New Light on History

She’s explored sunken ships and helped excavate a Roman palace from 200 AD. Now, Ventura archaeologist turned author Aria Cunningham sifts through the rubble of antiquity to write historical romance novels based on archeological data.

By Amber Lennon

Photo by Karen Parkhouse

Aria Cunningham at her home office in Ventura. The papyrus scroll behind her depicts a scene from the Book of the Dead. In the foreground, a completed manuscript of “The Princess Betrayal” and a stack of textbooks she references for historical accuracy.


hat happened to the days of old, when kingdoms bowed to beauty and wars were waged with purpose and passion? Men of chivalry and honor may be as hard to find as fabled ancient treasure, and the virtuous maiden may have been replaced by the brazen. But Ventura author, archeologist, and adventurer Aria Cunningham reveals that the heroes and myths of yesteryear continue to teach powerful lessons that are just as poignant some 3,000 years later.

Her latest book, The Princess of Sparta, is the first historical fiction novel in her epic series “Heroes of the Trojan War.” This is not your oily Brad Pitt, winner-takes-all with a bloody spear Hollywood glamorization of the Bronze Age (although a series on the Trojan War is sure to pack some juicy testosterone battles). Instead, Cunningham’s exploration of this pivotal moment in history, when nearly every major civilization crumbled, is rooted in her own passion to excavate real stories about real people from archeological data and research.

“[The series] is archeological-based and as close to the sociopolitical elements as possible,” she explains from a comfortable seat in the East Ventura home she shares with her husband, J.R. Burningham. “It has a lot of passion, a lot of heart. Ultimately, it’s a love story.”

The tale of the Trojan War would, of course, be nothing without Helen and her tumultuous love affair with Paris. But before discounting this series as a sappy love song from a modern-day bard, don’t forget that Cunningham was first an archeologist. After her studies at Ventura College, she dove into anthropology and marine archaeology at UC Berkeley and spent her twenties castle hopping, exploring deep sea sunken ships, and tromping around ancient Roman palaces in Israel.

“The cool thing about anthropology is that it’s this growing and expanding history that keeps evolving as we discover more,” she says. “So instead of regurgitating knowledge that somebody puts in a book, you can have an active stance, be the detective, be the sleuth, and do an excavation.”

Do you detect an Indian Jones protégé? Cunningham says Indiana Jones films were some of her most inspiring influences and eventually led her to study film production at USC. However, after realizing the difficulty of getting her own stories on the big screen, she decided to relocate to her old stomping grounds in Ventura and start writing. Cunningham says returning to the laidback atmosphere of Ventura was essential to leading a balanced life of work and play, and she often retreats to the harbor to clear her mind with long walks on the beach between writing sessions.

It took a few months in the writer’s cave, breathing narrative life into the dusty historical record of Troy, but she emerged with a completed manuscript of Volume I and the confidence that a unique and historically accurate tale had begun. “I want to take a look at Helen, who in my experience has always been depicted as this bratty beauty, and give her a real story, give her a childhood, give her emotional responses to the things that have happened in her life that feel genuine,” she says. “By the time you are done, you’re going to cry when Troy falls. It’s one of those things where you don’t know the impact if you don’t know the characters.”

An old adage says, “History is doomed to repeat itself,” and Cunningham is not the first to observe parallels between the tragic ending of the Bronze Age and the precipice upon which humanity teeters today. “The sociopolitical and economic conditions that brought about the fall of the world in this time period—there are so many correlations to what you see today,” she explains. “For a thousand years these different kingdoms had this established rule that was breaking at the seams. I’m going to provide voices and faces so you can understand why there would be this huge rebellion that could basically topple governments.”

Peering into the complex psychology of leaders, villains, and victors, Cunningham hopes the “Heroes of the Trojan War” series will illuminate some of the pitfalls and, hopefully, lessons learned that could spare modern civilization from another round of near extinction.

“It’s about the worth of all people,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, who you were born to, or your walk of life—there is something honorable and noble in all people.”

Books, bio, and priceless info for
history geeks:

Canopic jars were used by the ancient Egyptians to store vital organs of the deceased. Cunningham picked up these Four Sons of Horus in Cairo.


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