“Dr Ruth Galloway is called in when a child’s bones are discovered near the site of a prehistoric henge on the north Norfolk salt marshes. Are they the remains of a local girl who disappeared ten years earlier – or are the bones much older?
DCI Harry Nelson refuses to give up the hunt for the missing girl. Since she vanished, someone has been sending him bizarre anonymous notes about ritual sacrifice, quoting Shakespeare and the Bible. He knows that Ruth’s expertise and experience could help him finally to put this case to rest. But when a second child goes missing, Ruth finds herself in danger from a killer who knows she’s getting ever closer to the truth…”
The Crossing Places (Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries, #1) by UK author Elly Griffiths is a crime thriller with a considerable difference. The protagonist is slightly awkward, overweight, nearing middle-aged female forensic archaeologist, Dr Ruth Galloway who’s primary role is teaching and researching in Archaeology in the new university of North Norfolk, United Kingdom. The discovery of a body ritually displayed on the remote salt marshes near where Ruth lives soon brings local police detective Harry Nelson into Ruth’s sphere of work and life and his desperate search for the body of a child missing ten years, the case he cannot forget nor forgive himself for not solving.
The following events involve a series of archaeological investigations into the ritualised burial and likely sacrifice of the young girl whose remains Ruth discovers are not recent but from an Iron Age civilisation that built hedge sites and other ritual structures in the North Norfolk area during the Iron Age. For detective Harry Nelson, Ruth’s academic excitement in the Iron Age burial only saddens and frustrates him in the callousness of human nature, that centuries before, young girls were being ritually killed on the salt marshes. It seems Ruth and Harry have little in common except an interest to discover the fate of the respective young girls, one more recent, another from the Iron Age. But events quickly escalate with the new discovery of the Iron Age burial linking to a series of antagonistic letters detective Nelson has received over the ten years from the suspected killer, which now begin again in earnest along with another child abduction. When another child burial is found, Harry Nelson recruits Ruth to excavate and to provide her expertise on ritual sacrifices and Iron Age culture near the salt marshes. It is the beginning of a partnership and a case that focuses on the importance of the ‘crossing places’ to Iron Age belief systems, the role of landscapes which are neither shore nor sea, sky nor land.
The Crossing Places was an enjoyable crime mystery, the combination of unlikely but personable characters, the depth of research into archaeological techniques and academic institutions gave the plot a sense of reality. The detailed research into Iron Age belief systems of ‘crossing places’, the importance of these liminal landscapes within our natural landscapes of land and sea contributed to a fascinating read.
A highly-recommended read for anyone who enjoys ancient history, crime or mystery, quirky and complex characters and archaeology.
I’ve become fascinated by the Gaslamp fantasy subgenre lately and decided to explore it a little further in another short fiction piece, this time set in an alternate Victorian-era Dublin. The Victorian era saw the expansion of the British Empire into more countries and with it, an expansion of the arts and sciences. Coinciding with the expanding interest and enlightenment of the literature and sciences, the pre-Raphaelites, the social movement of collected artists, poets and some writers inspired by a more utopian ideal that was a counterbalance to the more confining and conservative values of the Victorian era. The development of the Industrialisation and the increasing commercialism of many once-family or artisan craftsmanship was another opposing point to the pre-Raphaelite movement and desire to escape social oppression of the increasing Industrialised era. For the Sciences, the Victorian era saw an expansion of the natural and mathematical sciences which blossomed under the Enlightenment period, the challenging evolutionary theories of Darwin and the engineering developments famous under Industrialisation being just some of the social and intellectual expansions during the Victorian age. An interest in other cultures and histories also followed with the expanding British Empire bringing the cultures of the colonies into close contact with those of Britain. Archaeology became a strong interest with Ancient Egypt a particular fascination for the Victorians.
In the recent story, I have explored some of those pre-Raphaelite social movements and the Victorian conservative social values through an alternate Dublin, the social inequalities experienced by several LGBTQI characters. The Victorian interest in Ancient Egyptian archaeology and history (Egyptology) also coincided with the development of a considerable fraudulent artefact trade alongside a trade in the more genuine artefacts. Inspired by the popular ‘urban myth’ of 1922 and the curse of pharaoh Tutankhamen tomb, I incorporate the Ancient Egyptian goddess Serket, symbolised by a scorpion, her prominence in death rituals and favoured by poisoners and assassins. The Gaslamp fantasy elements in this story include a secretive Dublin magician and a death curse. It has been a delight to write and I hope to explore some more Gaslamp fantasy stories next year.
