A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How two archaeologists turned their passion for the past into bestsellers
"Biscuit root--that's starvation food." Novelist and archaeologist Kathleen O'Neal Gear pulls up a plant that looks like parsley and offers it to me. Nearby, her husband, co-writer and fellow archaeologist Michael Gear, is digging wild onion. Spare and soft-spoken, Kathleen betrays a quiet enthusiasm when it comes to the plants growing wild on their ranch. The Gears' novels, popular accounts of prehistoric life in North America, are laden with detailed descriptions of plant life and how ancient Native Americans might have used it. In the distance are some of the Gears' herd of more than 100 buffalo. Kathleen tells me about the grasses the buffalo eat--blue gramma, Western wheat, steppe blue grass, Indian rice grass, needleandthread. They also eat yucca. "It's like ice cream for the buffalo," adds Michael, whose bushy black beard gives him the look of a nineteenth-century frontiersman, which seems entirely appropriate to this remote stretch of northwestern Wyoming.
We get into the Gears' four-by-four and head down a steep dirt road that leads to Red Canyon Ranch, their 1,600-acre spread bordering the Wind River Reservation. On the way to the ranch, we drive past a small rockshelter decorated with petroglyphs made by the Shoshone some 500 years ago. At the bottom of the canyon, not far from the Gears' home, are the ruins of a dugout stagecoach station.
The Gears are on intimate terms with the history, flora, and fauna of not just their ranch but of Wyoming and most of the surrounding states. It's knowledge born of long experience. Among other jobs, Kathleen was once a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist. Michael worked as a contract archaeologist, surveying and excavating sites threatened by proposed highways, pipelines, and oil wells.
They do most of their work these days inside their ranch house in front of a computer. Drawing on their professional backgrounds and their love of history, Michael and Kathleen have experienced remarkably successful second careers as novelists. Together, they have coauthored more than 15 novels, including the popular First North Americans series, which follows characters from different periods of North American prehistory and the bestselling Anasazi Mysteries, which weaves together the adventures of modern-day archaeologists and Native American characters struggling to survive in the ancient Southwest.
Written in a breezy style, the books are a varied lot. Some are epics, others are mysteries. Some read like fast-paced thrillers with political intrigue at the core, while others dwell on clashes between cultures. Often they feature romance between improbably fit men and women. But they all brim with vivid descriptions of the North American landscape, and all share a close fidelity to the archaeological record.
Eric A. Powell is associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.