One of my favorite things to do as a child was pry bottle caps out of the wet Alabama clay.
Image: Khirokitia, a Cypriot Neolithic site.
In graduate school, my guilty pleasure was Bronze Age archeology. Longtime readers of this blog may remember a novel set in Greece in 2000 BC that I excerpted (I still don't know what I'm going to do with it).
So when I discovered Richard Abbott, a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern studies who has written a novel and short stories set in the Bronze Age, I knew I would have to check out his work.
Abbott's prehistorical world is set in ancient Canaan, near the west bank of the Jordan River, around 1200 BC, before the ancient Israelites established themselves there. These are the people that the Israelite scouts of Numbers called giants.
Except as far as I could tell, the community which Abbott has chosen to illuminate is an ordinary group of folk led by a priest and seer named Damariel who is concerned, as we all are, about making sure his community is safe and prosperous.
In Abbott's short story, "The Man in the Cistern," Damariel discovers a runaway from another Canaanite community and seizes the opportunity to give the man responsibility and a home. The man's work leads to the discovery of other similar homeless men, whom Damariel also endeavors to assimilate through shrewd thinking and timely negotiation.
"The Man in the Cistern" has no terribly dramatic moments. It's a slice of life, a strong contrast from, for example, the momentous stories in the Bible about crossing over Jordan or blowing down city walls with horns. It is a helpful reminder that there was such a thing as normal life way back when.
Indeed, Abbott's aim here seems to be to use fiction as a way to visualize or make more vivid what archeologists try to illustrate through site reports. Although not an academic by profession, he continues to stay current with the scholarship and has a strong interest in scholarly accuracy. In fact, though "The Man in the Cistern" is a substantial short story, it is fortified by a wealth of background material and maps.
Not coincidentally, Abbott's prose is careful and assured. In "The Man in the Cistern," he will punctuate a monologue with a short, informative notice of what a character has done, which, to me, gives a feel of quiet and calm:
“I am Yigdal who is called Chesem-en-Ma’at, and first I must thank you for your help. I swear to you both I am no criminal, but if the soldiers of my former master return this way and find me here, perhaps the day will go worse for you. You might be best advised to send me away again without delay.”
He waited for their answer. After a pause, Damariel replied.
“At least you must eat and drink your fill inside this house. Then we shall all think together what is best..."
This type of minimalist prose strikes me as a good choice for 1200 BC. Within Damariel's pause I can almost hear the wind in the wild olive trees. However, if Abbott wants to make his work even more vivid, I would suggest playing around with more sensory input, especially sound and smell. A little sniff of pine resin, or a solitary bird call, could go a long way.
It's a far cry from a lot of popular fiction, where authors sometimes think that throwing in the whole kitchen sink is the best thing to do. Take this sentence from a book I sampled last night:
“Your face is getting on my nerves all the time,” replied the spunky fifteen-year old. Her face was scrunched and her curly hair bounced as she shook her head in defiance. “Do you see me yanking on your face? No!”
That's exhausting. But I am an old man who prefers the quiet whistling breeze in the hill country of Canaan over spunky fifteen-year old defiance.