Atlantis: Chapter 2

Atlantis: Chapter 2
Atlantis: Chapter 2

MAURICE HIEBERMEYER STOOD UP AND wiped his forehead, momentarily checking the sheen of sweat that was dripping off his face. He looked at his watch. It was nearly noon, close to the end of their working day, and the desert heat was becoming unbearable. He arched his back and winced, suddenly realizing how much he ached from more than five hours hunched over a dusty trench. He slowly made his way to the central part of the site for his customary end-of-day inspection. With his wide-brimmed hat, little round glasses and knee-length shorts he cut a faintly comic figure, like some empire builder of old, an image that belied his stature as one of the world’s leading Egyptologists.

He silently watched the excavation, his thoughts accompanied by the familiar clinking of mattocks and the occasional creak of a wheelbarrow. This may not have the glamour of the Valley of the Kings, he reflected, but it had far more artefacts. It had taken years of fruitless search before Tutankhamun’s tomb had been discovered; here they were literally up to their knees in mummies, with hundreds already revealed and more being uncovered every day as new passageways were cleared of sand.

Hiebermeyer walked over to the deep pit where it had all begun. He peered over the edge into an underground labyrinth, a maze of rock-cut tunnels lined with niches where the dead had remained undisturbed over the centuries, escaping the attention of the tomb robbers who had destroyed so many of the royal graves. It was a wayward camel that had exposed the catacombs; the unfortunate beast had strayed off the track and disappeared into the sand before its owner’s eyes. The drover had run over to the spot and recoiled in horror when he saw row upon row of bodies far below, their faces staring up at him as if in reproach for disturbing their hallowed place of rest.

“These people are in all likelihood your ancestors,” Hiebermeyer had told the camel drover after he had been summoned from the Institute of Archaeology in Alexandria to the desert oasis two hundred kilometres to the south. The excavations had proved him right. The faces which had so terrified the drover were in reality exquisite paintings. Some were of a quality unsurpassed until the Italian Renaissance. Yet they were the work of artisans, not some ancient great master, and the mummies were not nobles but ordinary folk. Most of them had lived not in the age of the pharaohs but in the centuries when Egypt was under Greek and Roman rule. It was a time of increased prosperity, when the introduction of coinage spread wealth and allowed the new middle class to afford gilded mummy casings and elaborate burial rituals. They lived in the Fayum, the fertile oasis which extended sixty kilometres east from the necropolis towards the Nile.

Atlantis: Chapter 1


The burials represented a much wider cross-section of life than a royal necropolis, Hiebermeyer reflected, and they told stories just as fascinating as a mummified Ramses or Tutankhamun. Only this morning he had been excavating a family of cloth-makers, a man named Seth and his father and brother. Colourful scenes of temple life adorned the cartonnage, the plaster and linen board that formed the breastplate over their coffins. The inscription showed that the two brothers had been lowly attendants in the temple of Neith at Saïs but had experienced good fortune and gone into business with their father, a trader in cloth with the Greeks. They had clearly profited handsomely to judge from the valuable offerings in the mummy wrappings and the gold-leaf masks that covered their faces.

“Dr. Hiebermeyer, I think you should come and see this.”

The voice came from one of his most experienced trench supervisors, an Egyptian graduate student who he hoped one day would follow him as director of the institute. Aysha Farouk peered up from the side of the pit, her handsome, dark-skinned face an image from the past, as if one of the mummy portraits had suddenly sprung to life.

“You will have to climb down.”

Hiebermeyer replaced his hat with a yellow safety helmet and gingerly descended the ladder, his progress aided by one of the local fellahin employed as labourers on the site. Aysha was perched over a mummy in a sandstone niche only a few steps down from the surface. It was one of the graves that had been damaged by the camel’s fall, and Hiebermeyer could see where the terracotta coffin had been cracked and the mummy inside partly torn open.

They were in the oldest part of the site, a shallow cluster of passageways which formed the heart of the necropolis. Hiebermeyer fervently hoped his student had found something that would prove his theory that the mortuary complex had been founded as early as the sixth century BC, more than two centuries before Alexander the Great conquered Egypt.

