Digging for traces of Colonial life; Martin's Hundred, by Ivor Noel Hume. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 253 pp. $18.95.

In his lastest book, Ivor Noel Hume unfolds a fascinating tale with the flair of a mystery novel. A master at bridging the gap between the work of archaeologists and the public awareness, Mr. Noel Hume tells the story of the discoveries at Martin's Hundred, an archaeologist's 20,000-acre dream site along the James River, not far from Williamsburg.

The finds here include Wolstenholme Towne, established in 1619, where a massacre by Indians in 1622 resulted in the death of 350 people, severely affecting the future of the settlement.

Noel Hume's beautiful use of language conveys the challenge and excitement of the detective work that is leading archaeologists and historians toward a better knowledge of English Colonial life in Virginia. ''Martin's Hundred'' transports the reader from our century back to the Carter's Grove Plantation of the 1700s, and then further back into the events of the 1600s.

The importance of archaeological methods is demonstrated so subtly that one hardly notices a lesson is being taught. Techniques of field conservation are described, and we share in the excitement and apprehension when a box containing a rare and fragile helmet is accidentally dropped.

The daily challenges to the archaeological crew - their bouts with anxieties and the elements, as well as their joy and the thrill of the endeavor - are illustrated with excerpts from the daily logs. Noel Hume's accounts of some of his experimental approaches to the research reveal his creativity and his willingness to discuss failures as well as successes. Problems he encountered in recording the discovery process on film will be of value to others involved in filming similar projects.

Noel Hume's approach in this book illustrates his lifelong commitment to ''putting living flesh back on the bones of history.'' Here are no numbers or tables, flow charts or bar graphs, to weigh down the layman. There is no talk here of such anthropological concerns as the study of process, exploitation of the environment, exploring past lifeways, or settlement pattern studies. Rather, the goal is to fit the recovered artifacts into their historical places, ''graphically demonstrating where they fit into the jigsaw puzzle of the past.''

''Martin's Hundred'' is one man's account of the recovery of important traces of life from America's early Colonial period. Those hungry for quantitative analysis of data won't find it here. But those interested in interpreting past ways of life from archaeological and documentary research will find this book valuable.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.