I am a recovering archaeologist.
I taught archaeology and anthropology for twenty years at Cal State Fullerton, did extensive fieldwork overseas, particularly in the Middle East, had a National Endowment of the Humanities grant for a year at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, was the director of the overseas campus of the California State University at the Hebrew University, and then, in 1995, the last time that the State of California had more in the pension fund than in the budget, I took a golden handshake, that would give me more money for not teaching than for teaching.
There was a restriction, of course. According to the terms of the handshake, I could no longer teach at any Cal State campus, not even in the extension, so after twenty years of teaching, I was at loose ends.
Then someone told me that the University of California was on a different retirement system, so I went down to the University of California at Irvine and began to teach two classes in the extension. There, they encourage extension faculty to take extension courses in other departments, and since they have a famous writing program, I tried two writing courses in the extension, one in short stories, and one in mysteries. Short stories, I thought, are easier to write (they’re not), and I always liked mysteries.
They told me to write what you know. What did I know? I knew archaeology. And I could tell you tales.
There was the archaeologist, Sir William Flinders-Petrie, a genius and a total nut, who had single-handedly invented modern archaeology. (No, it wasn’t Schliemann. Schliemann was a liar and a con artist, who salted the sites and stole some of the artifacts. I could tell you stories!) Petrie, on the other hand, had gone to Egypt in 1882 to measure pyramids because he believed in pyramid power. When he got there, he was upset because no one knew what happened when, and he decided to do something about it. He developed a series of sequence dates and straightened out Egyptian archaeology.
He then moved to a site in the Palestine, and using the Egyptian pottery he found there for cross-dating, with a toothache and a staff of three, he established the chronology for the archaeology of Palestine and went on to train a generation of British archaeologists, known as Petrie’s Pups.
He was so brilliant that he was convinced that his head was growing.
When he retired from the University of London, he moved to Jerusalem, where the sky was blue, prices were low, and the air was like champagne. He and his wife moved into a room at the American School of Oriental Research, and he spent the rest of his years strolling in the garden of the American School on the arm of his wife, stroking his long white beard as he accepted accolades from eager admirers.
He willed his head, with all its knowledge, to the medical school of the University of London on Gower Street.
When he died in 1942, they duly cut off his head, put it in a hatbox on the mantel in the director’s house of the American School, and buried the rest of him in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.
We had just entered World War II, and the director of the American School received a cable from Washington telling him to come immediately. Because of travel restrictions from the war, it took him two months to get to Washington–by boat to South America, through the jungles of Central America, and on up to Washington. When he got there, they told him to go right back and do an archeological survey of Trans-Jordan for the OSS. Two months later, he was back in Jerusalem. And the hatbox was gone.
Looking for Petrie’s head became an entertaining pastime at the American School. People looked for it in the library, under the stairs, in the attic. Once, they found a trunk-full of skulls in the attic, but they turned out to be from the cemetery of a site called Bab-edh-Dra.
When I had an NEH grant for research at the American School in 1983, we received a clipping in the mail from the Illustrated London News: a picture of a head cut off at the neck. The caption underneath read “WHO IS THIS MAN?” It looked exactly like Petrie, except that it was the head of a young man with a black beard and black hair.
Write what you know.
I wrote a short story, and sent it off to a literary magazine in San Francisco, and sold it for fifty dollars and a t-shirt. That was my first venture into published fiction.
Write what you know.
write by Alida