- National Treasure, and: Spirit Bird Journey
Jean Auel, Glyn Daniel, and James Michener started the trend. Since then, a veritable flood of novels with archaeological themes have arrived in the marketplace, [End Page 308] everything from detective stories to out-and-out thrillers. A handful of archaeologists have themselves tried writing novels, both as a creative alternative to the serious business of reporting on their research, and sometimes because they want to explore topics that are beyond the relatively limited reach of archaeological data. The two novels reviewed here are the work of professional archaeologists working in Japan and Korea, whose own experiences add color and authenticity to the narratives.
Peter Bleed teaches at the University of Nebraska and is a respected authority not only on Japan's archaeology, but on Japanese swords as well. National Treasure begins in A.D. 1340, when a retainer of the Emperor Go-Tembo dedicates a sword made by master swordsmith Munemasa to a shrine at Takasaka. Nearly eight centuries later, a Midwestern dentist who collects pistols attends the Des Moines Gun Show, where he buys the same sword from the widow of a World War II veteran. Meanwhile, back in Japan, a Japanese businessman and the leader of an underworld syndicate join forces in an attempt to locate the missing sword, which was designated a "National treasure" in the 1930s. The plot twists and turns, with the inevitable happy ending when the sword returns to the National Museum in Japan. The main fascination of the story lies in the intricacies of swords and swordmaking, and in the author's expert knowledge of the dealmaking world of gun and sword dealers. But the American characters have little dimension and their Japanese protagonists are only a little more sophisticated. The plot engages, but the book never becomes much more than a pleasant page turner.
Korean specialist Sarah Nelson's Spirit Bird Journey follows Clara, an American student of Korean birth, who journeys to Korea to study archaeology and get away from her boyfriend's parents. She excavates at the site of Bird Mountain Village. A shamanistic ceremony takes her to the remote past, which she enters as a bird. A child of the Golden clan is born just as Clara appears and is named Flyingbird from this event. Clara as a golden bird becomes the spirit protector of Golden Flyingbird. Flyingbird was born to become the leader of the Golden Clan in Bird Mountain Village, but she must find six amulets and learn the songs and rituals associated with them to earn the approval of the spirits. She raises a bear club destined for sacrifice, makes a household with two husbands, has four children, and becomes the village leader. Clara has the opportunity to visit many of the places to which Flyingbird journeyed in the past. Nelson floats Clara effortlessly between the worlds of ancient and modern Korea, as only someone with a firsthand familiarity with its archaeology can do. And, in the end, the heroine unearths the burial of a village leader, perhaps Flyingbird herself. The author reveals a thorough knowledge of recent scholarship on ethnic and gender issues and offers a pragmatic view of archaeologists at work in Korea today. A useful note at the end reveals some of her sources and inspirations. This is an at times lyrical novel, which both entertains and informs without being self-indulgent. At the same time, the reader learns some of the thought processes that lie behind the interpretation of the Korean archaeological record. The fiction milieu allows a working archaeologist to wander far beyond the narrow confines of archaeological data.
RKLOG Press has published these two novels in an "Antiquity Alive" series, presumably an opportunity for archaeologists to stretch their literary wings into new genres. These two first novels lead one to hope that more tantalizing offerings lie ahead. Both authors have allowed their expertise to flower in new directions, which must have been a...