Shards From The Past: How Archaeology Can Bring Your Story To Life

Archaeology, unlike popular belief, is not about treasure or relic hunting. Instead, Archaeology focuses on uncovering material evidence that tells a story about the everyday life of people in the past.  Archaeologists do this by reconstructing the life and culture of past societies, and by studying the objects, or artifacts, that have been left behind.

Recorded history is often filled with bias and it’s the researcher’s job to sift through the information and determine which facts are true, which ones are opinion or conjecture, and what is and isn’t known. Often we use primary and secondary resources for our research. However, this information is not always accurate and, also, many aspects of history often go unrecorded.

Archaeology for the most part can present a clear, realistic point of view.  By methodically recording material unearthed from an archaeological site, such as artifacts and features (building foundations) and soil types, and reviewing the data collected, archaeologists can prove or disprove recorded history.

Archaeology can be a useful tool when conducting research  and can enhance the historical verisimilitude of your story by adding a factual basis to it.  This will offer opportunities for story lines, characterization, and themes that recorded history on its own does not always provide.

For an author, studying an Archaeologist’s findings can provide a reader with a unique and very realistic view of what happened in the past, how people lived, and how certain events such as a battle unfolded.
Archaeology combined with historical documentation not only proves or disproves recorded history, but can also enhance it, by providing a more three dimensional picture of the past.

Archaeological findings give us a lot more insight into history by allowing us to visualize how things were. For instance, the discovery of a wound or physical deformity on skeletal remains can give us a much clearer picture of how these sorts of things affected the life of an individual.
In April of 1987 an anonymous call was made to the Niagara Regional Police station in Fort Erie. Human bones had been unearthed near Old Fort Erie at a construction site (1).

The site would turn out to be one of the most interesting historical archaeological sites in Ontario, and resulted in the repatriation of twenty-eight American soldiers from the War of 1812 to their homeland for an honorary reburial (1).
Out of the twenty- eight skeletal remains that were uncovered during the excavation at Snake Hill in 1987, “Burial number five” stuck out the most in my mind.

•         An iron ball was found next to his right shoulder blade
•         A fragment of brick rested along his upper spine, and there was damage to one of the ribs of his lower back. (These injuries could have resulted from a nearby explosion.)
•         Tests showed that he had been approximately twenty years old, and five feet five inches tall.
•         His bones had isotope values that suggested European origins, and high lead levels, which pointed to either an upper-class background or an occupation involving work with lead, such as silversmithing.
•         His skull was slightly smaller than the North American average and his teeth showed signs of disease or malnutrition in infancy.
•         His body had been deposited in a fairly wide grave that was probably dug when there was time to ensure a spacious fit.
•         The grave cut through a deposit of prehistoric native artifacts (stone flaking tool, animal bones, charcoal and flint).
•         It also intersected a medical waste pit.
•         No buttons were found; this soldier might have been hospitalized for some time before his death.
•         A copper pin, found resting against his breastbone, might have been used to hold a bandage in place.
•         His grave contained an additional forearm and hand which lay beside his right elbow. They came from a very young teenager and appeared to have been amputated because of a fracture or projectile injury (1).

The mention of an additional arm found with the above mentioned skeletal remains, is what initially caught my eye and got my creative wheels turning. Where did that arm come from, I wondered?
Now of course it could be easily explained due to the fact that the grave site intersected a medical waste pit. This is where all of the amputated limbs and other body parts were buried. However, the description of it lying right beside the other full skeleton’s right elbow, and the fact that it appeared to belong to a very young teenager, got my imagination rolling. What if it was purposely buried there? Children as young as thirteen and fourteen were enlisted as drummers. Very quickly a fictional character formed in my mind. Doing a little more research on the siege at Fort Erie, and what life was like for the U.S soldiers, a storyline easily came to mind. I decided to use the information that was provided about the amputated arm. For instance it was thought the arm could have been amputated due to a fracture or projectile injury. I chose to have my character’s injury to have been caused by an explosion. This would have injured the arm in either of the ways described above.
Here’s an excerpt from my story “The Drummer’s Consequence”

“I had been drumming out new orders, when a cannon ball flew over the ramparts, bounced off the ground, and hit the man behind me. A few moments later an explosive shell struck the ground in front of me. The flash blinded me and struck me dumb. Almost at the same moment something hard and heavy knocked me to the ground.”
Eight surgically amputated limbs were recovered from one of the waste pits excavated by archaeologists. All of these amputated limbs displayed clean saw marks and a little tab of bone at the end of the cut where they had been snapped off. The actual process of amputation during that time period was quite efficient and swift. It had to be so the patient didn’t bleed to death. Also, it was done without anaesthetic. In a few seconds an experienced surgeon could cut almost all the way through the bone. A little tug would snap the last bit of bone off. This procedure explained the tab of bone found at the end of the amputated limbs found in the waste pit. The fact that this was all done without anaesthetic completely boggled my mind and made me cringe. I decided the amputation process would be the main part of the story line. I wanted to tell the story of that young man who must have endured so much pain (1).
Here’s the amputation process from “The Drummer’s Consequence”

