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