Beneath Aphrodite’s pointed finger, in the year 1885, just off mainland Greece in the warm Aegean Sea, toward the northern side of the island Limnos, a lone figure had steadily chiseled away at the earth to reveal the remains of an ancient sanctuary. Excavations had shown that Limnos had been the home to many civilisations and Hephaistia was proving itself to be its foremost city of antiquity.
Had he come across the beginnings of a significant find?
He sincerely hoped so.
Kneeling next to a half- exposed skeleton he continued to wipe away the fine strata of sand. It was becoming more apparent that this was no ordinary tomb. For all about him, protruding slightly from the ground lay items stating considerable wealth and standing in life.
To the right of the skull were the encrusted remains of a necklace. And close to the ribcage there seemed to be a tiny gold statuette, probably a fertility symbol of sorts. He was about to examine it more closely when the sound of clanking shovels came wafting over the sands, disturbing his concentration. Looking out into the distance, Archibald Cherrytree could still see the workmen of his rivals. Archaeologists who had been commissioned by the British Museum. Their endless funding and relentless craving for glory pushed their workmen ever onward to dig night and day in search of the next sensational discovery. Despondency was setting in. Highly developed civilisations had come and gone in this world, leaving traces of mighty fortresses and temples that always remained hidden to the ￼underfunded. The organisation that he belonged to - the Society of Obscure Antiquities (SOA) - had its heart in the right place, but sadly lacked on the financial front.
Frustrated, he scuffed the dirt.
Something caught his eye. A small slither of pottery presented itself.
Dropping back to his knees he removed the sand to expose more.
The slither of pottery had become a handle of an amphora jar. An object that could quite possibly give further insight into the owner of this grave. Archie busily scraped around with a small trowel until the jar was more visible. It was plain, no notable markings, and of ample size, but more importantly, it appeared to be intact. A silhouette of what he knew to be a yellow tartan kilt promptly stole the light.
“Looks like you’ll be needing two planks o’ wood and some rope then, Arch.”
Archie flicked his dark hair away from his eyes and squinted into the sun.
“Could you, Hamish? There’s a good fellow.”
“On my way.”
A shadow poked its head out from behind their tent, waving at Hamish trying to get his attention.
“Hamish?” Hamish stopped dead in his tracks. “Have you been encouraging Hector again?”
Hamish turned, sheepishly shrugging his shoulders. “I just gave the poor chap a bit o’ food, Arch. It won’t hurt.”
Throughout the excavation Archie had constantly been aware of this beggar’s presence, watching from afar, never interfering but always within view. Many times he had the feeling of being watched and poked his head out of the ground to catch a quick glimpse of a dark figure darting behind a bush in the distance. Archie had never seen him or met him, but he still knew who it was. Hamish quite often had dealings with him, trading food for scraps of information regarding the site and had given him the nickname of Hector.
“You know our provisions are limited, Hamish.”
“But Arch, he says we’re lookin’ in the wrong place.”
￼Archie raised his eyebrows, smiled and tapped his trowel three times on the side of the amphora.
“And how many of these have we found?”
“Rite, I’d better go and get the, um...”
Archie shook his head and grinned. Hamish clumsily bounded off and quickly returned with the materials required slung over his shoulder, plopped into the ground beside Archie, and immediately began assisting in its removal.
A warm Aegean wind whipped up the dust around their feet as they eventually climbed out of the past and into the present. With the Amphora strapped between the wood in a makeshift stretcher, they slowly heaved it to waist height and cautiously moved forward. The terrain was rocky and difficult to see. Hamish stumbled on some loose debris, momentarily letting one side badly lurch.
“It’s these blasted sandals, Arch.”
“Just be careful.”
“I can’t see...”
He was cut short by a sound neither wanted to hear. A gut wrenching, celebratory roar came drifting on the breeze. Neither said a word, as each knew exactly what had just happened: another discovery for the British Museum. Steadily and thoughtfully, they carried the artefact the short distance to their camp for examination. Archie broke the silence.
“I don’t understand it, Hamish. Why is it that every time we’re within a mile of a find, the British Museum are already there replacing the turf.”
Archie loathed the British Museum, not because of their ‘luck’, but for what they had done to his father. The constant turning of heads that he had to endure as he walked the streets of Bath. The mockery and the whispered variations of ‘Isn’t that mad Bart’s son?’ that he had to hear. He had to get away from the poison that was eating through his veins. So he teamed up with Hamish and took the first expedition that became available for the SOA. To find and secure The Knife of Perseus - the blade which killed￼Medusa the Gorgon.