“I felt something cold wrap around my arm. Startled, I jerked my head to the side.
“It is a tourniquet, it will help control the bleeding,” Doctor Miller explained.
“Drink this it will help dull the pain.”
My mouth was then pried open and a liquid forced down my throat. I choked on the whisky as it burned its way down. A musket ball was then shoved in my mouth. I was ordered to clamp it between my teeth. Pain that defies words slashed through my arm the instant the surgeon’s knife made the first cut through the skin and tissue. I clamped hard on the musket ball surprised my teeth did not crack.
The second cut sliced through the muscle right to the bone.
I screamed out, but hardly any sound came from my clenched mouth. I saw a flash of the surgeon’s saw. The next instant the pain so excruciating, I thought I would die. My heart pounded in my ears as I heard the distinct snap of bone. Then all went black.

During my research I came across a story about a British soldier who had to have his arm amputated. Upon hearing that his amputated arm was going to be discarded into the medical waste pit he hit the surgeon’s assistant. He was outraged that his arm would be just thrown away as if it were rubbish. This gave me an idea as to how my character’s arm would end up buried in a grave with another man.

From the “Drummer’s Consequence”

“I awoke to find myself recovering in the field hospital. So far, unlike so many others, I have yet to succumb to infection. Captain Brooks saved my arm from the medical waste pit. I am grateful. It was buried with the poor fellow who was struck by the same blast as I was. The Captain says I am to be honourably discharged from service. I know it has nothing to do with heroics — I can no longer drum or hold a musket. I am of no further use to the military. My opportunities are now very few.”
If you would like to read the Drummer’s Consequence in full you can click on the link to the Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation’s website.
I hope today’s blog has helped demonstrate how archaeology can help your story be more historically correct, but also, how it can spark your imagination and inspire creativity.

1.)   Litt, P., & Williamson R.F.,  & Whitehorne, J.W.A. (1993). Death at Snake Hill: Secrets from a War of of  1812 Cemetery.  Toronto & Oxford: Dundurn Press.

© Copyright by Catherine Raby 2012

Breaking Out of Your Shell

Stepping out of your comfort zone can be quite uncomfortable and down right scary at times. However, taking a chance can often leave one with a sense of achievement and accomplishment.

Writing short stories was something I was never comfortable with. I always seemed to have difficulty writing them.  My plots were too complicated. The word limitations I was given never seemed enough space to bring my characters to life. I envied those who could not only capture a reader’s interest right from the very first sentence but also write a great story in twelve hundred words or less.  It was something I thought I would never be able to do.

When I was asked to write a short story for the Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation’s Subsoil Newsletter I was nervous and leery at first. Not only was my story going to be published,  but many professionals from various educational backgrounds were going to be reading it. The thought paralyzed me.  It was a tremendous opportunity for an unpublished author–one I couldn’t refuse. So despite my apprehension and misgivings I agreed.

I took a few deep breaths and said to myself, “I can do this.” I then rolled up my sleeves and decided to get right to it—there was only one problem. What do I write about?  Do I center the story on local archaeology and the artifacts found, or a historical event that happened in the past? What time period do I choose?  Where would it take place?  The more questions I asked myself the more blocked I became. I didn’t know if I could do this.

I decided to start by scanning the Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation library. They have a treasure trove of books that cover topics that span from local history, archaeology, artifact identification etc… I flipped through book after book, but nothing seemed to jump out at me. Until finally the title “Death at Snake Hill” caught my eye.

It’s a book written by Paul Litt, Ronald F. Williamson & Joseph Whitethorne (Dundurn Press, 1993). The book documents the 1987 excavation of a United States military burial graveyard from the war of 1812 at Fort Erie.

The book fascinated me. The information that could be obtained from studying two hundred year old bones was truly extraordinary. Each discovery that was unearthed brought to light the individualism of each skeleton and the pain and suffering each had endured. The injuries that the soldiers had sustained were horrific—a true reminder of the ugliness of war.

The documentation of a skeleton buried in “burial number 5” intrigued me. It wasn’t just the description of the soldier’s violent and traumatic death that drew me, but the additional forearm and hand that was buried beside him. The arm was believed to have belonged to a very young teenager. I wondered; where did that arm come from?

I remembered from previous research that in the 18th and 19th centuries many young boys signed up to be drummer boys.…like magic a story formulated in my mind and, “The Drummer’s Consequence Part I of the ‘Snake Hill Chronicles’ ” suddenly came to life.

It was amazing how easily the story came to me. Even more extraordinary, I wrote it using only eleven hundred words. The extended version posted on CARF’s website is a little longer–it’s approximately fifteen hundred words. It was exhilarating.

