Can you dig it?
Archeologist writes kids adventure story: 'Chloe Diggins and the Eternal Emperor'
Fresh out of college, Jennifer Less arrived in Israel ready to dig. She was part of an international crew from Italy, France and the United States that stayed in a monastery on a hill above a Byzantine period pilgrimage site, dating from 750-1200 AD, near Jerusalem.
"Not only was the history of the site intriguing but the site was chock full of artifacts with a church, ancient mosaic floor, and oil presses," Jennifer Less Amiel recalled recently
In 1996, she had earned a degree in anthropology from UC Santa Barbara with an emphasis in archeology. This work in Israel was an opportunity to use her knowledge and skills, honed by work on digs at the former home of the Chumash people north of her college town and their ceremonial site off the California shore, on Anacapa Island.
"Although there were exciting and memorable moments on each site, the Byzantine site was my favorite," Amiel said. "The whole experience was unique."
The work was also hot and dirty, she noted with a smile in her cool Pleasanton home, where she lives her with husband Meir and children Ben, 8, and Maya, 6. It also meant waking up at 4 a.m. and walking a mile to the site.
"You can work all day in 100 degree heat, move buckets until you can't feel your arms, and go home covered in dirt having found nothing of significance," she explained.
But one day was different and is still fresh in her memory.
"I noticed a small blue object as it fell into the dirt at the bottom of the trench," she said. "After cleaning it off we came to discover it was a piece of a glass bracelet worn by a woman over one thousand years ago.
"I wondered what her life was like and what kind of person she was," Amiel continued. "I wondered if she could have ever imagined another woman so many years later would admire her piece of broken jewelry."
Such moments of discovery make the work worthwhile, Amiel said. She treasures that fragment of blue glass still; although it has no monetary value, to Amiel it's a strong emotional link to another woman from centuries past.
Amiel studied Peruvian ancient cultures and archeology for three years, planning to head for a dig in Peru after college, but terrorist activity prevented it and she joined the dig in Israel.
She remained fascinated by Peru and the Inca Empire discovered by Spanish explorers in 1526 so she made it the setting for with her newly released book, "Chloe Diggins and the Eternal Emperor."
It is the story of 12-year-old Chloe, who accompanies her UC Berkeley professor father on his summer dig to the ancient capital of the Inca Empire in Peru, along with her younger brother, Quinn, who is 9. Their mother has died recently, which is why they can't stay home in Berkeley, but this fact also adds maturity to Chloe's character.
"It's written for ages 9-12 because of the mother dying," Amiel said. "It needed conflict."
She noted that when you take one person out of a family, it's a struggle for those who remain.
"I needed Chloe to show inner strength, that she could persevere through difficulties," Amiel said. "Chloe doesn't hide being smart."
After the book's prologue, which tells of the demise of the last Inca emperor, Chapter One begins with Chloe's family at the excavation in Peru on a hot, ordinary day at the dig. But things quickly pick up with a discovery. Then the plot takes several mysterious turns -- including the disappearance of the dad. It's left to Chloe and her new friend Tom to sort things out. For starters: Who is her friend? Who is the enemy?
The adventure keeps up a fast pace amid the ruins, museums and the city where they are staying, blending fiction with historical facts and sites.
"It's an ode to a trip to Peru," Amiel said. "I have three years under my belt of studying the archeology and history of Peru. People say I got it spot on."
Chloe is intelligent, strong-minded, a little daring, and not afraid "to get some dirt under her nails," Amiel said.
"As a mother of two children, I wanted to create a story that would demonstrate the potential of a young girl who is smart, warm and adventurous," she noted, someone for girls to cheers on, boys to respect and parents to admire.
Chloe's attributes come from women close to Amiel, she said: "the friendliness and grace" of her mother, the kindness of her sister, and a whole lot of her own curiosity and the need to push boundaries. Amiel said she now feels like Chloe is a good friend, and she is very real to her.
"I started writing it seven years ago -- the conception and research. It was two years for the writing," Amiel said. "It started off more fantasy-based -- things coming to life -- but then I wanted it to be something that could happen, more realistic."
A recent reading and book signing at Towne Center Books drew a huge crowd.
"I have received calls from mother-daughter book clubs, and I'm excited about that," she said.
Amiel says she was always interested in history and the people who came before us. As a young girl growing up in Los Angeles, she subscribed to National Geographic and archeology magazines.
"I like having pieces of history around me," she said. "When I was 10 years old, I was saving my money and going to antique stores, buying antique poetry books."
She also collects old children's books, which her children often pick up, she said.
After getting her master's degree in museum studies with an emphasis in education, Amiel worked at the Lawrence Hall of Science managing its education programs. She is now director of education for the Museum on Main in Pleasanton.
Amiel is looking forward to speaking to middle school students about archeology.
"I love putting a potshard into a child's hand and seeing their awestruck face when I tell them it was crafted by someone over a thousand years ago," she said.
Amiel traveled extensively as a child; her grandfather was Gunther Less, whose television documentary show, "Journey to Adventure," ran for 39 years.
She would still love to go to China, where she has never been.
"I would be thrilled to participate in an active excavation at a site in that region," she said. "There is a lot of work being done now on sites of early agriculture and sedentism."
And Chloe? She's headed to Ireland for her next adventure, Amiel said.
"She has the potential to go anywhere in the world and I'm looking forward to feedback from readers to help guide Chloe on her adventures to come, " Amiel said. "I hope readers will continue on this journey with Chloe. I think it's going to take her to some amazing places."