Tunnels by Eisner Award-winner Rutu Modan and translated by Ishai Mishory, published by Drawn & Quarterly, gives an adventure in archaeology like none other. While cinematic archaeology has swashbucklers sneaking through trap-rigged temples and uncovering relics that spew ghosts and melt Nazis, Modan gives a much more real-world look into the genuine adventure and intrigue of modern archaeology. Just as digging reveals unrecognized truths, so turning the page shows more about the world of Tunnels.
While there is actual explosive action in Tunnels, the story is driven by the drama of the varied characters in the world of digging in Israel-Palestine. Protagonist Nili Broshi leads the cast as daughter of one of the foremost Israeli archaeologists, credited as the eight-year-old discoverer of the Seal of Josiah. In reality, it was the work of her father gaining press and pulling her out of school to dig. Her brother, who had been left at home, now works for rival Professor Rafi Sarid, who broke partnership with their father and orchestrated his tenure denial. Politics abounds among the collegiate researchers, the often nefarious funders, and the religiously conservative excavators, not to mention the Israeli security forces and Palestinian diggers trying to build a smuggling tunnel under the massive wall built to separate their village from Jewish settlements.
Just as in the real world, the cast of Tunnels are all intertwined since archaeology is a small world. Everyone knows everyone, whether from decades ago or from having worked a recent job with someone now on the other side of the digging. After running into the Palestinian diggers using scuba gear for oxygen flow in stagnant shafts, one of the old friends points out their bicycle-driven ventilation he used to run himself. Relationships become more and more byzantine as everyone has an agenda, making alliances while fully intending to break them.
Each of the characters in Tunnels is in pursuit of the legendary Ark of the Covenant. Modan uses years of research to give a believable theory to its being buried during the uproar of the Babylonian invasion to put down rebellious Judah. Many of the legends of the Ark are presented through the Jewish diggers, who are eager to find it so that the Messiah will appear. Prophesies foretell that the Ark will be lifted up during a full moon, and it may only be touched by a Cohen, a descendant of the priestly order. They also wrangle a red cow for cleansing sacrifice as per the proper ritual, leading to chaos on the dig site being watched over by a Zionistic military commander hopeful to return the Ark.
The setting in Tunnels plays as big of a role as the characters themselves. It shows how complicated the underground history of the region is. Excavations can uncover tunnels dug for refuge during the Babylonian occupation more than two thousand years ago, or they could find bunkers for resistance movements only a few decades old. Bringing buried things to light simplifies and confuses at the same time. Readers will be captivated by the twists and turns of Tunnels as it navigates an adventure with ever-reaching stakes.