A select group of local young authors is looking to unlock a mystery.
Following in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned Sherlock Holmes, or Agatha Christie, who wrote Murder on the Orient Express, a small group of up-and-coming mystery writers headed to the Penn Museum in April to research a historic whodunit: “The Mystery of the 26 Helmets.”
In the 6th Century B.C., Etruscan traders set out on a journey to transport 26 new solid cast bronze helmets manufactured in the City of Vulci (northwest of Rome). They were headed to the town of Negau, located in what’s now Slovenia, which is situated to the north and east of Italy.
They made it past the Alps. And they were never seen again.
The traders disappeared – and so did their 26 helmets.
That is, until the 1800s, when a German archaeologist was digging in a nearby forest. The archeological dig yielded the untouched 26 bronze cast helmets, carefully packed in a wooden chest and buried six feet under the forest floor.
What happened to the Etruscan traders? How could they just simply vanish? What would cause them to bury these 26 helmets so deep underground in the forest? Was foul play involved? Were shenanigans afoot?
The mystery writers-to-be are planning to answer those questions and more.
As a part of a new, 90-minute interactive educational program, seven fifth-grade students from the Henry C. Lea Elementary School were selected for this special activity. Their goal was to visit the artifacts in the Penn Museum’s Etruscan Gallery and strengthen their creative writing skills by tying in elements of mystery and historical fiction based on actual events.
These seven were chosen from among 30 students in two 5th grade classes at Lea.
According to their teacher, these students have really grown as writers.
“They were really excited about creative writing, but more importantly, they represent Lea’s shining stars,” says Lindsey Coyne, a fifth- grade teacher at Lea Elementary. “We’re so thankful that Penn has opened its doors to us,” she adds.. “We walked here, and we’re exposing them to all of this history and culture at the museum, just a few blocks away.”
Penn’s many activities involving the Lea School reflect President Amy Gutmann’s institutional priorities, including the University’s commitment to local engagement.
The students will weave historical facts throughout their mysteries, and what they learned at the Penn Museum will help them to generate ideas for their story settings, characters and plot developments.
Benjamin Ashcom, a docent for the Etruscan Gallery and Roman Gallery at the Museum, provided background information to the students about the Etruscans and their culture. He talked about how the Etruscans did not have an organized military, but if the city was threatened, all males would serve as soldiers to defend it. He told the students of the Etruscans’ resources, how they had access to the copper mines to make bronze armor, art and hardware and how the society had many factories to produce shoes, fabrics, gold, jewelry, pottery, ships, chariots and wagons.
Ashcom delved into how implements of war and their production and manufacturing were highly profitable – and how the Etruscans were an entrepreneurial bunch, selling their wares to the Greeks, Romans and even their sworn enemy, the Gauls.
Now the students are armed with a review of the facts, it’s up to them to “fill in the blanks” in this unique creative writing activity, which is a part of a mystery-writing unit, based on the common-core standards.
Ashcom provided printed background information, including photographs of artifacts, and regional maps to encourage the students to start thinking like historians –- or, at least, like historical fiction writers –- in order to recreate the story leading up to the disappearance of the Etruscan traders and their 26 helmets.
“Your imagination is the only thing that counts,” Ashcom told the class.
He distributed faux coins featuring the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom, inspiration and the arts, so that students could have them nearby to stimulate creativity as they write their stories. And, he gave each student three passes for free admission to the Penn Museum, so they can share the source of their mysterious, historical, creative-writing adventure with their loved ones.
Ashcom says that he’s looking forward to reading each version of “The Mystery of the 26 Helmets,” which may be on display in the Penn Museum or at the Lea School.
The students plan to start writing their stories this week.