On Etruscan Time, by Tracy Barrett (Henry Holt, 2005, middle grade, 168 pages)
Hector hadn't wanted to tag along after his mother to an archaeological dig in Italy--he would much rather have stayed home enjoying the company of his friends. But an eleven-year old doesn't get much say in how he spends his summer. Despite himself, he grows interested in the ancient Etruscan site that is slowly being reveled. Human bones have been found in a trash pit, giving sinister weight to the ancient name of the modern village--"city of sacrifice." Faced with the alternative of having nothing to do, Hector agrees to try his hand with a trowel himself. On his first day digging, he finds a strange stone that look like an eye. Although it's dismissed as a modern good luck charm, it is much more.
The stone links Hector to to an Etruscan boy, Arath, taking him back in time, where Hector, an ghost visible only to Arath, begins to learn the horrible truth behind the site's name. Arath's life is in danger, and unless Hector can save him, the nightmares that the stone shows him when he sleeps will come to pass....And in the meantime, unless a spectacular find is made, the archaeological dig will be shut down.
This is a fine example of a timeslip story, one in which the mysteries of the past combine satisfactorily with events in the present to create ever increasing tension. I found the mechanics and motivations of the time travel qua time travel explained with just the right combination of detail and magic that allows for peaceful suspension of disbelief.
Although it's a short book, Barrett manages to pack an emotional punch in a very tight story. I myself would have liked more (in particular more time in the past, and more connection between what Hector sees back then and what's being found at the dig, and more about the bones the archaeologists found) -- but I think it is just about the perfect length for its intended audience.
Although Hector's time in the past is limited, Barrett includes sufficient detail about the lives and the beliefs of the Etruscans to make them believable. Fans of Greek and Roman mythology, in particular, might well enjoy encountering the deities of the Etruscans, who merged with the Greek gods to become members of the Roman pantheon.
(Postscript: In real life I'm an archaeologist, and so I can't help but look at fictional descriptions of fieldwork with a somewhat critical eye. There were a few instances of archaeology fail, but in general, Barrett's description of the dig were satisfactory. My "Ask An Archaeologist" offer, by the way, is still open...)