma (roasted lamb) and six kinds of yogurt, joined an international excavation at biblical Beersheba in the Negev desert, swam across the Sea of Galilee with a hundred other people, and was adopted by a wonderful Israeli family with Russian and Romanian roots.

But these memories are out-of-date. What does the Israeli architecture look like now? Is my memory of palm trees and cacti in urban settings accurate? How do you make hummus and tahini dip? What is the name of the female version of the long garment Arab men wear? I found all these things on the Web, as well as listings of current restaurants with their street names, signature dishes, and local beers. To supplement my virtual findings, I purchased a brand-new travel guide to Israel, dug out my Hebrew grammar book, and reread Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and several related books on the Gnostic Gospels, and watched movies set in the Middle East.

Creating an exotic setting without going there in the flesh isn’t easy, but it is possible. I created a notebook for Codex, complete with hand-drawn maps of the area around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a historical timeline, phrases of Arabic and Hebrew that my characters would hear and speak, and cutout photographs of models that resembled the physical description of my heroine, archaeologist and museum curator Lisa Donahue.

Using the Internet and other media does not mean that I’ve given up travel. A recent trip to Egypt proved that no computer screen or video footage can quite capture the smelly and precarious experience of riding a camel or the enormity of the pillars of Karnak. Those experiences have become my fourth novel, “The House of the Sphinx.”

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mummies and Mysteries

Mummies are intrinsically mysterious, but modern museum practice usually discourages cutting them open and doing autopsies. And Egyptian mummy covers can be misleading—the outside does not always reflect what’s inside. As X-rays and CT scans have revealed, a face portrait of a young man or woman may hide a baboon or a jumble of bird bones.

When the mummy is human, non-destructive imaging may show the age and sex of the person inside, evidence of disease such as tooth decay and internal parasites, and special charms or amulets to protect the dead person in its travels to the afterlife. Many museums and universities have completed mummy projects—one of the best known is by a team at the University of Manchester in England.

At the University of Illinois, I was lucky enough to lead a mummy investigation on a Roman-period Egyptian mummy. Although we weren’t allowed to slice through the red and gold stucco covering, we were able to take tiny samples of textile, resins, and bones from the foot of the mummy because it was falling apart.

X-rays revealed that the mummy was a child, not an adult, and the pelvic region was too underdeveloped to determine sex. Unfortunately, our mummy had no mummy tag identifying who the child was or what family he came from, nor were we able to determine cause of death despite our high-tech investigation.

The lingering questions about the mummy led me to write my first mystery novel “Bound for Eternity” (published in 2005). Finally, I was able to satisfy my curiosity! I made the mummy child a boy, the son of a Roman wine merchant, and created a scenario for his murder. Writing the fictionalized account of our project was even more fun than writing the non-fiction book and articles—and best of all, no footnotes!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Mystery of the Ellington Stone

I like to tell my students that archaeology is like a giant jigsaw puzzle—with half the pieces missing. One such mystery is close to home: the Ellington Stone. This 8” X 11” piece of limestone was found in Ellington County, Illinois, sometime between 1907 and 1920 by an arrowhead hunter. Someone chiseled the date 1671 and Jesuit symbols (the letters “IHS,” usually interpreted as a Greek abbreviation for Jesus, and two crosses) on the stone, but whodunit? And when?

Is this a marker left by the French explorer La Salle who may have been in Illinois that year? If so, it’s two years earlier than the date of the Marquette-Joliet expedition down the Mississippi. If the Ellington Stone is authentic, then historians will have to rewrite history to reflect the earlier discovery of Illinois by Europeans.

Or is it a fake, carved by a twentieth century forger? How do you prove it? Well, the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle include the archaeological context: the artifact was ripped out of a creek bed and carted home in a bucket, where it was scrubbed and then cleaned by helpful carpenters wielding screwdrivers and metal spikes. You can see the scratches left by the carpenters deep inside the carved letters and numerals. Anything that could have been useful in determining authenticity (older tool marks, lichens, organic material that might possibly be carbon-dated) has been removed or obscured by modern meddling.

A University of Illinois team was able to type the limestone. The texture and fossil content of the Ellington Stone match well with limestone from Western Illinois formations. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t help us with the problem of when the date 1671 and the Jesuit symbols were carved. The other missing piece to this puzzle is the lack of a comparable artifact—if it’s an exploration marker, how come no one has found others like it? Or perhaps we’re on the wrong track altogether and it’s the tombstone of an unknown Jesuit.

Check here for more on the scientific testing of the Ellington Stone.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Archaeology of Mystery Writing

Since I'm new to the world of blogging, I'm going to explore it in layers. That's appropriate, since I'm an archaeologist in my "day job" at the University of Illinois.

My other job is mystery writing. Gradually I'm excavating my own life to unearth situations and characters that will make good mysteries. Creepy old attic museums--digs in Israel, Italy, and Nevada--peculiar academic characters who become murderers (or murderees!).

Like an archaeological dig, a good mystery is constructed in layers: the top layer, or stratum, is what the reader sees and where the main story takes place. A couple of strata down is where the villain hangs out, plotting and planning away, occasionally rising to the surface like a misplaced artifact in an ancient garbage pit.

Garbage pits definitely loom large in an archaeologist's life because stratigraphy is rarely orderly. People in the past were always digging holes to lay a foundation trench, bury something (or someone), or to hide some garbage before constructing a new floor.

Personalities have layers too, and it's the job of writers to reveal the layers in their characters in ways that move the story along. And everyone has a garbage pit--the family traumas from the past, the dysfunctional relationships of the present. Garbage, like compost, can provide rich beginnings for new stories.