Digging Up Fiction

As a child I pored over the books on ancient Egypt in my father’s bookcase, fascinated by the tombs and treasures and the daring exploits of famous archaeologists. I dreamed of becoming an archaeologist myself one day, until I realized it involved spending a lot of time exposed to relentless sun in very hot places with hoards of nasty insects. I never could stand summer heat, even the 70 degrees that counted as a heat wave in England in those days. After a school field trip to a Roman dig near Colchester left me limp from heat exhaustion and covered in bug bites, I had to admit I was hardly cut out for the rigors of digging up ancient Egypt. Fortunately there is plenty of reading to satisfy an armchair archaeologist like me. Here are some of my favorite novels with an archaeological theme.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson

Anglo-Saxons past and present are the subject of this satirical novel. Gerald Middleton is a historian past his prime when he is invited to edit a journal on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, a topic that brings up a pivotal event from his youth. In a golden summer when he fell in love with the delectable Dollie he was present at an excavation that unearthed a pagan phallic idol in the tomb of a 7th century Christian bishop. But Gerald knows this was a fake and who was responsible for planting it. His dilemma sets off a rollicking portrait of 1950’s England with a Dickensian caste of characters including Gerald’s eccentric wife Inga, a posse of squabbling historians, and working class chancers no longer willing to stay in their place in the post-war world. A television mini-series based on the book can be seen on Acorn TV.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

An international team of archaeologists spend the summer on a remote island near Greenland to excavate a suspected Viking settlement. They follow news from home with increasing alarm as they learn of a worldwide pandemic. (This was written before COVID). Meanwhile strange happenings at the excavation site unsettle the group. Are they being haunted by the Vikings buried there, angry at the desecration of their resting place? As winter approaches no more news reaches them from the outside world. Will the boat to take them home arrive as scheduled, or are they trapped here unprepared for the harsh winter conditions? As their situation deteriorates the excavation site becomes more hostile and sinister. This is a beautifully written and suspenseful read. 

The Dig by John Preston

Based on the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk in 1939, this novel highlights the role of local amateur archaeologist Basil Brown. Hired by widowed landowner Edith Pretty to investigate the ancient mounds on her property, Brown made one of the most spectacular finds in archaeological history. He was the first to identify the site as Anglo-Saxon but the excavation was taken over by professional archaeologists and his contribution almost forgotten. Preston restores Brown to his rightful place in history and focuses on the close friendship that developed between him and Edith. His lyrical writing evokes the quiet beauty of the Suffolk countryside and the wonder of discovering the greatest treasure ever found in England. A 2021 film based on the book stars Ralph Fiennes as the laconic Brown.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips

A comic novel about archaeology in Egypt? It may sound unlikely but Phillips pulls it off with aplomb in the follow-up to his best-selling debut Prague. In 1922, while the real Howard Carter is digging up Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings, fictional archaeologist Ralph Trilipush dismisses Tut as unimportant and instead obsessively searches for the tomb of the apocryphal Atum-hadu. Staking his academic reputation and his fiancee’s fortune on a clue in a pornographic hieroglyph, Trilipush’s quest becomes ever more comical and absurd. Meanwhile an Australian detective searches for a missing Egyptologist who may have been murdered. Yes, the plots converge with unexpected revelations.

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

Archaeologist John Somerville is excavating a site at Tel Erdek in Mesopotamia in 1914 when he digs up an Assyrian ivory carving of a lion attacking a Nubian man. (This artifact is based on a real one found by Agatha Christie’s archaeologist husband Max Mallowan). Somerville realizes he has found a previously unknown Assyrian palace and tomb but the excavation is threatened by opponents more interested in profit and power than history. Mesopotamia is swarming with German railway builders, American oil speculators, and adventurers and spies of all stripes as the European powers scramble for advantage and resources on the eve of the First World War. Mixing history and archaeology with the excitement of an adventure/spy novel Unsworth builds suspense to a dramatic conclusion.

Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks

Set in Montana in the 1950’s this is another novel that pits the forces of modernization against the value of history and culture. The Smithsonian sends Catherine, a young English archaeologist, to investigate a canyon before it is flooded for a huge hydroelectric dam project. The canyon is on land belonging to the Native American Crow people and may be a prehistoric site. The dam contractors appear cooperative on the surface but Catherine soon learns they are counting on her inexperience to prevent any delay in the project. In the canyon she meets a mysterious “horse whisperer” character who makes a living breaking wild horses – and painting them. Brooks evokes the beauty of the Montana landscape and a vanishing way of life as well as the importance of research into America’s prehistory. Critics compared this debut novel to the work of Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy. 

Mystery Series

Archaeology has attracted many genre mystery authors over the years. After all, if you are digging up old bones you may well find a recent murder victim or two mixed in with the historic artifacts! Here are three of my favorite series. The images show the first book in each series.

The Amelia Peabody series, written by Egyptologist Barbara Mertz under the pen name Elizabeth Peters, was inspired by the 1873 memoir of Victorian adventurer Amelia Edwards. Beginning with Crocodile on the Sandbank, the books follow Amelia’s adventures over a period from 1884 to 1923, the later ones including her son, appropriately named Rameses. Set primarily in Egypt the plots feature real archaeological finds and personalities with generous dashes of humor and romance. Peters has a facility for striking titles, my personal favorite being The Last Camel Died at Noon. She received the Grand Master Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1998.

The award-winning Nora Gavin series by Erin Hart features American pathologist Nora and Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire. The books are rich with Irish history, mythology, music and the beauty of the Irish countryside. The landscape’s famous bogs hide ancient bodies as well as more recent murder victims but it takes forensic experts to tell the difference. In their first collaboration Nora and Cormac investigate a perfectly preserved red-haired woman unearthed by farmers cutting peat. Is this another ancient bog body or could it be the young mother who disappeared with her son two years ago? The secrets of a local landed gentry family are about to be exposed. 

The Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths is set in the bleak Norfolk fen country where archaeologist Ruth lives and works. Each book in the series focuses on excavations of a different time period from the Iron and Bronze Ages to Roman and even abandoned World War II military sites. In the first book the bones of a child are found near a prehistoric henge and Ruth is called in to determine if they are ancient. Or could they be those of a child who went missing ten years ago? One of my favorites in the series is The Woman in Blue set in Walsingham, the site of a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I went on a pilgrimage there in my student days so this was a nostalgic read, though I never became involved in the murder of a priest!

Look for my favorite nonfiction archaeology books in a future post!

3 thoughts on “Digging Up Fiction

  1. Have a look at the Laetitia Talbot series by Barbara Cleverly. Only three books, but excellent.
    I am currently enjoying Elly Griffiths, bur Cleverly is -ahem-cleverer.


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