They had been away from home for over a year now, excavating on various Greek islands searching for it. Unfortunately, the islands like to keep their secrets. But this didn’t dishearten Archie. It made him all the more determined to ensure the reputation of the Society of Obscure Antiquities.
Archie was the first to stagger into the tent. It was a mess. Strewn in every direction were earlier discovered artefacts and drawings of where they were found. Lying on top of some of them, intermingled with the odd item of clothing, were various books offering different opinion as to what the items were.
Tiptoeing through the detritus, Archie led Hamish to the only semi-visible workspace available. Struggling to hold the jar with one arm, he quickly swiped the stale remains of the birthday cake his mother had sent him to the floor, and placed the amphora on the already overcrowded desk.
“Did you hear that?”
Something inside, dislodged by the short journey, gave a dull ‘thudump’.
“Somethin’ moved, Arch. Somethin’ moooved.”
The pair removed shaky hands and took a step back. A moment passed. Archie wiped his hands on his waistcoat, licked his lips, grabbed his brush and feverishly swished it back and forth around the top of the jar, removing some of the harder encrusted earth, to reveal a lid. A lid that was unopened. Hamish raised a ginger eyebrow and instinctively handed him the only tool available, a spoon. It took a little prising but eventually the lid popped off with a vacuum-breaking ‘pop!’
Archie moved in closer. He thought he could see...
Without warning a fine green-coloured mist spurted from the jar. Archie gagged and lurched backward. The newly-awakened mist hovered, ominously, twinkling in the light, stretching after a millennia of ancient slumber. Archie peered through the pulsing mist and into the void. There appeared to be something dark and solid.
“Is that papyrus?” Archie flashed his friend a grin. “I think it is.”
Papyrus meant one thing and one thing only. Writing. He couldn’t contain his enthusiasm any longer. Long had he searched and hoped for the written word of the ancients, and here it was, quite possibly at his fingertips. Taking a deep and steadying breath, he rolled up his sleeve and plunged an arm inside the jar. It was no good. Whatever it was remained just out of reach. The verdant dust particles, displaced by his movements, swirled rhythmically around his person. Pushing his arm right up to the shoulder he blindly struggled to get a good grip. With each flailing attempt the green-coloured mist disappeared leaving a bitter taste in his mouth of what seemed to be... cheese? Finally he grabbed hold of the item, and amid much coughing and spluttering pulled it from the jar.
“Is... it? Ptah! Urg, oh that’s revolting. Is it? It is! My word, it is!”
It was, as he had hoped, papyrus. But the aged piece of parchment was in fact a parcel some sixteen inches long, six inches wide, triangular in shape, neatly tied together with cord and covered in a fine layer of green-coloured dust. Archie and Hamish beamed from ear to ear.
“Let’s have a closer look.”
With verdigris-stained hands Archie shakily untied the knot. Then running the end of his brush under the remains of the edge, he gently turned it over. His heart skipped a beat. For on the underside, in pristine condition, was the unmistakable written word of ancient Greek. But what was giving the parcel its triangular shape proved to be even more remarkable.
“Hello, what’s this?”
A piece of stone. With a little dusting it soon became apparent it was inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyph. Hamish moved in closer. Archie brushed down its length to remove the remaining dust. Yet another form of inscribed language appeared. It resembled the common Egyptian script. Demotic. Somewhere in the back of his mind a distant memory was telling him that there was something very, very familiar about this artefact.
“Great Hammer of Thor!”
￼Archie backed away from the desk and dropped his brush. His whole body quaked. He tried to talk but the words just wouldn’t come. Falling to his knees he shuffled through the sand to one of his trunks, pulled out a book, opened it, scoured the pages, turned around, held it aloft and pointed a green finger repeatedly at a line drawing. Leaning forward, Hamish mouthed the lettering underneath.
“Found near the town of... el... Rashid... It has been... on... exhibition... in the British Museum since 1802. The Rosetta Stone.”
