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Latest mystery novel by archaeologist draws from experiences in Israel

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Sarah Wisseman
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University of Ilinois Photo
Archaeologist Sarah Wisseman has written her second mystery novel featuring a spunky museum curator.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A race to find early Christian writings before fanatical groups discover and destroy them, sinister Bedouins and spirited archaeologists, papyrus writings by a “Deborah of Damanhur,” one of 12 female apostles of Christ.

Toss in a death and a couple of smoldering love affairs.

It’s all part of a new novel, “Dead Sea Codex,” published by Hard Shell Word Factory and written by Sarah Wisseman, who lived in Israel and studied biblical archaeology at Tel Aviv University before becoming a museum curator and archaeologist.

Today, Wisseman is the director of Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials, an interdisciplinary research unit at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that uses modern tools to analyze the structure, composition, technology and dating of ancient objects.

This is Wisseman’s second mystery featuring a spunky museum curator named Lisa Donahue, a woman not unlike her creator. The real-life archaeologist is the author of five books of non-fiction on ancient Greek vases and Greek archaeology, scientific methods in archaeology and Egyptian mummies.

The story and characters in “Dead Sea Codex” are fictional, but the settings – the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and the site of Masada – are known to Wisseman from living and traveling in Israel in the 1970s.

Wisseman concedes that Dan Brown’s best-selling “The Da Vinci Code” was “out there” when she was writing “Codex.” In fact, reading his books “reignited” her earlier interest in Gnostic literature. She also consumed the Da Vinci code literature, including the background Brown tapped into, “and that all helped, but I took a very different tack.”

“Rather than focusing on one woman – Mary Magdalene – my story is about female role conflicts past and present,” Wisseman said. “For example, Lisa and her colleagues struggle to balance their professional aspirations, religious backgrounds and relationships with the men they love.”

Living in Israel as a non-Jewish student surrounded by Jews and Muslims, and taking anthropology courses had “a profound effect” on Wisseman.

As did Elaine Pagels’ books – “Gnostic Gospels” and “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas” – which involve early Christian beliefs.

“I was fascinated by the many forms of Christianity that existed before the fourth century A.D. and the Gnostic sects that believed that God is within every person and that one doesn’t need an external preacher or even an organized church to find God.”

The “Book of Deborah,” the codex Wisseman created in her new novel, includes many of those Gnostic beliefs that Wisseman finds “personally most appealing.”

In the beginning of “Codex,” Donahue accidentally finds fragments from “The Book of Deborah” in a clay pot at a Jerusalem museum, where she is overseeing a loan to her museum in Philadelphia; later, she traces the cache of papyri to a Bedouin souk.

A codex – codices in the plural – “is the first real book form,” Wisseman said.

“The earliest form was Roman – a set of wooden waxed tablets tied together – and the ancestor of the codex, which was made of folded sheets of papyrus or paper, sewn along one edge and often having a leather cover.”

The codex was a great improvement over the scroll, she said, “which had to be unrolled and then rolled up and tied every time it was read.”

Wisseman also draws heavily on real-world archaeological finds, in particular, those from the Nag Hammadi Library. The 13 ancient codices that were found in Egypt in 1945 included a large number of primary Gnostic scriptures – the Gospels of Mary, Philip, Thomas and Truth – that were presumed destroyed during Christianity’s struggle for primacy and orthodoxy.

Wisseman, who considers herself “spiritual and religious, but not necessarily Christian,” believes that orthodox religions may be “a bit confining” for many people today.

“The idea that early Christians had a much more flexible and inclusive form of religion is very appealing.”

So is a larger role for Mary Magdalene, as is found in “The Da Vinci Code,” “Codex” and elsewhere.

“It implies a larger role for all women as teachers and preachers and creators, along with men, of religious policy and acceptable forms of worship. In other words, a much more balanced view of the world than what we see today in the more extreme forms of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.”

In the secular realm, Wisseman recognizes that she is hardly unique as an archaeologist-turned-mystery writer. Plenty of them have traded their shovels for laptops – making it easier for them to “virtually kill off colleagues who irritate them without ending up in jail,” Wisseman joked.

Elizabeth Peters, born Barbara Mertz, who earned a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, wrote some two dozen archaeological mysteries and gothic romances under two pen names, plus at least two non-fiction books on archaeology.

Dana Cameron, a New England archaeologist, “writes great, detailed mysteries,” Wisseman said, with titles such as “Site Unseen” and “Grave Consequences.”

Canadian Lyn Hamilton writes archaeological mysteries starring an antiquities dealer, and always travels to the exotic locales she is writing about. At one time, Hamilton was responsible for licensing all archaeology in Ontario.

Wisseman, as it happens, had an inside track into mystery: She was born into the genre, “in a household with moldering old Penguin mysteries all over the place,” she said.

Her parents even fought over one on their honeymoon. Later, they read mysteries to their children. Wisseman remembers hearing “The 39 Steps” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” while growing up in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, and Weston, near Boston.

After her father retired from practicing law, he wrote, but never published, two books of mystery.

In the first one, “Anatomy of a Merger,” he “killed off a fellow lawyer on page one,” Wisseman said. Last fall, she self-published her father’s second mystery, “The Cambridge Caper.”

Aside from the delight in doing away with the occasional colleague, what writing fiction gives Wisseman is “the chance to let my imagination take flight and invent new people and situations, to write happy endings that don’t necessarily echo real life and the opportunity for virtual travel without having to buy an airplane ticket or risk King Tut’s revenge.”

Writing mysteries also gives her personality “a new dimension.”

Along the way, she has made countless friends, many of them other mystery writers she meets at conferences. These people – and those in her writing groups – are “funny, smart and generous,” sharing their writing methods and strategies for getting published.

Other generous folks: “The Chicago cops who teach us how to use and write about guns and ‘the Poison Lady who gives seminars in how to” – well, no mystery there.

That poison workshop has paid off. Wisseman is writing her third Lisa Donahue mystery, wherein Lisa and her husband – a radiologist not unlike Wisseman’s own doctor husband, Charlie, “stumble upon a terrorist plot to infect tourists with smallpox.” “The House of the Sphinx” is “loosely inspired” by the Wissemans’ trip to Egypt last fall.