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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

September 1, 2015

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.:  New York
2010 (pb)

Land of Marvels is a gracefully written novel set in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) in 1914.  English archaeologist John Somerville is embarking on his third season of a major excavation at Tell Erdek, a site that has thus far proved to be a disappointment.  Modeling himself after famed mid-19th Century archaeologist Henry Layard, excavator of the ancient Syrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, Somerville had divested himself of a family business to study archaeology and to undertake field work without taking the more traditional academic route.  He was unaffiliated with any university and had largely funded the dig with his own money.  That money was now running short and it would prove difficult, if not impossible, to secure private funding with so little to show for his efforts.

Adding to his fears is the resumption of construction by German engineers of the Baghdad Railway, which was to link Constantinople to the Persian Gulf.  Seen by the Ottoman Turk government as a key to economic development in this ancient land, it was viewed by many in Western European governments as another sign of German expansionism and imperialism.  To Somerville, the plans for the railway appeared to spell doom to his excavation as he feared the line would run through and require the destruction of the 100 foot high Tell.  His fears are heightened when significant finds begin to be unearthed by his crew—first an ivory artifact that might easily be 3000 years old, and then a wall fragment with a hawk-headed guardian figure, iconography identified with the Assyrian heartland, not this distant frontier border of the empire.  Somerville’s imagination catches fire when the further discovery of a vaulted tomb that may contain the remains of the last of the Assyrian kings.  If Somerville’s theory were to prove true, it would constitute a major re-writing of the last days of the Assyrian Empire and assure his place in the pantheon of archaeologists along with his hero, Layard.

But the potential threat of the encroaching Baghdad Railway spurs Somerville to seek help from the British ambassador to use his good offices to delay or urge the re-routing of the railway that threatens the integrity of the Tell.  This ill-advised strategy brings into play a variety of players and forces who have interests far removed from the re-writing of ancient Mesopotamian history.  For this part of the world in 1914 is a powder keg of  international intrigue and a place where the world’s major powers vie for wealth, political advantage, and strategic superiority as many believe international conflict to be inevitable.

Secret agents, spies, assassins and representatives of governments and cartels join Somerville and his entourage and the beleaguered archaeologist soon learns that his passion for ancient history counts for little when forces obsessed with the power and riches represented in that new Middle Eastern treasure—oil—usurp the stage at Tell Erdek.

Land of Marvels is in part a tale of high adventure, in part a study of individuals driven by obsessions, and in part a metaphor for a world that went mad in August of 1914.  It also offers insight into the results of that madness that live with us to this day.  The novel also presents a compelling account of a major archaeological excavation undertaken during what many might consider a “golden age” of discovery, or conversely, the era of the rapacious looting of indigenous peoples’ patrimony.

Four trowels for Land of Marvels.