Then standing upright once more he glanced back and forth at the piece of stone on the desk and the line drawing in the book and looked somewhat perplexed. Archie nodded vigorously upward at him. Still with the look of confusion, Hamish picked up the stone and studied it more closely. Archie nodded with even more vigour, desperately wanting his assistant to see the significance of what they had found. Hamish then held the artefact at arm’s length toward the open page of the book. Closed one eye, and battled with the perspective for a few moments.
Climbing up off his knees Archie stood in front of his confused assistant and clasped him firmly by the shoulders.
“Hamish. Don’t you see? I think that what you are holding could quite possibly be the missing section of the Rosetta Stone!”
“I can see it’s a piece o’ stone alrite, but...”
“My dear Hamish McShane the Rosetta Stone was, and still is, the key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs!”
Archie was very much like his father. The same dark wavy hair and inquisitive, smiling brown eyes. A cheery disposition and an inexhaustible trust in the humanity of others. But he inherited his thirst for knowledge from his mother, Elizabeth Cherrytree, the archivist for the SOA. And mother and son never felt more alive than when they were retelling history.
He beckoned his colleague to sit beside him on the camp bed, where he excitedly continued.
“It began, Hamish as all things begin, with the pursuit of power. In 196BC, the￼Egyptian Pharaoh, Ptolemy V, ordained himself a living God and commissioned the inscription of stones or ‘stele’ stating this fact, to be placed in temples across Egypt.” Hamish smoothed his hand over the stone. Stopping to pick some of the harder sand out of a hieroglyph with a dirty fingernail.
“By putting this writing on stone, the King would live forever. But like stone, Kings and empires crumble and fade into obscurity. So, for nearly 2000 years its secret remained hidden in the sands, until Napoleon’s soldiers accidentally discovered it. And when that fledgling empire was defeated, it, and other artefacts came unwillingly from French possession to that of the British Museum, where for many years various people tried to decipher it. But, eventually the British Museum had to endure the bitter taste of defeat. As ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were finally deciphered by Jean-François Champollion, a Frenchman.”
Archie’s eyes were wild, stimulated with the telling of this complicated history.
“The rivalry between these establishments has long been known. So...” he paused for breath, “not wanting to admit to defeat, the British Museum sent out numerous expeditions in the hope of finding lost fragments of the Rosetta Stone. Hoping that maybe somewhere under the vast shifting sands there may be another in duplicate. But none were ever found. Therefore, much to the Museum’s loathing, our entire acceptance and understanding of ancient Egyptian is based on the word of a Frenchman. But now we may have discovered the illusive missing fragment. All that we take for the norm, could in fact, be ever so slightly wrong!”
A smile broke out across Hamish’s face. He plunged his hand into his sporran, rummaged for a moment, produced a small bottle of whisky and two tiny wooden cups and thrust one into Archie’s chest.
“So what you’re sayin’ is that the age of the Obscure Antiquarian has finally arrived?”
Smiling in return, Archie removed the cup from Hamish’s hand.
“I think, that it maybe this time, it could actually be so.”
“Aye. I’ve always known this day would come. I’ve been saying it for years. To the Obscure Antiquarian.”
The whisky was uncorked, its contents poured and the two joyful archaeologists toasted their success, emptying their cups in one eye-watering swig. Hamish hopped off the bed and immediately started singing the SOA anthem, pacing around the tent in a firm regimented manner. Forcing his arm back and forth from his chest in time with an imaginary brass band as he sang. With the passing of each verse came the chorus, which increased in volume as the whisky took effect. Laughing out loud Archie stood up, raised an arm as if to halt a procession, and immediately joined his colleague in song. With raised knees the pair strutted around the desk and its finds, kicking up the dust, singing in harmony.
But soon the only voice to be heard was that of Hamish.
Archie had stopped.
His attention had been drawn back to Papyrus.
Staring down at the text, something that he had overlooked came to mind. Why? His mind was racing.
“Why was a piece of Rosetta Stone buried in a jar? Why Limnos? And what was that green cheese-flavoured dust?”
Oblivious to rambling thoughts and words, part of Rosetta Stone in one hand, miniature whisky bottle in the other, a gleeful Hamish now hummed a traditional tune whilst hopping a jig. Realising that other archaeologists have ears, Archie sharply span around, raised a finger and beckoned his friend to be silent.
“Why was this buried Hamish? Why?”
Hamish, shakily regaining balance, shrugged a reply.
Archie continued. “The answer has to lie hidden inside the grave, or, within the texts on these artefacts.”
