Petri Dish of History


13th century skeletons holding hands … photo from University of Leicester

Archaeology acts as a microscope to history. It seeks answers from the past to inform the future. Big questions like where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? And smaller fare like why did this royal have a hole in his skull? As a science, Archaeology reaches around the world for those answers. Digs are everywhere: a tel in northern Israel, an underwater city off the coast of Greece, a cave in southwestern France, a temple in Peru, a gorge in China. The answers come slowly – painstakingly so – one five-foot by five-foot dirt Petri dish at a time.

Take the skeleton couple that was just found in Leicestershire England. An archaeology team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) discovered them near the small town of Hallatan. (They also found the remains of Richard III in 2012 just 20 miles to the east under a car park.) The entire dig site is fascinating. The standout factor for me, however, is that the two have been holding hands for the past 700 years. The ULAS team is still trying to figure out why. By the position, location, and condition they’ll determine when the victims died, how they died, what type of people they were and a horde of other data pertinent to 13th century England. But for me, as an author, the biggest question remains: how did they get their hands in that position? ­­­Perhaps some caring relative intertwined their hands in a romantic gesture of eternal love. Or perhaps they reached for each other in the darkness of death. Or maybe it was just a cruel joke by their captor-murderer. Who knows? But it’s an excellent launching point for a good tale.

The couples’ ­­­­­enigmatic end reminds me of my first venture into historical fiction years ago through the pages of Green Darkness by Anya Seton. The story’s plot toggled between present day England and Tudor England of the 16th century. It was a magnificent time-travel piece. All-consuming. Heart wrenching. Exhausting. I felt like Alice disappearing down a hole into a world of courtiers and great halls and intrigue. There were even lovers bricked into walls. It was a read I’ll never forget.

From there I moved on to others, hungry for more: Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish Outlander series, Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds set in Australia, and M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavilions set in India and Afghanistan. Each beckoned me into a fascination with history. Reading opened up whole new worlds of adventure and learning. It sure beat the dry dusty lectures of high school history. I could live a lifetime in a far-off place in just a few days, tucked into a favorite armchair with no after-effects other than a yearning for more. How many lifetimes can you pack into one? I don’t know, but the journey is paved one book at a time. And along the way, I’m writing my own.

So what are some of your epic reads?


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