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4 trowels

A DARK MUSIC

By: Robert Froese
Flat Bay Press: Harrington, ME
2006 (pb)

Robert Froese, a teacher of writing and film at the University of Maine-Machias, has written a hauntingly beautiful novel with his self-published A Dark Music.   Those of us who love archaeology yearn for those rare writers who can look beyond the scientific rigor of the discipline and tease out the humanity that is at its very core.  In non-fiction there is probably no better exemplar of this scholar/artist than Loren Eisley, but in the realm of fiction, the search could be long and difficult.   

But Robert Froese has stepped into that vacuum with A Dark Music.  He turns a poet’s eye, first towards the stark beauty of the New Mexico desert where his fictional archaeological field school takes place, and then to the very practice of archaeology itself.  I can support this in no better way than to quote at some length the following narrative early in the novel: 

Scraping and scraping away the earth, she has spent the morning inching steadily backward.  Her young spine bends tight with concentration, but she is not uncomfortable.  This boxed space cleaved into the ground feels a little like a grave—though, as she thinks about it, more like a grave in reverse.  A hole, not to bury something, but to find out what has been buried.

So long as her eyes avoid the brilliance of the day outside, she can make out the stratigraphy of the trench walls plainly enough.  She loves the idea of it:  the drizzle of antiquity accumulating on this dirt floor, actually becoming the dirt floor.  Not years.  Not centuries.  But millennia.  Thousands and thousands of years, arrested here at Mesa Negra for her contemplation

The mind can easily be fooled by habits of seeing.  A rockshelter is easily mistaken for what it appears to be:  a shallow cave, a place with a particular immutable form and identity. Really it is an endless sequence of events.  First water, then limestone and sandstone.  Then volcanic explosion.  She has learned the geology.  The sea becomes the land.  A beach hardens and uplifts.  Volcanic ash fuses into tuff.  The tuff erodes to a cliff with a cavern at its base.  One event and then the next and then the next.  Rocks let go from the cave ceiling and crash onto the floor.  Cycles of winds sprinkle dust then sand then dust.   In spring and summer, when the air is stalled motionless, pollen falls like microscopic snow.  Forms of plant life nowhere near this cave, nowhere near this century, left these particles of themselves.  Animals now extinct intruded, crisscrossed the floor, dropping scraps of bone, shedding hair, defecating, dying.

And so, too, like a dark music, those first humans at some point entered and occupied this space.  The cave in effect taken by surprise.  Not at all ready, she could imagine, either for the silence or the words of these brooding presences, intent on their fires and long spears fitted with points of stone.

Kneeling in this exceptional light, removed from the desert sun, Emily has little trouble picturing these people.  They move, slow and shadowlike, across the screen of her vision, as if they were still there, retrievable.  As in a way they are—in the traces they’ve left among the layered sediments of this rockshelter floor.  Traces that, as Emily scrapes, her eyes hunt. 

Froese not only captures the poetry of the discipline of archaeology, but he also captures with great insight the nuances of field school life and the dynamics of the interplay of a collective enterprise made up of undergraduates who might be seeking understanding of their own lives and the world around them –or a six week party, graduate students struggling through the thicket of the academic social order, and senior scholars striving for academic fortune and glory.  His protagonists are brought to life with a prose style that is spare but yet illuminates the essential characters of these people—particularly the taciturn and haunted young archaeologist,  Will Stanton, and the undergraduate loner, Emily Franklin, who forges a tender and loving bond with Stanton.  To the mix of contemporary protagonists, the author also includes beautifully rendered impressionistic narrative sketches of the young prehistoric woman who will become a central focus to the novel and the world in which she lived for a brief moment in time. 

But in a very real sense, the main protagonist of the novel is the dig itself, and Froese describes the ebb and flow of excavation with an almost dream-like prose, which seems entirely appropriate to the activities of troweling, brushing, sifting, floating, bagging, tagging, ad infinitum.  The author also captures the excitement and drama of discovering the mummified remains of a young woman tragically perishing in a Pleistocene peat bog.  When preliminary C14 analysis indicate a possible date of 23,000 Before Present, the potential impact of such a momentous find effects the different individuals involved in very different ways—from dreams of fame and fortune to profound introspection on the ethical dimensions of archaeology. 

This is a beautifully crafted story that shows great understanding of and respect for the art and science of archaeology, as well as the people who practice it.  Four trowels for Robert Froese’s wonderful novel.      

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.