I recently finished writing a short story continuing my fascination with Victorian science. I focused on the anatomical sciences that inspired many gothic and urban folklore of the Victorian era. Some of the most classic Victorian era gothic tales including Frankenstein and Dracula involve the unease in Victorian society about the dead, superstition, burial practices in an era governed by religion but embarking on the Enlightenment period. Into this societal unease came the expansion of the Sciences but also the Industrial Revolution. The challenges to mind, body and physical environment were no doubt confronting. My short story explored some of these concepts from the perspective of an anatomist tasked with examining a set of twisted bones returned from a disastrous archaeological excavation into an ancient limestone quarry purportedly cursed.
I have just finished writing a new story concept I have been exploring. The story is inspired from my museum research in Europe in 2019. I was very interested by the prehistoric sections of museums. Before societies became larger civilisations, the bonds between communities were used to forge alliances. As these societies expanded under Chieftains and more land was claimed in the name of a Chieftain’s lineages, battle became more frequent as these dynasties were established. I was interested in exploring this lesser known part of history where archaeology is the only source to use and written records do not yet exist. Some of the oldest legends and mythologies have their early foundations in these prehistoric period when oral storytelling was common. The rise in conflict between clans and increasing size of communities seems to also coincide with appearances and increased frequencies of human sacrifices (among many other things). I was interested to explore this single connection between conflict and human sacrifice in a story combining magic, ritual, history and battle together in a historical fantasy.
Gotland Museum contains an amazing variety of prehistoric Swedish and Viking Age archaeology and history. The collections include picture stones from Gotland Island, large collections from establishment of the official seal and recognition of Gotland county, the doomed Battle of Visby and Viking Age silver and gold hoards found on Gotland Island.
The Gotland Museum collections contain some of the oldest picture stones in Sweden with many dating from the prehistoric era of circa 9000 years ago and including the pre-Viking Age era of circa 700 AD. The earliest picture stones feature animal and geometric motifs before the more familiar Celtic styles of decoration are incorporated into the picture stones. Some of the largest picture stones are well over 6 ft and depict themes and motifs mentioned in Norse mythology. There is one famous picture stone that appears to depict common themes and characters from Norse mythology with a warrior riding into battle on an eight-legged horse, a wolf and a woman holding out a drinking horn. Below that scene is a Viking ship and armed warriors and possibly a Valkyrie or similar winged female archer.
There are also prehistoric human skeletal remains recovered from sites on Gotland Island that offer a rare glimpse into the ritualistic behaviour of the early inhabitants on the island.
The burial of a young woman in her early twenties has been called the “Hedgehog Girl” for the many items made from the local Gotland Island hedgehog which were used to decorate her grave. She was buried with five hedgehog jaws placed across her chest and would have originally worn a cap made from hedgehog skin while her dress was edged with beading made from fox and seal teeth. There were many hedgehog spines found beside her head and it was likely the cap was decorated with hedgehog spines while her grave goods also included offerings of hedgehog spines and teeth. The local inhabitants of Visby confirmed that the hedgehog is still an important symbol of Gotland Island and, despite the ram being on the official seal of Gotland Island, the hedgehog continues to be the symbolic animal of Gotland. There is a strong Association between the symbolic role the hedgehog played in the prehistoric communities and that the common animal today was of symbolic and, possibly ritualistic importance, in the past with some archaeologists interpreting the hedgehog girl had a ritualistic or shamanic role in the prehistoric community.
The grave of a young woman has been named the “Girl with the Flutes” for the total 35 of false bone flutes, 23 buried throughout the grave and another 12 placed directly beside her. The grave was also decorated with red ochre and contained fishing tackle, bone fishing hooks, a finely carved bone comb and bone jewellery. A clay figurine at the foot of the grave is difficult to discern but is either a bird or a seal. The grave was located on the cliffs overlooking the sea and combined with the numerous flutes, it has been suggested a literal or symbolic communication between the girl and the birds or the seals. Whatever the case may have been, the burial shows a strong symbolic nature to the burial where the sea and the role of the flutes was clearly important for the woman buried on the sea cliffs. There was likely a close connection between the prehistoric communities of Gotland Island, they were probably reliant on the sea for survival in times when crops or livestock failed.
The Viking Age was also well-known for the silver and gold hoards that were buried throughout Scandinavia and in other parts of Europe. Gotland Museum has an interesting display of the various hoards associated with the island. Many are vast collections of coins from different regions, silver bracelets, gold torques, silver and gold rings, beautifully crafted silver brooches for cloaks and the elaborately engraved square brooch used by women. Most of the items in these hoards have been recovered during excavations at specific archeological sites but in a few occasions, including a hoard of gold coins stored in a clay jar, an industrious rabbit warren disturbed the buried treasure, bringing the hoard once more to the surface.
