First Light, by Peter Ackroyd. Grove Press: 336 pages; $19.95.

Well, it was a good idea to begin with. The novel opens with this archaeological dig in the beautiful and mysterious English countryside. The Stonehenge-like arrangement, which has just been revealed thanks to a forest fire, includes an ancient tomb. The plot spins (wobbles) upon the idea that nobody really knows for sure what lies under the ancient stones. Everyone speculates.

One interesting speculator is astrologer Damian Fall. He loves the sky so much and at times feels so small as he contemplates the universe and the long-dead stars, that he breaks down and cries. But Ackroyd doesn't have time for this nonsense. So he shows us Farmer Mint and his son Boy Mint. Cryptic, secretly pagan, and just plain strange, the two don't say much, but are often heard to be laughing behind the bushes.

Then we have the rest of these Agatha Christiean men and women: the bumbling and very stupid group of archaeologists, who play king of the hill with their theories and who can't seem to ascertain basic facts in spite of their high-tech equipment (only one man, an intuitive expert, guesses that some of this "find" seems quite recently built); the villagers, who include an antique dealer with a French name who wears bright yellow ties and gossips incessantly; an irrepressible and bad comedian named Joey and his Miss Malaprop wife, Floey; and finally, our civil servant from the Department of the Environment, Evangeline Tupper, a very bored woman with a short attention span who pretends swooning, unconvincing interest in everything. She is accompanied by a crew-cut woman who wears stark suits. Evangeline tells everyone Hermione is her assistant, but refers to her as "Baby Doll."

All these characters has potential, but Ackroyd only develops them to a shallow level. The novel touches upon some heavy subjects and the exaggerated characters aren't really up to the task.

So this mess of loony eccentrics and very negative homosexual stereotypes along with several cults and hippie groups that have now gathered go mincing and tripping about the ancient graves and stones. Even though the whole idea of these people having any connection with the plot is now quite boring, the mystery begins.

Poor Damian Fall starts to hear demonic voices. He finally goes mad, ready for the sky to fall. The breathy, gushing narrator (Fall himself? This is another problem) goes on about it for no real reason. The archaeologists feel eerie too. They halt their work from time to time, overcome by the significance, the age and importance of the site. Also, several have spotted a shadowy figure (this is never explained) gliding around the nearby forest. And the Mints have gone and stowed a coffin in Joey and Floey's garden shed. This happens only after they induct Joey into their family by having him wear a set of antlers and entertain people.

Unbelievable now that I've told you all this, but the general idea was good: our ties to each other, to nature, to our common past, to our future, to the stars. Ackroyd attempts to have science and myth meet in the tunnel beneath the ancient stones. He wants to show human beings from all backgrounds at the edge of the cliff, at the end of our boundaries of time and space. But the shallow and pompous puppet-characters get in the way of both the archaeological dig and the potential of the story.