Sunday, December 30, 2012

Behind Every Story is a Kernel of Truth

The desire to own a part of history is probably as old as man himself. Reality television is replete with shows—Canadian/American Pickers, Pawn Stars, American Restoration and the like—that attest to this. The Victorians were obsessed with all things Egyptian. It wasn’t uncommon for the wealthy to purchase and display mummies in their own homes or host mummy unwrapping parties (History), the craze for which continues and was documented in the short-lived television series Treasure Trader. Anything ancient, it seems, is worth collecting, even fossilized dinosaur feces, which was recently sold at auction on Auction Kings (Discovery).

The problem with procuring artifacts such as these (though technically, the dinosaur poop cannot be called an artifact as it was not manufactured or modified by people—unless you call the turning of the fossil into a commodity a modification) is that it is regulated. There are laws in place regarding who may legally excavate these materials. And make no mistake about it, picking an artifact up from the ground knowing it is from a potential archaeological (or paleontological) site is considered excavation, even if it the item lay on the surface when you found it.

I can remember in the early days of the Internet finding a bottle collector’s website. Though he posted some amazing diagnostic tools, his site read, primarily, like a how-to for bottle hunters. As a practicing archaeologist, I engaged the man in a digital debate that I had no expectation of winning. Though I tried to educate him on the evil of his way, the man relied on his pot hunting to make a living. One has to look no further than SpikeTV’s American Digger to see how to do this for a living.

I was an archaeologist for about a decade of my life, and though I can say that in those ten years I never worked on a site that had been vandalized, I was sickened at the stories I heard from my colleagues. Most of my work was on public archaeological sites. This meant the sites were open to the public with the intent to educate them on the importance of the archaeological record. Unfortunately, most people didn’t get the lesson we were trying to teach. In PHASE SHIFT, the main character, archaeologist and university professor Molly McBride laments,

On archaeological sites someone always comes around and asks if you’ve found any gold yet. It’s inevitable. Tell me something, I’ve always been dying to say, when you move house how much gold do you leave behind? Instead I smile, and try to educate them on the fact that archaeology is not about the money. What’s more valuable is the information artifacts give us about what went on while the site was occupied all those years ago, regardless of their material of manufacture.
An observation that’s altogether too true. When I worked on The Trinity Bellwoods/Gore Vale Site in downtown Toronto, almost once a day someone would come by and ask if I’d found anything valuable yet. My own grandfather used to tease me about this each and every time he saw me, something which exasperated me to no end. In case you’re wondering, I never did find any gold and any of the coins I found were too old and too damaged to have been worth much of anything.

The nugget for this blog was mined from an article published on the LiveScience website about a fossil dealer who was prosecuted for smuggling dinosaur remains. The article reminded me of the stories I’d heard regarding plundered Ontario archaeological sites and how powerless archaeologists felt to do anything about it but to hire round-the-clock security guards on an already stretched budget (something Molly does to protect the TTC site in the as yet unpublished THE NEXT COMING RACE). Prosecuting looters is a difficult task as it is tough to prove in court as it often happens under the cover of night and without witness. In 1985 the July/August issue of ArchNotes carried an article by William A. Fox documenting the first case of the successful prosecution of looters to a site, but that case involved witnesses and police involvement. Had the looting been carried out by a stranger rather than a neighbour of the property owner, the case might have ended differently.

When I read the LiveScience article, I thought of the first chapter of THE NEXT COMING RACE, the book to follow the recently published PHASE SHIFT. In it, protagonist Dr. Molly McBride enlists local archaeologists to participate in cyber-stalking to determine when local bands of pot-hunters will loot abandoned sites in order to conduct raids to scare them off in an attempt to protect the archaeological record. As this is the first chapter in the novel, it sets into motion the main plot and the threads of two sub-plots that (I promise) eventually come together and make sense in the long run. The main plot supposes an archaeological site is found during the excavation for expansion of Toronto’s subway system. The sub-plots are the raids on the looters and Palmer’s involvement in a case of forensics with the police department. Please click on the link to read, and enjoy.

If you like Molly and Palmer, you can download PHASE SHIFT, my first published novel featuring these characters from my web site,, for the price of a Facebook post or tweet. Molly and Palmer are also featured in two novellas available at or entitled THE MUMMY WORE COMBAT BOOTS (largely about Palmer and DC Michael Crestwood), and THROWAWAY CHILD (featuring Molly, Palmer and Michael). Happy reading.

Note for Once Upon A Time fans: I cast my characters when I write in order to help me imagine the scene as well as to keep my character descriptions consistent throughout a work. As you read this chapter from THE NEXT COMING RACE, try to imagine OUAT’s Robert Carlyle in the role of Dr. Palmer Richardson and (not an OUAT alumni, but he played Lois Lane’s father on Smallville and has been a favourite Canadian actor of mine since the first V series) Michael Ironside in the role of DC Michael Crestwood.

Works Cited
Discovery. Auction Kings: Dino Poo. 2012. . 30 December 2012. (Video)

Fox, William A. The Freelton/Misner Site Looting and Prosecution. ArchNotes. July/August 1985. . 30 December 2012. (Newsletter)

History. Mummy Unwrapping Parties. 1996-2012. . 30 December 2012. (Video)

Parry, Wynne. Dealer Pleads Guilty to Smuggling in Largest International Dino Case Ever. LiveScience. 29 December 2012. . 30 December 2012. (eZine)

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