Gotland Museum contained an interesting collection of archaeological and historical items from the pre-Viking Age era, Viking Age and through to the Middle Ages. Items from the Viking Age included axe blades and swords recovered from local archaeology sites, carved game pieces made from bone and horse teeth. A gilt weather vane for a Viking longship appears an extraordinary extravaganza by modern standards but retains the deep swirling pictographs on the surface. The arrival of Christianity to Gotland Island was ushered in slowly with early wooden churches a solemn, pagan-appearing place, the wooden form of Christ more resembling Odin during his search for knowledge as he hung upon the tree Yggdrasil. Symbolic jewellery like Thor’s hammer was slowly replaced by the crucifix and the combination ancient and “new” religions defined by the crucifix marked by runes scored into its surface. Other unusual items included Wolfs-head endpieces for a row of church pews, near-immaculately preserved leather boots and the old former seal of Gotland Island established in 1280.
The Battle of Visby was fought in 1361 when Danish forces invaded Gotland Island led by King Valdemar IV and the well-trained Danish army, the force numbering around 2000-2500. In contrast, the defending forces of Visby numbered only 2000 and were not trained infantrymen, or were older individuals, those who had survived previous battles and still bore the marks of injury. The result was a massacre, the Danish forces taking Visby and leaving many of the surviving defending forces of Visby so badly injured they later died from their injuries. The grisly remains from the mass graves outside Visby reveal the savage injuries caused by swords and axes, the damage inflicted from the mace and other battle weapons broke bones and shattered skulls. The healing of these injuries was inadequate and health of the individuals was compromised, with the bones badly set, often twisted and likely leaving the limb unusable.
Cuneiform is a fascinating and slightly mysterious writing style found in many archaeological sites of ancient Mesopotamia, including the modern countries of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Israel and parts of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Cuneiform was a geometric writing style inscribed on very small clay tablets. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a classic text inscribed on cuneiform tablets detailing the mythological exploits of the first historical Sumerian king, Gilgamesh of Uruk. I researched The Epic of Gilgamesh and cuneiform tablets for one of my short stories.
You can read more about cuneiform below:
The writing system is 6,000 years old, but its influence is still felt today
In early September 2019, I traveled to Uppsala in Sweden to one of the most accessible archaeological sites from the early Viking Age, a series of impressive burial mounds. You can read more about Viking Age history and archaeology from my visit to Stockholm’s Historiska Museum here and Gotland Museum.
The site of Gamla Uppsala has long inspired many generations with the 19th century archaeological investigations uncovering a series of significant burials within the massive Viking Age burial mounds. The discovery of these burials were initially associated with the Norse gods and many the epic poem Beowulf among other Viking Age sagas.
The early archaeological investigations also connected the burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala with a royal houses of Sweden, the Ynglinga Dynasty who ruled the region of Uppsala during the 5th and 6th centuries. Further away from the Royal Mounds, Roman and Iron Age burials have also been found, showing Gamla Uppsala has a long tradition of burial practices. Gamla Uppsala is a UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site located only 4 kilometers north of Uppsala city, easily accessible from Stockholm by train and a public bus from Uppsala stops outside the Gamla Uppsala Museum and the site. There are three main Royal Mounds within the site complex which dominate the landscape, standing between 9 to 12 meters high.
The Royal Mounds overlook a ploughed field which has revealed many artifacts associated with a horse racing arena, suggesting the largest of the burial mounds which existed before the horse arena, might have been a site for ritualized celebrations involving the horsemanship to honor the royal dynasties.
There are several 19th century reminders at the site where even the ‘romantic’ stylized Odin’s Mead Hall, now a historic restaurant has also been preserved as part of the history at the Gamla Uppsala site.
In late August 2019, I visited Madrid, the capital city of Spain. Although Spain still has a royal family, the Royal Palace of Madrid is no longer occupied by the Spanish royal family and is open to the public on most days. You can read more here about my visit to the Spanish capital and the interesting history I learned while exploring Madrid.
Part of my visit to Madrid was to see the Real Palacio de la Madrid, built on the foundations of the Alcazar of Madrid, a medieval fortress, expanded into the massive royal palace, the residential palace of the Spanish royal family but now only used for administrative purposes.
Across from the royal palace, a short walk through the impressive golden gates is the beautiful Cathedral of La Almudena which stands opposite the royal residence separated by the wide ceremonial courtyard of the palace and above the plateau and sprawling gardens below. From the arched balconies of the main courtyard, the palace overlooks the royal woodlands and the expanse of gardens below.
During my visit to the palace, I was particularly interested in the museum collections of the Real Armeria de Madrid, an impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance weaponry and armor. The collection contains many original pieces from the Spanish royal family, collected over the generations including detailed displays of armory and weaponry throughout the late Medieval and Renaissance periods and into the late 19th century. In the lower floor of the Royal Armory are the historical parade armor worn by various kings and princes of the royal family, including pieces commissioned by Queen Isabel I of Castille including her own parade armor and that of her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon, both historically remembered for her campaign to unite southern Spain under Catholic rule, ending the last Islamic dynasty in Spain with the fall of Granada and the expulsion and persecution of non-Catholics in Spain.