“Right. What do we have?” His German accent gave his voice a clipped authority.

He stepped off the ladder and squeezed in beside his assistant, careful not to damage the mummy any further. They had both donned lightweight medical masks, protection against the viruses and bacteria that might lie dormant within the wrapping and be revived in the heat and moisture of their lungs. He closed his eyes and briefly bowed his head, an act of private piety he carried out each time he opened a burial chamber. After the dead had told their tale he would see that they were reinterred to continue their voyage through the afterlife.


The color purple: Alice Walker: Chapter 4


When he was ready, Aysha adjusted the lamp and reached into the coffin, cautiously prising apart the jagged tear which ran like a great wound through the belly of the mummy.

“Just let me clean up.”

She worked with a surgeon’s precision, her fingers deftly manipulating the brushes and dental picks which had been neatly arranged in a tray beside her. After a few minutes clearing away the debris from her earlier work she replaced the tools and edged her way towards the head of the coffin, making room for Hiebermeyer to have a closer look.

He cast an expert eye over the objects she had removed from the resin-soaked gauze of the mummy, its aroma still pungent after all the centuries. He quickly identified a golden ba, the winged symbol of the soul, alongside protective amulets shaped like cobras. In the centre of the tray was an amulet of Qebeh-sennuef, guardian of the intestines. Alongside was an exquisite faience brooch of an eagle god, its wings outstretched and the silicate material fired to a lustrous greenish hue.

He shifted his bulky frame along the shelf until he was poised directly over the incision in the casing. The body was facing east to greet the rising sun in symbolic rebirth, a tradition which went far back into prehistory. Below the torn wrapping he could see the rust-coloured torso of the mummy itself, the skin taut and parchment-like over the ribcage. The mummies in the necropolis had not been prepared in the manner of the pharaohs, whose bodies were eviscerated and filled with embalming salts; here the desiccating conditions of the desert had done most of the job, and the embalmers had removed only the organs of the gut. By the Roman period even that procedure was abandoned. The preservational characteristics of the desert were a godsend to archaeologists, as remarkable as waterlogged sites, and Hiebermeyer was constantly astonished by the delicate organic materials that had survived for thousands of years in near perfect condition.


“Do you see?” Aysha could no longer contain her excitement. “There, below your right hand.”

“Ah yes.” Hiebermeyer’s eye had been caught by a torn flap in the mummy wrapping, its ragged edge resting on the lower pelvis.

The material was covered with finely spaced writing. This in itself was nothing new; the ancient Egyptians were indefatigable record-keepers, writing copious lists on the paper they made by matting together fibres of papyrus reed. Discarded papyrus also made excellent mummy wrapping and was collected and recycled by the funerary technicians. These scraps were among the most precious finds of the necropolis, and were one reason why Hiebermeyer had proposed such a large-scale excavation.

At the moment he was less interested in what the writing said than the possibility of dating the mummy from the style and language of the script. He could understand Aysha’s excitement. The torn-open mummy offered a rare opportunity for on-the-spot dating. Normally they would have to wait for weeks while the conservators in Alexandria painstakingly peeled away the wrappings.

“The script is Greek,” Aysha said, her enthusiasm getting the better of her deference. She was now crouched beside him, her hair brushing against his shoulder as she motioned towards the papyrus.

Hiebermeyer nodded. She was right. There was no mistaking the fluid script of ancient Greek, quite distinct from the hieratic of the Pharaonic period and the Coptic of the Fayum region in Greek and Roman times.


He was puzzled. How could a fragment of Greek text have been incorporated in a Fayum mummy of the sixth or fifth century BC? The Greeks had been allowed to establish a trading colony at Naucratis on the Canopic branch of the Nile in the seventh century BC, but their movement inland had been strictly controlled. They did not become major players in Egypt until Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BC, and it was inconceivable that Egyptian records would have been kept in Greek before that date.