What’s the moral to all of this….never under estimate what one can achieve. As long as you believe in yourself anything is possible. If you would like to read The Drummer’s Consequence by Catherine Raby (which I also write as) please go to to check it out.

Valentine’s Day–the best gift of all is love

Every February 14th, millions of people worldwide celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day.Where did this day of “love” all begin? Many myths and legends exist from several different origins. However, the most common legend is that of the story of a martyred priest, St. Valentine, who was executed on February 14th.  St. Valentine performed secret marriage ceremonies in opposition to Claudius II decree that soldiers were not to marry.   Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD wanted to honor St. Valentine, and so declared February 14th St. Valentine’s day—a Christian feast day.
Today it is a commercialized “cash cow” that in 2009 was said to have generated an estimated 14.7 Billion in sales in the U.S. That’s a lot of cards, chocolate, and flowers!
For me, Valentine’s Day is a day to reflect on my life, count my blessings, and most of all spend time with my husband of 15 years. Receiving gifts is always nice. Who doesn’t like presents? However, sometimes showing ones love in a more tangible way can be just as special.
In 2003 my husband gave me the ultimate gift of love—one of his kidneys.

If you would like to learn more about organ donation you can visit Trillium Gift of Life Network at  or

Time to Write–a Delicate Balance

Writing is such an enjoyment to me—a novelty. Writing allows me to be able to have time to myself, to use my imagination to create memorable characters and places. Finding the time, however, to get my thoughts down, to write the stories always running in my head, is challenging to say the least. In fact it’s one of the most frustrating things for me.

Having a full time job, a family life, cooking, dishes, laundry, errands, means I’m hard pressed to find enough free time to write. What about the evenings? That is an option, however, by the time eight o’clock rolls around I’m exhausted. I don’t know about other authors, but when I’m tired, my creativity is next to nil.

So what about the weekends? That’s another potential solution, and a time that I do get some writing done. Usually, that time is first thing in the morning, before everyone else is up. Once my son and husband are up, however, then the challenge begins.

I always fight with my conscience. Do I continue doing what I enjoy most in the world? After all, it is my day off! Should I tell everyone to get lost, and continue on with my writing? Or, do I set it aside, which usually is the case, and spend time with the two people who mean the most to me? It’s a hard decision—one that usually leads to my family winning, and to me feeling guilty for not staying true to myself by following my dream.

Don’t get me wrong, family should always come first; but can’t there be room for dreams too?

What’s the answer? Compromise. Find a time when I can write, undisturbed, yet still have time for my family and, naturally, all the endless chores and tasks waiting to be done.

When is this magical time? I discovered, the best time to write is first thing in the morning, both during the week and on weekends. It’s the best time for me—I’m fresh, and at my most creative. Also it’s QUIET. It’s the perfect compromise. Now, the key will be to get motivated to stick to that schedule—no matter what!

That’s a different hurdle to jump, and a blog for another day—as the trials and tribulations of an aspiring writer continues…


A Dream in the Works

As long as I can remember, I have had a long fascination with history. In elementary and secondary school, I always had my nose stuck in some historical book or another, reading everything from the north and south sagas by John Jakes to non-fiction books such as “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”. In grade eight I read my first historical romance, a young adult novel that took place during the American Civil War. I fell in love immediately with the historical romance genre and have been reading it ever since.

Being some what of a pack rat when it comes to old assignments and writing projects, I was going through some old files not too long ago and came across an old folder containing the beginning of a novel I started when I was fifteen. Though terribly written and filled with cliché’s and stereotypes, it was a vivid reminder of my early desire to write. It was a dream I had deemed foolish and unattainable at that time, so I packed it away along with my desire and confidence to write.

It wasn’t until twelve years later the hankering to write would revisit me. It all started after reading several novels by two of my favourite authors: Lorraine Heath and Penelope Williamson. Their books moved me in a way few authors had, pulling and tugging at my emotions to the point I would be laughing and crying all in the same chapter. Masters in characterization, plot, and setting, I was pulled instantly into the world they created and I didn’t want to come home. After reading Penelope Williamson’s gut wrenching Heart of the West, followed by Lorraine Heath’s riveting “Texas Destiny” I said to myself: “I want to be able to do that! I want to reach readers the same way they reach me, by pulling on people’s heart strings and giving happily–ever–after endings.”

I decided to give writing another try. I started attending writing workshops and took a writing course. I played around with several plots and began to map out a story. Within a year of making that decision however, I found out the single kidney I was born with, was failing. This was a big “wake up call,” now that I was facing an unknown future. It made me realize life is too short not to follow my dreams. With the support of my family, I made the decision to complete my first novel–no matter how long it took. So began my quest to become an accomplished author.

Although I was lucky to go through only three years of dialysis (due to a successful kidney transplant, donated by my very loving and giving husband), it took me eight years to accomplish my goal. With one manuscript now under my belt, a second in the works, I will continue to improve my craft and work towards my next goal, to get published.

Stay tuned…
Catherine 🙂