Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Little Boys and Kenniwick Man

Little boys love to hear about gruesome stuff. I'm neither little nor a boy anymore, but I still share that fascination. A lot of that interest came from my mother who wrote murder mysteries that often focused on archaeological subjects. She wrote a book about an ancient culture in Turkey called "Death of a Hittite" and another, "Dead to Rites" set amongst the brooding Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico. An English professor, she loved the sciences all of her life. She had a curious mind.

As a "little" boy of thirteen or so, I was fortunate to travel to many of the world's most fascinating archaeological sites in the company of my parents. From Stonehenge to the Lascaux Caves to Pompeii to the Parthenon to the ancient cities of Troy and Ephesus, I soaked it all in. Actually, there were times in our travels, usually to museums, chateaus, cathedrals or city stuff like the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, when I grew bored and asked to be left behind to read Archie comics in the back seat. Museums were sometimes the exception, however, as they were where I could encounter mummies, the strange, ash-cast bodies of Pompeii, dinosaur bones and so forth.

So when it came to ruins, ancient paintings, bog bodies, Viking longboats or falling down castles in Scotland, I was often the one leading the way. They couldn't hold me back with wild horses. I loved the stuff.

Much of it has shown up in my books as it did in my mother's mysteries. Bog bodies became one of my earliest fascinations, and I recently wrote a mystery focused around the idea of a bog body uncovered in Nova Scotia. This required a certain amount of literary license, since virtually no real bog bodies have been found in North America. There are plenty of old remains of course, Incan sacrifices preserved in the high Andes Mountains of Peru, cave dried Anasazi skeletons in the American southwest, the famous Windover skeletons uncovered in Florida and even the nine-thousand-year-old bones of Kenniwick Man of Paleo-Indian age found along the banks of the Columbia River in 1996. But bog bodies not so much. The reasons probably have to do with culture, climate and glaciation.

Kenniwick Man became embroiled in a decades-long court battle between scientists and Native Americans who insisted the body was one of their own, a highly questionable claim, and demanded that it be reburied. The legal battle has continued for more than twenty years. Still, the courts have allowed study to be permitted. You can see Kenniwick Man and listen to a description of him, the daunting injuries he sustained and where he may have come from. He does not appear to resemble American Indians. Reconstructions have suggested he may be more closely related to Polynesians or even the Ainu of Japan.

You see the extent of my little boy fascination with such things.

It so happens that literally in the backyard of my father's boyhood summer home in Nova Scotia where I have vacationed all of my life, there are bogs that stretch for many miles. I fell in love with them at an early age and it felt as I was writing my book that all those bog bodies I read about and saw in museums when I was a boy had been nothing more than training to write this book. That is one of the great wonders of writing, how experiences long in the past suddenly reappear during the act of plumbing one's brain for inspiration.

I am hardly alone in my infatuation with long dead bodies. We see it everywhere in our culture. I have barely pricked the surface of this subject as a result of staying mainly in North America. We haven't even discussed perhaps the most famous ancient body of all, that of Otzi, the 5000 year old Neolithic man who melted out of a glacier in the Alps in 1991.

But that is another story for other little boys.

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