A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Archaeology functions as both a real presence and as a metaphor in Russell Martin's The Sorrow of Archaeology (University of New Mexico Press, $23.95). Many archaeology novels are globetrotting adventures or half-cracked fantasies about long-lost ancient secrets, this, as suggested by its somber title, is a reflection on the "meaning" of archaeology by a novelist who lives in the Mesa Verde region, as does his protagonist, Sarah Macleish.
After leaving her medical practice because of the debilitating symptoms of multiple sclerosis, Sarah volunteers on a long-term archaeological dig run by her husband, Harry. When she finds the remains of a 12-year-old Pueblo girl with a deformed leg, she carefully digs the soil from around the bones, leaving them for Harry to see in situ. The find fills Sarah with awe, woe, and a sense of identification: "This child and I are siblings surely, sisters of stone and bone and the curious accident of birth."
As her career, body, and marriage falter, Sarah contemplates the people who had lived in the region for nearly a thousand years, and particularly the girl, whose bones are being studied at a university lab. She had died from a blow to the back of the head. Was it an act of mercy, or murder? The mystery of her fate functions less as a plot element than as a touchstone for Sarah as she considers her connection to the girl through the landscape--almost a character in its own right--and fundamental human frailty. As archaeologists do, Sarah tries to take the long view on the ruins around her, both in the terrain and in her life. Eventually, she flees Colorado for the Pacific and some perspective.
The Sorrow of Archaeology is written in the first person, so we only have access to Sarah's interior. An equally intimate treatment of an archaeologist's mind might have been fascinating, but Martin--who consulted the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center--limits his archaeologists (three in all) to what they glean from material culture, much to Sarah's frustration.
"Sometimes I wonder what all your collected minutia is worth when it doesn't end up explaining anything," she tells Harry. Later, another archaeologist says, "It's the ugly irony, isn't it? We crave great understanding and all we get are potsherds."
In The Sorrow of Archaeology, it is for outsiders like Sarah--as well as Martin, and the reader--to wonder what archaeology "means."
Jennifer Pinkowski is associate and reviews editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
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