Hiebermeyer suddenly felt deflated. A Greek document in the Fayum would most likely date from the time of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian dynasty that began with Alexander’s general, Ptolemy I Lagus, and ended with the suicide of Cleopatra and the Roman takeover in 30 BC. Had he been so wrong in his early date for this part of the necropolis? He turned towards Aysha, his expressionless face masking a rising disappointment.

“I’m not sure I like this. I’m going to take a closer look.”

He pulled the angle-lamp closer to the mummy. Using a brush from Aysha’s tray, he delicately swept away the dust from one corner of the papyrus, revealing a script as crisp as if it had been penned that day. He took out his magnifying glass and held his breath as he inspected the writing. The letters were small and continuous, uninterrupted by punctuation. He knew it would take time and patience before a full translation could be made.

What mattered now was its style. Hiebermeyer was fortunate to have studied under Professor James Dillen, a renowned linguist whose teaching left such an indelible impression that Hiebermeyer was still able to remember every detail more than two decades after he had last studied ancient Greek calligraphy.

After a few moments his face broke into a grin and he turned towards Aysha.

“We can rest easy. It’s early, I’m sure of it. Fifth, probably sixth century BC.”

He closed his eyes with relief and she gave him a swift embrace, the reserve between student and professor momentarily forgotten. She had guessed the date already; her master’s thesis had been on the archaic Greek inscriptions of Athens and she was more of an expert than Hiebermeyer, but she had wanted him to have the triumph of discovery, the satisfaction of vindicating his hypothesis about the early foundation of the necropolis.

Hiebermeyer peered again at the papyrus, his mind racing. With its tightly spaced, continuous script it was clear this was no administrative ledger, no mere list of names and numbers. This was not the type of document which would have been produced by the merchants of Naucratis. Were there other Greeks in Egypt at this period? Hiebermeyer knew only of occasional visits by scholars who had been granted rare access to the temple archives. Herodotus of Halicarnassos, the Father of History, had visited the priests in the fifth century BC, and they had told him many wondrous things, of the world before the conflict between the Greeks and the Persians which was the main theme of his book. Earlier Greeks had visited too, Athenian statesmen and men of letters, but their visits were only half remembered and none of their accounts had survived first-hand.

Hiebermeyer dared not voice his thoughts to Aysha, aware of the embarrassment that could be caused by a premature announcement which would spread like wildfire among the waiting journalists. But he could barely restrain himself. Had they found some long-lost lynchpin of ancient history?

Almost all the literature that survived from antiquity was known only from medieval copies, from manuscripts painstakingly transcribed by monks in the monasteries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. Most of the ancient manuscripts had been ruined by decay or destroyed by invaders and religious zealots. For years scholars had hoped against hope that the desert of Egypt would reveal lost texts, writings which might overturn ancient history. Above all they dreamed of something that might preserve the wisdom of Egypt’s scholar priests. The temple scriptoria visited by Herodotus and his predecessors preserved an unbroken tradition of knowledge that extended back thousands of years to the dawn of recorded history.

Hiebermeyer ran excitedly through the possibilities. Was this a firsthand account of the wanderings of the Jews, a document to set alongside the Old Testament? Or a record of the end of the Bronze Age, of the reality behind the Trojan War? It might tell an even earlier history, one showing that the Egyptians did more than simply trade with Bronze Age Crete but actually built the great palaces. An Egyptian King Minos? Hiebermeyer found the idea hugely appealing.

He was brought back to earth by Aysha, who had continued to clean the papyrus and now motioned him towards the mummy.

“Look at this.”

Aysha had been working along the edge of the papyrus where it stuck out from the undamaged wrapping. She gingerly raised a flap of linen and pointed with her brush.

“It’s some kind of symbol,” she said.

The text had been broken by a strange rectilinear device, part of it still concealed under the wrapping. It looked like the end of a garden rake with four protruding arms.

“What do you make of it?”

“I don’t know.” Hiebermeyer paused, anxious not to seem at a loss in front of his student. “It may be some form of numerical device, perhaps derived from cuneiform.” He was recalling the wedge-shaped symbols impressed into clay tablets by the early scribes of the Near East.

