The dig was just as she’d said it would be: a hole in the ground.
Down the edge of the hill, time slipped like a river, or hung heavily in puddles like an old coat that has been shrugged off.
He was uneasy. Somehow, he’d expected more than this. After the excavation, he knew, there would be more to it — monuments on which the eye could fix, markers to orient the eye towards what had been.
But there was nothing yet, just the sore on the lush hillside, and the vague scratchings the archaeologists had made, esoteric scribbles on the landscape.
“They’re all dope-heads, anyway,” Linda had said, as if in explanation. She was sitting on a small hill a couple of hundred yards from the site, with that weary and isolating look of pregnancy. “Or alcoholics.”
She was due in about a month. Something was growing in her which only she could understand. Her words were esoteric scribbles, hinting at that something. She had that look of being habitually misunderstood.
She was talking about human sacrifices, how certain civilisations burnt babies, she forgot who did this but it all seemed pretty pointless to have a baby, then to sacrifice it to gods who you’d invented anyway.
“Pregnancy is so awful I just wish it were all over,” she said, it would have been angrily if she’d had the energy.
Her husband had gone to banter with the dope-heads. They were discussing post-holes, the site-layout, some bits of pottery that had been found weeks ago. It was hard to fathom quite how interested they were in these relics, but it would have been too awkward to ask, “So what?” Somehow, it would have been the question that would have needed an explanation, rather than it an answer. They were all obviously convinced by the past they were digging up, and it was therefore real, and it’s reality would be translated to others in signs to mark out the structures of this Bronze Age site.
But looking round, it became harder to believe in it. The wind snapped, and broke like a wave up the hill. He felt cold, shivered. He was trying to imagine the huts, the hill-fort where the livestock were kept, the circle of Bronze Age men and women, babies, huddled round the fire, bantering, discussing the past, the future, their livestock. And there was this sense of huge isolation, that he wasn’t part of this circle or that, which made the wind seem colder still.
One of the archaeologists, he forgot his name, he was so bad with names, got out his hip-flask and passed it around the circle who chatted more cheerily after that.
He wanted to explain his doubts, but they were too absorbed now. The camp was in two tiers. Before the grass skin had been scraped away, it would have been just a hillside undulating softly, just like the one Linda was sitting on now, cold and huddled, with that distant look, just a couple of hundred yards away.
But that wasn’t a site. Years ago, a village that had now disappeared used it as a rubbish-tip, and the grass had grown over it, so it became part of the landscape.
He started getting this creepy feeling, that nothing was quite as it seemed. The hills had assumed an uneven antiquity, each dent in the landscape had a potential he could only guess, the grass was just a veneer whose signs he did not understand.
The site was just the same. They had stretched bits of string across certain features, it might just as well have been arbitrarily. They had marked out the post-holes which supported the thatched huts, having detected them by a change in soil colour. They had fenced off the ditch which ringed the camp, but they might as well have dug it themselves, he could see no rational basis for them to decide it was a ditch, if that was indeed how they worked. The bits of pottery, too. They knew they were Bronze Age, because they had pottery from other Bronze Age sites to compare them with. But then how did they know about those? There must have been some point where an original decision had been made arbitrarily, where a fake had been slipped into the history books, and the whole edifice of their knowledge had been built up on this slender basis, and would crumble as easily as had this Bronze Age site into the landscape, if it were indeed Bronze Age and not just some rubbish-tip, who knew?
He was standing a few yards from the circle, their words kept slipping off on the wind, blowing away before he took them in.
Their laughter was strange as he could not hear its motivation. Words and laughter seemed detached from the group that was articulating it. Because he could not understand their words, their gestures seemed also now arbitrary, signs lacking fundamental coherence.
He was trying to focus on why he was getting anxious, but it kept slipping away from him, he was frightened.
It struck him — he was trying to get a fix on it, to curb his anxiety — archaeology was speech, signs, that meant something, he had read Saussure, he knew all that already. But round a camp-fire, without speech, call it primitive man must have exchanged gestures, thought he had communicated, reiterated the gestures till they had the reliability of a language. But with such arbitrary beginnings, how could you know what the gestures meant, and if not the gestures, the words, syntax, grammar of the language, and if not those, speech, that web which ties us together in circles of warmth, that camp on a bleak hillside, that fire in a Bronze Age settlement.
Suddenly he wanted someone to hug him, to make him believe it was real.
He looked over towards Linda, sitting alone,’tapping her foot in time with a tune on her Walkman, and the sense of isolation got worse. Laughter broke round the circle, but he hadn’t heard the joke, he wasn’t sure if they were laughing at him, maybe they had invented some new feature to discover with which to enrich Bronze Age history. He tried to rein in the paranoia, but it had started to come over him in waves, his fear welling up in him arbitrarily, as if his own inner coherence were disappearing. He had the most awful headache, blood was surging through his temples, hot so he blushed, yet his whole body was icy with the cold, it was like splitting up into pieces.
When he held out his hand, the fingers twitched and moved independently of each other. It reminded him of a spider, inscrutable, you couldn’t tell if it were ready to pounce or just silently digesting a fly.
The wind had got worse, and the hip-flask was empty. They were looking at him with glazed looks. His whole body shook violently, but he couldn’t stop it. A fire was being lit.