New service offered--Ask an Archaeologist!

I just finished reading The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott (because its sequel, The Magician, is a Cybils nominee). I enjoyed it. Fast paced, nicely detailed, interesting plot. I'm looking forward to reading The Magician.

But I really wish people wouldn't put archaeologists into their books without knowing what archaeologists actually do!

Josh and Sophie, the two main characters, have parents who are archaeologists, and this is what Scott says about them:

“They were known worldwide for their discoveries, which had helped reshape modern archaeology. They were among the first in their field to discover the existence of the new species of small hominids that were now commonly called Hobbits in Indonesia. Josh always said that their parents lived five million years in the past and were only happy when they were up to their ankles in mud” (pages 63-64).

The only "discoveries" that would actually reshape the whole field of archaeology are things like figuring out new dating techniques, or new ways to extract information from artifacts and dirt. Discovering a new species of hominid does very little to change the shape of modern archaeology as a discipline.

And perhaps Josh is joking with his comment about five million years in the past, because, since archaeology involves the study of human behavior, archaeologists don't care about things that old. Scott seems to be making the classic oh-so-annoying error of confusing archaeologists and paleontologists, as sh0wn by this remark:

“Dad found a dozen Pseudo-arctolepis sharpi in near perfect condition,” she reported. Josh looked blank. “A very rare Cambrian crustacean,” she explained” (page 64).

This same confusion of archaeologists and paleontologists also shows up a few pages later, with a new species of dwarf dinosaur and 165 million year old dinosaur tracks being given as examples of extraordinary archaeological discoveries.

This could have been avoided, and I would have enjoyed the book more (always an important consideration) if Scott had only asked an archaeologist.

Addendum (as noted by TV in a comment): On page 121 of The Magician, Scott makes the parents paleontologists as well as archaeologists. So someone must have said something to him...

So I am offering, FREE OF CHARGE, my services. As a professional archaeologist, I will read any bits of your book that deal with archaeology, and critique them as to their portrayal of the discipline. This will ensure that, when I have the finished book in my hands, I am not thrown out of your fictional world in a fit of annoyance. Sadly, I can't actually be helpful regarding descriptions of past people, places, and civilizations (real archaeologists specialize--I'm pretty good with 17th-century northeastern America, and a few other times and places, but know almost nothing about, say, the Incas).

The Last of the High Kings, by Kate Thompson, is another book with archaeologists nominated for the Science Fiction/Fantasy Cybils. Thompson does a fine job--archaeologists will not find her descriptions painful to read.

The best fictional portrayal of archaeologists in a children's book, however, is Nancy Bond's Country of Broken Stone (about digging up Romans near Hadrian's Wall). An excellent story, and good archaeology.


  1. I don't think the twin's parents are even mentioned in the second book. I'll admit to being annoyed by this error myself, but found myself wondering if this mistake was cultural. Could it be that in Ireland that the words archaeologist and paleontologist are used interchangeably? Or that archaeologist is commonly used for both?

  2. I sometimes want to offer an "Ask a Teacher" service like that. In books, movies, and television teachers behave in ways we never would in real life. Nice to know I'm not the only one bugged by stuff like this!

  3. It's interesting that you posted this, because I had the same kind of problem with the martial arts information given in the book - some of which was blatantly wrong. It ruined the whole book for me. These two things combined make me wonder if Scott bothered to research anything at all. Of course, it is a work of fiction, but one should still make the attempt to get ones facts straight in a fictional book.

  4. My history major friend gets so frustrated with historical fiction. She wishes that people would just make everything up rather than try to fit their characters into history and get the history wrong! It is splendid of you to offer your services for free, but I think a fee would be most reasonable.

  5. I have just finished book two, the Magician and in it, the twins parents are described as being both an archaeologist and a paleontologist. One of each.


  6. Hi Charlotte! Very nice of you to provide this service. If I ever need your expertise, I will certainly ask!

  7. In response to Tricia's suggestion, I asked an Irish friend what they call people in Ireland who find fossils. "Farmers." Amusing, but not helpful.

  8. Try being an historian and reading The DaVinci Code. Actually, that was a lot of fun: I started laughing on page one.
    Funny, I was just thinking the same thing about a mystery novel I was reading. Have any mystery novelists ever actually been private investigators, I wondered? Then again, this particular author was formerly a newspaper reporter, so good enough...

  9. Hi, Charlotte! I'll certainly take you up on this should the need ever arise. Thank you.

  10. I think you'll find it was archaeologists on a dig who discovered the 'hobbits'. The difficulty with the text as you report it is that these 'hobbits' only died out 13,000 years ago not millions of years ago.

    See BBC


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