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.