Countdown to "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery:" archaeologists as detectives

Just a little over a week until the premiere of "Site Unseen: An Emma Fielding Mystery," on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries!  Tune in June 4, 9/8c.

I was disappointed the first time I visited a state police lab. It was a trip with the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America or Sisters in Crime (and if you don’t belong to these groups, and you write crime fiction, you should definitely consider membership). The reason was that it looked almost exactly like the conservation lab I trained in as an undergraduate: same fume hood, glassware, brown chemical bottles, black work surfaces. Even the sample and evidence bags looked similar, either a variety of poly bags or paper bags with context information on them (in this case, the chain of evidence, rather than the location within a site’s stratigraphy).

My response wasn’t fair, of course, and it was only because I expected something more exciting than what I have had occasion to do. But that was the first time I really grokked the similarities between what detectives and archaeologists do, and the reason it made such sense that my main character, Emma Fielding, had the skills to be a plausible amateur detective: She was already trained at recreating past events from material, documentary, and interview evidence.

Courtney Thorne-Smith as Emma Fielding and James Tupper as FBI Agent TIm Conner.

Courtney Thorne-Smith as Emma Fielding and James Tupper as FBI Agent TIm Conner.

Artifacts are the most obvious example of the similarity between these two jobs. Discovering the artifacts’ context—where they were found on a site, and with what other things they were associated—tells us the time of deposition, whether it happened all at once (someone filling in a hole left from a planting) or over time (the gradual accumulation of artifacts and soil on a site over centuries), and how the objects were used.

Sounds like the clues on crime scenes you’ve seen on TV, right, with the construction of timelines and the examination of possible bullet trajectories, for example?

Documents serve the same purpose, whether they are maps that showed the house and outbuildings on a property at a given moment, or telephone records that indicate someone’s location. For the historical archaeologist (like me or Emma) wills and probate inventories tell what someone owned, long after the furniture and finishings have been handed down, sold or given away. Diaries are the best of all, because they may express emotion and intent, something that is very difficult to tease out from artifacts and stratigraphy. Or they may be disappointingly bland, nothing more than a series of entries about the weather.


Surprisingly, archaeologists find interviews of people who had connections to a site useful, even if the site is hundreds of years old. For example, if someone visited a grandparent who lived nearby a site, they may have heard stories from them about neighbors and events from almost a century back. Like a detective taking a witness’s statement, however, interviewees may misremember details or have heard a version of a local story that is incorrect. It’s a game of telephone, distance from the source (in this case, distance in time) obscures the message.

Archaeology even directly overlaps criminal investigation, with specializations in forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology. These both focus on human remains, in either modern forensic or ancient settings.

The most important similarity in both fields is in the practitioner’s patience and ability to apply scientific principals to the evidence. The work is painstaking and oftentimes is incredibly dull, but with both, there is, one hopes, the satisfaction of solving the puzzle at the end.

NEXT:  How to have a "Site Unseen" viewing party!