My fascination with this started when, as a child growing up in Zimbabwe, I used to run and play amongst the ancient stone walls of the magnificent Zimbabwe Ruins. There is nothing more hauntingly beautiful or fascinating than a mysterious, long-gone civilization.
Michelle, I think many of us writers have that in common — we each had certain experiences, back in childhood, that tantalized us with hints and whispers of a bigger, older world, and made us want to dive deeper and discover that world’s secrets.
I grew up in Ohio and Texas, where there are no ruins of great lost empires (except for the Mississippian Empire, whose people I might write about someday… though there isn’t much left of their cities, and they never wrote anything down) — so for me, all those experiences had to come from books.
I loved those books, with their brightly colored illustrations of old Egypt and Babylon, and I wanted to know more about their people, and their languages, and what it was like to live their lives. I wanted to go anywhere that could take me back to those faraway reaches of time, and show me how to me bring those people and places back to life.
I was in love with ancientness. I still am.
That was one reason I knew I had to leave the U.S. I remember seeking out the oldest cemetery in the country, which is in Boston, and dates from the 1600s — and I stood there looking at those graves and thought, “This is it? This is as old as it gets here?”
Then I flew to Istanbul and walked through ruins a thousand years old — and found that nobody cared much about them. They were just old fenced-in places you had to make your way around as you carried your groceries home. That’s true in a lot of old places, but I still try to hold onto my childhood sense of intrigue wherever I go.
For me personally, the most evocative, shivers-up-my-spine scene I can imagine is this: A team of explorers are digging down into the site of an ancient city, a place older than any they’ve found before, a place that pre-dates all known civilizations; and they dig down through the layers upon layers until they come to the deepest one, the farthest back in history they’ve ever reached, thousands of years before anything else they know — and there, at the very bottom of time, they find… the ruins of an archaeology museum.
And that really happened!
When modern archaeologists dug down into the ruins of the primordial city of Ur, in what’s now Iraq, they found the wreckage of a great museum — known as Ennigaldi-Nanna’s museum — filled with texts and artifacts dating back centuries to the early days of Babylon… and back thousands of years earlier, to the Sumerian Renaissance and the Akkadian empire before it… back even further, to the earliest Sumerian cities of Uruk and Eridu.
Many of those relics were vastly ancient even to the princess who curated the museum.
She’d cared so much about those people from her past that she’d arranged all the artifacts in groups by origin and historical period, and neatly labeled each of them with a plaque explaining its origin and nature.
There’s nothing more hauntingly beautiful than that.