Welcome to my weekly series “Designing from Bones”, using archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. This week we will take a tour through the darkened recesses of three ancient tunnels in search of a wealth of ideas.
Tunnels are creepy. Tunnels are dark. Every twist and turn becomes a question of the unknown that can only be answered by exposing ones head. Every tremor or explosion threatens collapse and instant burial.
If this last should happen to you, perhaps one day, thousands of years from now, an archaeologist will find you and create a story about you and your world based on the best science and understanding of the day. Experience in reading these types of stories tells me that the things the archaeologist doesn’t know will be filled in with a healthy dose of conjecture, what we writers call fiction, to give a full picture of a person, place and time.
Follow me through the cobwebs and into the mysterious corridors of the past. Light a torch. Stay close and you may be safe. Wander and none may find you for eons.
To say that the Mayans held strong beliefs about death would be an understatement. They firmly believed that the dead inhabited a land deep beneath the surface and that their ancestors could be called on to assist the living from the spirit world.
The living above and the dead below is often seen in the architecture that the Mayans left behind. Mountainous temples climb towards the sun and stars while below them lie tunnels used for ritual and the burial of central figures to their culture. Kings and Shamans.
Below the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan lies a representation of their belief in the underworld that is currently being explored by archaeologists. The tunnel, believed to be 400 feet long, descends 40 feet below the temple and was intentionally blocked at some point between 200 A.D. and 300 A.D.
As writers, intentional actions without a known explanation should catch our imagination. The unknown breeds thoughts of “what if “naturally. Call it organic brainstorming.
What if a king and his treasure lie buried in the chamber that must be at the end of the tunnel? What if a great plague descended and the Shamans, failing to stop the devastation, were walled inside by an angry populace? What if either of the previous two never died, forcibly trapped within for the past 1800 years, bound by curse or spell, dreaming of release and carnage?
What if the chamber turns out to be empty but on the walls are carved the sacred texts of an ancient people? What adventure would our heroes find crafted into the age-old script?
Brush off the cobwebs my friends, we have reached the first turn in our tunnel tour and the air now bakes our skin and turns the oases of our mouths into dry barren wells.
The Salt Men
West of the city of Zanjan, Iran lie the Chehrabad salt mines. In 1993, miners discovered a body encased in salt. The salt had preserved not only the corpse but some of his clothing and gear as well. One foot was still in its leather boot, trousers still shrouded the legs, iron knives, a silver needle, a walnut and other sundry items adorned his leathery remains. His skin turned to the consistency of beef jerky.
The body lay in a 140 foot long tunnel and over the course of several years excavation, five more bodies were unearthed from their salt-laden grave in this tunnel, including a woman and a teenager.
Were these people here to mine the salt, victims of a cave-in or were they brought here for crimes unknown and made to bake in the sun, dying slowly in the depths? Perhaps they were prisoners or kidnap victims who never lived to see a ransom. What if they returned to life as Salt Zombies? What! Never heard of Salt Zombies? A new twist to spice the imagination.
Ah, the final turn in our journey. Here, wear this mask. Foul vapors await ahead and I’ll not have you become faint and fall behind for the Salt Zombies to devour.
In 256 A.D. the Roman-held Syrian city of Dura-Europos came under siege by the Persians. In an attempt to undermine the cities walls the Persians attempted to dig tunnels below them. In response, the Romans dug their own tunnels outward, hoping to head off any incursion before it could create a breach.
During this subterranean battle of cat and mouse, a Roman patrol of 20 soldiers heard the digging of the Persians and angled for them. As the two tunnels met the Persian sapper lit a device made of sulfur crystals and bitumen creating a hot fire and a rapidly expanding cloud of noxious gas. The first known use of chemical warfare. It is believed that all of the Roman soldiers and the Persian that lit the device died as a result of this gas.
The tunnel was abandoned, the bodies left out of fear the gas would cause others to die or possibly that evil spirits would claim any that entered. Here they lay forgotten, until Robert du Mesnil du Buisson, a French archaeologist began excavating the ruins in the 1920’s and 30’s and discovered the grisly scene.
From the writers perspective, the story of these twenty-one men can be placed in any time frame. Two trains on a collision course, unable to stop or turn aside. Character arc and a sense of the inevitable ring paramount in this story.
Another option that could be explored here is if one of the twenty-one, preferably the Persian or the Roman leader carried a significant item. This item could be turned into the first clue of many, leading the reader on an adventure to solve an age old mystery and reveal a potential answer to a question that still plagues the understanding of the modern age. You know, the concept that Dan Brown uses regularly in his novels.
And now friends we come to the end of tunnel. The favorite moment of the living, a reemergence into fresh air and sunlight with renewed hope and a wealth of powerful ideas.
How do you feel about tunnels? Creeped out by them? Love to adventure? Have you heard of any tunnels not mentioned here that others might find fun to explore as well? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments.
Looking for more great ideas and information on writing? Check out my previous “Designing from Bones” entries. Want to know how to make blogging and social media a powerful tool? Try Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone—The Writer’s Guide to Social Media & Are you there blog? It’s me, Writer