On Etruscan Time, by Tracy Barrett, for Timeslip Tuesday

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...)


  1. I'm intrigued! I recently read a book by a present-day Italian witch who says that the Italian magical tradition almost certainly dates back to the Etruscans, who in the ancient world were known for their powerful magic. I went to Amazon and did their Search Inside the Book on On Etruscan Time and that "magical" reputation seemed borne out by the author's notes at the back about the Sybilline Books. Since I know nothing about the Etruscans, I'll probably enjoy this book, which really sounds like a fun read.

  2. I like your 'ask an archaeologist' offer. I thought novelists just copied what they do on Time Team (tongue in cheek).

  3. I was trying to think of any other books for kids about the Etruscans (who are truly fascinating) and came up with nothing! So this one definitly fills a gap, education via fiction-wise! I hope you like it, msbr!

    We don't have Time Team here, Penthe, so I've never seen it :(

  4. Thanks for your nice comments about On Etruscan Time! I like the "Ask an Archaeologist" offer--I actually did have the ms. vetted by an archaeologist and would appreciate learning what failures you saw.
    My most recent book (King of Ithaka) is based on the Odyssey and was checked by a professor of Greek history. I'd be curious to see if she missed anything!
    Tracy Barrett

  5. Shame I didn't read this as a little girl. I feel like most of my knowledge of history was gleaned from books I read as a kid. :p But I know almost nothing about the Etruscans.

  6. Hi Tracy,

    Thanks for stopping by! Your book had to go to the library, so I can't be too specific, but my main issue was with Hector being allowed to dig off to the side of the site by himeslf--it seems unlikely to me, in as much as (in general) archaeological excavation units are carefully mapped and laid out, so as to keep control of it all! I also had trouble with Hector's potsherd discovery, was worried that when he dug up the gold statues he dinged the soft metal, and was afraid that the walls of their trenches were going to be damaged or even collapse what with all the hoisting Hector has to do to get in and out of them (I've had to do some hoisting myself, but that was in very dense, wet soil that would probably hold together better than dry Italian dirt....But I've never dug in Italy).

    But like I said, these were pretty minor issues, and I enjoyed the book lots! I'm looking forward to King of Ithaca!

  7. Thanks for the clarification! One big problem in writing books for young readers is the need for the main character to be autonomous, so lots of time they wind up doing things that in real life a kid wouldn't be allowed to do. This requirement also leads to a lot of dead parents in kids' books!


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