An archaeological nightmare

October 2, 2016 1 Comment

norse-ruinIn my experience – and I confess I haven’t lifted a trowel in anger for over forty years – archaeological digs bring nothing but lasting pleasure.  For some, though, it’s obviously a different story.

Quite recently a friend alerted me to the writings of Sarah Moss.  Her speciality, in fiction and in books of travel, is the far North – in and around the Arctic Circle.  She first came to general notice with a novel called Cold earth (2009).  It tells the story, set in the present or near future, of a summer’s archaeological expedition to the west coast of Greenland to explore a Norse settlement abandoned on the fifteenth century.  It’s not a happy story of carefree adventure and communal harmony.

cold-earthThe narrative is told through a series of letters, in the tradition of the earliest novels in English.  Each member of the dig writes in turn.  By far the longest letter is the first, by Nina, who is not a professional archaeologist but an English researcher taken with the Idea of North.  From her we learn about the bleakness of the place, the Norse colonists who came and then left, the dig’s leader and the other five members of the team.  Nina is already haunted by the imagined scenes of the doomed settlement and the dangers that beset them from the sea.  Her fastidiousness and sensitivity turn her into an archaeological liability – she can’t cope with the task of excavating human remains – and her self-righteous prickliness gradually alienates the others, except their leader, Ianni, who has an ill-defined attraction for her.

bonesNina’s troubled soul and her fears unsettle the second recorder, Ruth, an American who harbours a debilitating secret grief for a recently dead lover, killed in a road accident, and the third, Jim.  By now the others are beginning to half-believe in the ghosts of the dead Norse that Nina thinks is responsible for inexplicable night sounds, falling stones, and a cairn that mysteriously appears on the horizon.  Worse, word reaches the group of a plague or infection that has spread from America to Europe and has turned into an epidemic.  Then internet and radio contact with the outside world is lost.  The archaeologists begin to fear that the day appointed for the arrival of the aircraft to take them home will come and go, and that they will be left to face the fierce Greenland winter without food, warmth and light, forgotten by their rescuers.

greenlandOne of the aims of the dig is to throw light on why the Norse settlement failed.  Each of the writers rehearses the possible explanations: a sudden change to an icier climate unable to sustain the economy; migration to Vinland in America, or a return to Iceland; murder, rape and destruction by raiders from the sea.  And each now realises that they like their predecessors may fail, dying where they lie, huddled for warmth in their tents or in the unroofed remains of the ruined Norse church.

The later letters, by Catriona, Ianni and Ben, become shorter and shorter, and narrate the breakdown of social relations within the group (Lord of the flies receives a mention) as the awaited plane fails to arrive and members prepare for the worst in their different ways, losing themselves in the Bible, or family memories, or, as in Ianni’s case, guilt.

And Ianni, the supervisor of the excavation, does seem to have good grounds for feeling guilty.  An archaeological purist determined to dig systematically and leave the site as he found it, he’s admirably focussed on the job in hand, but his planning has been woeful: the supplies he’s come with are inadequate, even discounting emergencies, and his inclusion of Nina in the team is a disaster.  It’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have tried out the radiotelephone to make sure it works, or that he brought only a school first aid kit.  His relationship with Nina ends in a violent act, and now the reader, like all the members of the group, is prepared for a tragic end to the expedition.

Instead we’re given a second, final short letter by Nina.  Apparently written back in London, she seems to imply an eventual rescue, after at least one death (of Ianni), and a new start for the rest of the group (Catriona leaves to take up painting in Skye).  Nina returns to Greenland and scatters Ianni’s ashes on the seashore.  But we know that Nina’s mental state is fragile, and that she’s a fantasist.  Could it be that the rescue narrative is fictive, a wishful dream written on the icy Greenland shore as the last demented act of a lost explorer?

sarah-mossArchaeology, or at least its forensic face, has always appealed to writers of crime and horror fiction.  But it also offers rich possibilities to more ambitious writers – as well as Sarah Moss, you could mention John Preston (The dig), Michael Ondaatje (The English patient) and Jem Poster (Courting shadows).  Morbidity and mortality, of course, feature in their finds shed too.  But maybe it’s something else about archaeology that makes it so compelling to serious novelists: the radical disconnection – made even worse today by the complete domination of the discipline by scientific techniques – between the surviving, fully analysable material relics of past human life on the one hand, and on the other the unknowability of the minds that made and used them.  Archaeology is a science – Ianni is constantly bent over his laptop recording and analysing his finds – but it’s a science that will always fail to give explanations about what we really want to know – what and how and why people thought all those centuries ago.  Isn’t a lot of imaginative fiction about the same thing, the uncertain, quantum world of minds blundering about in a world of dumb Newtonian things?

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  1. rita tait says:

    I shall try to get hold of this book. Sounds excellent

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