Why Archaeologists Make Good Murderers


Alan Cadbury is a (fictional) archaeologist who is about to dig up a very modern murder. Francis Pryor is a (non-fictional) archaeologist who has just written his second archaeological murder mystery. Here, he explains why archaeologists and murder mysteries are such a good match.

Archaeologists make good murderers. At least, that’s the inevitable corollary if you accept my premise that archaeologists make good detectives.

You see it’s all about our methodical taking-apart of the evidence, piece by piece. I do my excavations and field survey the sane, sensible way: I progress from the particular to the general, from the known to the unknown: first a post-hole, then a wall, then a doorway, finally a house.

So archaeologists do indeed work like Sherlock Holmes, and like him they must also be prepared to make leaps of imagination. Those intuitive flashes can transform everything. But they will only happen after a long and disciplined investigation. Don’t forget: Newton had been pondering the laws of physics for some time when that apple finally dropped.

I firmly believe that it’s all about understanding processes; what led people to behave the way they did? I’m also intrigued by what happened to the things they created, both deliberately and by accident – their houses, rubbish, and burials – and then how these things were altered when their creators had gone.

And that’s precisely what happens in the world of Forensic Archaeology, where techniques such as pollen analysis are used to pin down exactly where a suspect might have been in the recent past, by examining samples from their shoes, the floor of their car, or the mud on their trousers. So when I said that archaeologists would make good killers, I was referring to practical ones like myself, or my good friend Alan Cadbury. I wasn’t referring to some of our less practical, theoretical colleagues who would never get away with a murder. Not even in a library.

I chose to set Alan’s various adventures in the Fens for a number of reasons. The first is that after half a century, I am beginning to know, love and understand them a little. I like their brooding, foreboding and distant skyline that reduces posey people to size, and the constant threat of real physical (even lethal) danger of sudden flooding.

I like, too, the Fens’ traditions of disrespectful radicalism: Primitive Methodist chapels abound and manorial estates are few. Feudalism rarely got established. As a result, the familiar Sandringham, Cotswold or ‘county’ style of village society didn’t happen. It’s hardly surprising that a reigning, if much detested, monarch (King John) lost his entire stock of treasure in the Marshlands of The Wash, nor that the ultimate anti-monarchist, Oliver Cromwell, should be a Fenman. The wet fen soils also preserve archaeological remains, both ancient and surprisingly modern, extremely well. So criminals beware: clues abound!

In his new adventure, Alan is confronted by a wealth of evidence, but he soon finds none of it seems to makes sense. It’s not that it’s contradictory, because it isn’t. It’s just that the strands seem to head off in different directions.

I’ve been in similar situations when doing post-ex. Recuts appear and then vanish on the other side of a short baulk. Soils begin to form, but then get truncated. Worst of all, specialists interpret the same samples in entirely different ways. It’s then that the writing-up team starts to get argumentative. Tempers fray. Nights at the pub get fractious and people say stupid things.

And meanwhile pressure is always mounting. On a dig, the last day draws closer, with the certain knowledge that soon the funding bodies will be looking for a good story to show that their money was well spent.

And this is what Alan Cadbury begins to discover in The Way, The Truth and The Dead. In Alan’s case the deadline is just that. End of.

Get a copy of The Way, The Truth and The Dead here. Use the promo code digventures to get a very special discount!

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Francis Pryor

Written by Francis Pryor

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