Skilled as they are at piecing together complex and often elusive clues to reconstruct a sequence of events, you might describe archaeologists as a kind of detective. (Certainly, these worlds collide in the field of forensic archaeology.) It is surely no surprise, then, that some archaeologists are also rather good at writing crime fiction. CA has previously reported on Francis Pryor’s Alan Cadbury novels, and now Nicola Ford – the pen name of Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site – has thrown her trowel into the ring with this zippy, clever, and entertaining read.
The Hidden Bones stars Clare Hills, once a brilliant archaeology student who is now 15 years out of the field, but eager to find a distraction following the untimely death of her husband. Fortunately, just such an opportunity is offered by a former university friend, now an academic and archaeologist, Dr David Barbrook. David is investigating a mystery of his own.
Excavated in the 1970s, the (fictional) Hungerbourne Barrows were ‘the most spectacular Bronze Age cemetery dug in modern times’, yet, after a promising first season, the project was abruptly wrapped up without explanation – and, other than a ‘painfully brief magazine article’ (none taken!), nothing of its findings was ever published. The lead archaeologist has since died, and the excavation archive is thought to have been lost in a fire. As David and Clare dig deeper, though, rather murkier mysteries begin to emerge. ‘Archaeologists normally wait until people have been dead for a few hundred years before they start poking around in their lives,’ we are told. Not so here.
The tale is set in Wiltshire, a landscape that Nicola knows inside out thanks to her day job in the Stonehenge landscape. The author’s love for, and deep knowledge of the distinctiveness of that chalky environment, sings through the prose. When you read about a recently opened trench as a ‘mud-streaked cream rectangle’, you could not be anywhere else.
Beyond vividly tactile descriptions of the excavation process, there is much more to the world that Nicola has created to make her fellow-archaeologists smile (albeit sometimes wryly). Funding bids for radiocarbon analysis are made to ‘British Heritage’; university archaeologist David spends more time battling his inbox and justifying his lack of research funding to the testy Vice Chancellor than digging; the barrows excavation team is nicknamed the ‘Brew Crew’; prehistoric artefacts lie nestled in foam-lined wooden drawers. This attention to detail creates a confidently convincing setting into which the narrative is deftly woven, and also gives the reader a powerful sense of being present. The goldwork on the foam-packed artefacts is described in such loving detail that it is as if you are turning the objects over in your own hands.
From a passion for the past to a passion for publication, the importance of research dissemination is another point about which Nicola clearly has strong feelings. (Indeed, a recent project at Durrington Walls, which she co-directed – see CA 320 – won CA’s 2017 award for Research Project of the Year.) Not only is a lost archive a key plot-point, but the need to make findings accessible is something voiced by more than one of her characters. ‘The most unforgivable sin in archaeology is to excavate a site without making the record of it publicly available. It’s tantamount to looting,’ says the formidable Professor Margaret Bockford at one point. How many readers will mouth ‘amen’, as they hanker after the ‘British Heritage Backlog Project’ funding that supports David’s investigations?
We won’t give any spoilers, but the plot moves along at an enjoyable lick, with some great twists as events take a darker turn and the stakes get higher. Characters are sketched clearly but with neat economy, and their dialogue is pleasingly idiomatic. All told, this is a satisfying read, just in time for the summer holidays. Apparently it is the first in a planned series – I look forward to the next instalment.
This review appeared in CA 340.