Adventures in Research by Jordan Jacobs
Reading was my primary pastime growing up. When I wasn’t at school or Little League, or at a movie with friends, I was stretched out on the floor of my bedroom, a book propped up in front of me.
It was fiction that usually kept me up late into the night, or made me linger at the breakfast table until I had to run to school. I loved John Bellairs and William Sleator, especially, Herge’s Tintin books and The Three Musketeers. But my early academic interests pulled me towards non-fiction, too: biographies, histories, and college archaeology textbooks–loaned, by hard-won special arrangement, from the local university’s library.
All that research made me a bit of a skeptic. What was Herge thinking when he had Tintin decipher inscriptions in an Incan tomb? Didn’t he know that the Inca had no written language? D’Artagnan’s adventures had me scouring the library for an English translation of Dumas’ source material, an obscure 17th century text.
This needless due diligence actually enriched my reading experience, no matter the inaccuracies I found. Still, it was pretty exhausting, and over the years, I’ve learned again to suspend my disbelief. (There’s still traces of it in my psyche, though: I was much less upset by the infamous A-bomb/refrigerator scene in the most recent Indiana Jones movie than the presence of an Aztec calendar in a purportedly Nazca tomb.)
In writing the Samantha Sutton series, though, I hold myself to the same standards for accuracy as I did the favorite authors of my youth. In part, this has to do with my day job: as an archaeologist and museum professional, research is what I do. But there’s some of my old obsession in there, as well.
The Samantha Sutton books are adventures, to be sure. But when Sam’s travels intersect the real world, I avoid sensationalism in favor of archaeological fact. The characters–the good ones, anyway– use appropriate survey, excavation, and dating methodologies. The description of the sites Samantha visits and her theories and conclusions about how they once were used are drawn from real data and my own experience in the field. It helps that the settings of all the books in the series are so exciting that they basically write themselves.
Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Lies takes place at the Peruvian site of Chavín de Huántar, an Andean temple complex that would make an archaeology lover out of anyone. It is a grand, commanding, mysterious place. Cryptic carvings mark its surfaces. The dark, twisting galleries that run through it serve as homes for large colonies of screaming bats, and as depositories for fantastical stone heads, delicate ceramics, and the occasional human bone. Best of all, perhaps, are the cunning devices of sound and light deployed within it, rigged to manipulate the human mind.
Samantha Sutton and the Winter of the Warrior Queen is set at the site of an Iron Age fortress near Cambridge, England, where–local tradition holds–Queen Boudica made her final stand against the Romans. Its marshy surroundings are bleak and foreboding, and the archaeological work that has been done there tells a true story better than anything I could have dreamed up on my own.
Do readers notice all this effort? Most, I’m sure, do not. And they don’t need to: the stories are adventures, and both should stand on their own. But I often recognize myself in my readers — in the questions I get at school visits, or in the letters I receive. And the few times they’ve stumped me, I’ve never been so pleased.
Jordan Jacobs’ love of mummies, castles, and Indiana Jones led to his first archaeological excavation at age 13 in California’s Sierra Nevada. He followed his passion at Stanford, Oxford, and Cambridge and through his work for the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and UNESCO. His love of travel has taken him to almost fifty countries. He now works as senior specialist at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.