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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Lost Shrine by Nicola Ford

August 1, 2020

Allison & Busby Limited:  London
2019 (PB)

Nicola Ford (pen name for National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Sites Dr. Nick Snashall) has followed up her acclaimed initial thriller The Hidden Bones with a tension-filled and compelling mystery set in the bucolic Cotswolds Hills of southwestern England.

Clare Hills, newly-minted archaeologist with the financially struggling Hart Archaeological Institute, a self-supporting unit of the University of Salisbury archaeology department, is given the opportunity to conduct her own contract salvage project at the Bailsgrove site in the Cotswolds.  With the occasional help and guidance of her friend, mentor and fellow archaeologist David Barbrook and American-born osteo-archaelogist Jo Granski, Clare sets out to complete the project begun by Beth Kinsella, a well-respected but emotionally troubled archaeologist who had committed suicide amongst sacrificial animals and birds, suggesting a pagan influence.  Before her tragic death, Beth had intimated that the site might be much more than expected—that it could very well have been a pre-Roman Iron Age sacred shrine.  If that were to prove true, the housing development planned for the site could be at risk.

Clare successfully recruits the reluctant Neil Fuller, second-in-command to Beth Kinsella on the project, who in turn is able to bring back into the fold most of the original crew working on the project.  Clare quickly finds that the project is not without controversy when two visitors to the site—first, modern-day Druid Wayne Crabbs who warns her that many locals are unhappy with the dig and the housing development, and second, real estate developer Paul Marshall, who takes a dim view of the money he is “wasting” on the salvage contract and wants the archaeologists to hurry up and clear out.

Clare’s troubles mount as evidence presents itself that metal detectorists –“nighthawks,” as they are commonly referred to—had disturbed the site during the period between Beth’s suicide and Clare’s arrival and fabulous artifacts, whose provenance was claimed to be from Bailsgrove, which might well substantiate Beth’s theory of a sacred Iron Age shrine, begin to show up on internet auction sites.  The subsequent unearthing of three sacrifice infants, carbon dated to pre-Roman times bring unwelcome scrutiny by the local news media.  Clare and her colleagues face continuing and growing resistance to their efforts, both from the local inhabitants and from Paul Marshall.  The situation turns dire when Wayne Crabbs, who has grown more sympathetic to archaeologists and their search for historical accuracy, relates his doubts about Beth Kinsella’s suicide and that murder seems to him more likely.  When Wayne himself is found with his throat slit and another member of Beth’s original crew is found murdered, it is evident that the Bailsgrove project is more than a simple salvage excavation and that Clare and her entire crew are in eminent danger.

The unfolding plot races to a heart-pounding and unexpected denouement, but along the way this satisfying story is grounded in the real world of salvage archaeology and its processes and procedures.

Four trowels for this, the second of which this reviewer hopes will be many more Clare Hills mysteries.