“Here. This might give a clue.” He leaned forward until his face was only inches away from the mummy, gently blowing the dust from the text that resumed below the symbol. Between the symbol and the text was a single word, its Greek letters larger than the continuous script on the rest of the papyrus.

“I think I can read it,” he murmured. “Take the notebook out of my back pocket and write down the letters as I dictate them.”

She did as instructed and squatted by the coffin with her pencil poised, flattered that Hiebermeyer had confidence in her ability to make the transcription.

“OK. Here goes.” He paused and raised his magnifying glass. “The first letter is Alpha.” He shifted to catch a better light. “Then Tau. Then Alpha again. No, scratch that. Lamna. Now another Alpha.”

Despite the shade of the niche the sweat was welling up on his forehead. He shifted back slightly, anxious to avoid dripping on the papyrus.

“Nu. Then Tau again. Iota, I think. Yes, definitely. And now the final letter.” Without letting his eyes leave the papyrus he felt for a small pair of tweezers on the tray and used them to raise part of the wrapping that was lying over the end of the word. He blew gently on the text again.

“Sigma. Yes, Sigma. And that’s it.” Hiebermeyer straightened. “Right. What do we have?”

In truth he had known from the moment he saw the word, but his mind refused to register what had been staring him in the face. It was beyond his wildest dreams, a possibility so embedded in fantasy that most scholars would simply disown it.

They both stared dumbfounded at the notebook, the single word transfixing them as if by magic, everything else suddenly blotted out and meaningless.

Atlantis.” Hiebermeyer’s voice was barely a whisper.

He turned away, blinked hard, and turned back again. The word was still there. His mind was suddenly in a frenzy of speculation, pulling out everything he knew and trying to make it hold.


Years of scholarship told him to start with what was least contentious, to try to work his finds into the established framework first.

Atlantis. He stared into space. To the ancients the story could have occupied the tail end of their creation myth, when the Age of Giants gave over to the First Age of Men. Perhaps the papyrus was an account of this legendary golden age, an Atlantis rooted not in history but in myth.

Hiebermeyer looked into the coffin and wordlessly shook his head. That could not be right. The place, the date. It was too much of a coincidence. His instinct had never failed him, and now he felt it more strongly than he ever had before.

The familiar, predictable world of mummies and pharaohs, priests and temples seemed to fall away before his eyes. All he could think about was the enormous expenditure of effort and imagination that had gone into reconstructing the ancient past, an edifice that suddenly seemed so fragile and precarious.

It was funny, he mused, but that camel may have been responsible for the greatest archaeological discovery ever made.

“Aysha, I want you to prepare this coffin for immediate removal. Fill that cavity with foam and seal it over.” He was site director again, the immense responsibility of their discovery overcoming his boyish excitement of the last few minutes. “I want this on the truck to Alexandria today, and I want you to go with it. Arrange for the usual armed escort, but nothing special as I do not want to attract undue attention.”

They were ever mindful of the threat posed by modern-day tomb robbers, scavengers and highwaymen who lurked in the dunes around the site and had become increasingly audacious in their attempts to steal even the smallest trifle.

“And, Aysha,” he said, his face now deadly serious. “I know I can trust you not to breathe a word of this to anyone, not even to our colleagues and friends in the team.”


Hiebermeyer left Aysha to her task and grappled his way up the ladder, the extraordinary drama of the discovery suddenly compounding his fatigue. He made his way across the site, staggering slightly under the withering sun, oblivious to the excavators who were still waiting dutifully for his inspection. He entered the site director’s hut and slumped heavily in front of the satellite phone. After wiping his face and closing his eyes for a moment he composed himself and switched on the set. He dialled a number and soon a voice came over the headphone, crackly at first but clearer as he adjusted the antenna.

“Good afternoon, you have reached the International Maritime University. How may I help you?”

Hiebermeyer quickly responded, his voice hoarse with excitement. “Hello, this is Maurice Hiebermeyer calling from Egypt. This is top priority. Patch me through immediately to Jack Howard.”

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The war of the worlds: on Horsell common: Chapter three




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