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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Hidden Bones by Nicola Ford

October 1, 2019

Allison & Busby Limited: London
2018 (PB)

First-time author Nicola Ford has crafted a captivating mystery that puts the techniques and processes of archaeology at the very center of the novel’s plot.  This sets her apart from many other such fictional efforts in which the discipline provides little more than a backdrop to the plotline.  The author brings her knowledge and experience to bear in creating a realistic portrayal of archaeological fieldwork—in real life Nicola Ford is Dr. Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Sites.   And unlike many authors in the genre—whether first-time or veteran—she has created a cast of protagonists believable and sympathetic in both their heroism and human frailty.

Gerald Hart was at the pinnacle of his career as an archaeologist when, in 1973, he and his excavation crew of students and local enthusiasts from the Marlborough Downs area unearthed the incredibly rich Bronze Age site known as the Hungerbourne Barrows.  Fabulous artifacts, including a gold and amber sun disc first discovered by a local farmer, were gifted to the British Museum, and more such rich finds beckoned to the eager young archaeologists, when Hart abruptly closed the excavation, withdrew from the world of archaeology and secluded himself in Hungerbourne Manor, closely adjacent to the now-abandoned site.  His substantial cache of field notes and archives were destroyed in a fire and local lore and legend grew up around the curse of the “woe waters” that bedeviled the Hungerbourne Barrows.  Gerald Hart died some forty years after closing the dig site—some said of causes not entirely natural.

Gerald Hart’s heir—his nephew Peter Hart—inherited Hungerbourne Manor and with it the voluminous and unorganized papers, books, reports and archives Gerald left behind—literally the archaeological life and times of Gerald Hart, minus his most illustrious undertaking, the Hungerbourne Barrows project.  He enlists Salisbury University archaeologist David Barbrook to salvage what might be worthwhile, and Barbrook hires on Clare Hills, a recently widowed young woman who was his friend when they both studied archaeology at “uni” some fifteen years earlier.  David hopes the project will help Clare deal with the heartbreak of her loss.

Clare’s search of the manor house attic yields an incredible find—the Hungerbourne Barrows field notes thought to have been destroyed by fire decades earlier.  With this fabulous cache in hand, Barbrook obtains a massive research grant from British Heritage to edit the field notes, diaries,  and archives and to re-open the Hungerbourne Barrows excavation itself, with Clare as his chief assistant.

As David and Clare delve deeper into the details of the 1973 dig, they soon learn that passions ran deep among the participants of that excavation and that the rumored curse may not have been laid to rest decades earlier.  A priceless artifact goes missing, “accidents” in and around the excavation occur with uncanny regularity, lives are at risk, and law enforcement steps in when the cremated remains found in a Bronze Age burial urn excavated in 1973 yields a tooth with a modern filling.

Clare doggedly follows clues buried in both the earth and in the lives of the participants of that long-ago excavation.  As she and David draw closer to answering the mystery of the sudden abandonment of the Hungerbourne Barrows project, they learn that playing amateur detective is not always the wisest thing!

Four trowels for The Hidden Bones.