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Raiders of the lost tombs

Archaeological adventure novels

June 1st, 2016

BY JOHN M. DANIEL

American Caliphate
by William Doonan
Oak Tree Press, 2012

Were's a spellbinding archaeological novel about a “dig” (archaeologists prefer the term “excavation”) on the north coast of Peru, the ancient home of the Moche Indians, who built adobe pyramids. These pyramids, and one pyramid in particular, are of particular interest to a team of North American academic archaeologists, but in this high-stakes adventure novel there are other parties equally interested in what might be found inside a certain tomb. The CIA, for example. The Vatican. A strong-minded old Muslim woman in Lima. And whoever it was that shot and nearly killed Ben and Jila, a pair of romantically involved archaeologists, the last time they poked around the Santiago de Paz pyramids.

American Caliphate has a cast of intelligent, risk-taking characters driven by academic jealousy, political intrigue, religious rivalry, love and lust, outright greed, and insatiable nosiness about the ancient past. The plot is full of danger and discovery. And what these archaeologists discover may confirm rumors that Muslims fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal brought Islam to the New World.

Land of Marvels
by Barry Unsworth
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009

This book is set in Mesopotamia in 1914, during the twilight of the Ottoman empire, on the verge of the First World War. Here again, we have an excavation by an academic archaeologist, John Somerville, and his team. They feel they’re about to uncover a treasure of history from the Assyrian empire, but they know their work is being threatened by the advancing construction of a German railroad that will connect European capitals to Baghdad. What Somerville doesn’t know is that there are other forces equally covetous of the same patch of desert real estate. There’s a Swiss couple of Christian zealots who join the excavation’s encampment; their goal is to establish a Christian theme park on the supposed site of the Garden of Eden. There’s a dashing American adventurer who poses as an archaeologist but who is really more interested in seducing Somerville’s wife, and even more interested in helping American and/or British oil companies discover and develop oil fields in the same territory. Somerville is further “helped” by an Arab messenger whose concept of the truth is defined by whatever will profit himself the most.

In Land of Marvels, practically nobody is who he or she pretends to be. This is another novel about duplicitous diplomacy, greed, religious rivalry, love and lust, and the conflict between the lessons of the past and the economic opportunities of the future.

The Egyptologist
by Arthur Phillips
Random House, 2004

Oh boy. Talk about characters who aren’t who they seem to be or claim to be. This is a thrilling, hilarious, frightening tour de force, a delightful puzzle, an outrageous tale of archaeological obsession, greed, love, deception, and madness.

Not up to the task of summarizing the plot of The Egyptologist. I’ll cheat and quote the back-cover copy from the Norton paperback edition:

…a witty, inventive, brilliantly constructed novel about an Egyptologist obsessed with finding the tomb of an apocryphal king. This darkly comic labyrinth of a story opens on the desert plains of Egypt in 1922, then winds its way from the slums of Australia to the ballrooms of Boston by way of Oxford, the battlefields of the First World War, and a royal court in turmoil. Exploring issues of class, greed, ambition, and the very human hunger for eternal life, The Egyptologist is a triumph of narrative bravado.

Geronimo’s Skull
by John M. Daniel
Mission Publishing, 2011

I conclude this short list with a brief plug for my favorite tomb-robbing novel. Yes, I wrote it. I don’t claim it’s the best of the four, but it is my favorite because I dug through the past to find it, and then I watered it and watched it grow. Then I published it on Kindle, so you can read it.

It’s based on a true story, or not (there’s considerable controversy about that), and it features a main character named Fergus Powers, who resembles my Uncle Neil, in whose home I was raised. But I didn’t know anything about the infamous grave-robbing episode, of which Neil Mallon either was or was not the ringleader, during the time I was living in his house, or even until long after his death in 1983 at the age of eighty-eight. When the story came out it caused quite a sensation, because one of the other grave robbers was Prescott Bush, a prominent senator in his day as well as the future father and grandfather of two presidents of the United States.

Here’s what either did or did not happen: On the night of June 8, 1918, five officers in the U.S. Army, all of them recent Yale graduates and members of the secret society Skull and Bones, sneaked into the Apache graveyard at Fort Sill, Okla., opened the tomb of Geronimo the Terrible, and stole his skull. Whatever happened to that skull, and whatever happened to the ringleader of that moonless, midnight raid? This legendary crime and its consequences are central to my novel, which takes place over twenty-five years in the early twentieth century, from the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904 to the stock market crash in 1929. Fergus Powers, the leader of the grave-robbers, is the novel’s guilty hero, hounded for the balance of the book by the Indian warrior’s ghost. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Daniel | Link to this Entry

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