He understood Greek and had a basic understanding of the other languages, but nowhere near enough to unravel what they now possessed. Although Hamish was a true and loyal friend, he wished his father was by his side, sharing his wealth of archaeological knowledge. Sadly that could never happen. Archie scuffed the dirt.
“If only Bartholomew were here. He’d know.”
“My father, Professor Bartholomew Damokles Cherrytree.”
￼Hamish placed the bottle back in his sporran. “Your father? Can we contact him?” Archie, flopped back to the bed. “No.”
“Why not? Where is he?”
Archie looked up. “Gone. No one knows where.” Leaning on his knees, he solemnly told his colleague the story.
“He disappeared shortly after a failed quest for the SOA.” “The SOA? Your’re jokin’. I ‘ad no idea.”
Archie nodded. “He foolishly made it public that he was close to finding the Lost City of Atlantis. While he was gone, the British Museum made it their business to slur his good name. And when he returned some six months later, empty handed, the eminent men and foremost thinkers of our age, and, of course, so called polite society, branded him an outcast. My father seemingly never recovered.”
Archie closed his eyes, recalling further memories. “I remember the day, shortly after his public humiliation, when he excitedly came to me. He spoke of new information regarding Atlantis, and that he was heading a one-man expedition to Iceland to find it. He made me promise not to tell anyone, as it had to remain secret. His last words warned me of terrible forces at work with hidden agendas.” Archie sighed. “And he hasn’t been seen since.” He fell silent.
Deep down Archie knew, as deep down they all knew, that he probably couldn’t cope with the shame of being humiliated, and so vanished, leaving him his entire estate. Another expert was now required to authenticate this discovery. Only then, as Hamish so rightly said, could the age of the Obscure Antiquarian truly arrive. And the perfect opportunity to consult one was close at hand.
He rummaged quickly through some old correspondence on the bedside table to produce an envelope. Inside was a long forgotten invitation. He had been invited to a conference about Greek mythology for the SOA, which was to be held at the Grand Hotel of Pera in Constantinople. Archie muttered through the list of speakers on the reverse of the invite. There it was. The name he had hoped to see. His old schoolmaster, fellow SOA member and believer of many gods, Felix Quigg.
A smile￼spread across his face. Wafting the invite in the air Archie turned to his assistant. “I have to get to this convention as soon as possible!” Hamish studied the invite and pointed to the top right hand corner.
“Aye, but would ya look at the date. You’ve only got a few days to get there.”
Archie poked his head out of the tent to the backdrop of a sunset, opened his pocket watch, checked the hour and snapped it firmly shut.
“It’s late. Our rivals will soon be heading for supper in the tavern. So, a prompt departure will avoid suspicion. Time is of the essence, Hamish. Time is most definitely of the essence.”
Then bending down he pulled out an old marble effect covered portfolio from under the bed, emptied its contents onto the floor and gently lifted the papyrus, placing it within and tied a good firm knot. He then unlocked the drawers of his desk, put the portfolio inside, locked it and handed Hamish the key.
Hamish grinned to attention.
“This must be kept safe and well hidden at all times. And above all else, tell no one of what you have in your keeping.”
“You can count on me, Arch.”
Then wrapping the stone inside an old shirt, he placed it, some toiletries and a change of clothing into one of his smaller travel cases.
“I know I can trust you, Hamish. I know I can. But, I cannot stress enough the importance of continuing this excavation. I’m to be informed immediately, via telegram to the Grand Hotel of Pera, of any significant discoveries. We cannot leave anything to chance.” Hamish picked up the travel case, walked out of the tent and placed it on the cart as Archie clambered aboard.
“I’ll be alrite, Arch. We McShanes have a knack of keeping out of trouble.” He continued, “It’s you who should be worryin’. You’ve gotta keep old Aesop ‘ere under control!”
The donkey gave a stubborn backward glance as Hamish slapped his rump, waking it into motion. The cart lunged forward, knocking Archie backward off his seat into the rear. He quickly picked himself back up, smoothed his hair back behind his ears, grabbed hold of the reins and uneasily regained control.
“I see what you mean.”
As the donkey and cart headed south through the remains of Hephaistia, Archie glimpsed Hector’s silhouetted figure on the horizon.
An unmoving shape against a blood red sky. So he raised a hand, bid him farewell and made his way to Constantinople, escorted by the sound of Hamish playing the bagpipes, badly.