2. A Genuine Artifact

Madison, Wisconsin – June 12th, 2004

“Hello, you’ve reached Grad Central Station. We’re all out working very hard on our theses right now, honest. No, stop giggling, it’s TRUE! We really are!  Leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we come up for air and ramen.  Hopefully soon, but you know how it is. You know the drill….”

“Good grief—“  Diane Webster hit the pause button on the answering machine and gave her roommate her patented over-the-glasses Are you shitting me?  Look, though she still found it hard to totally suppress her smile.  “You were drunk when you recorded this, Lisa, don’t try to deny it.  Come on, shouldn’t our message be a bit more, I don’t know, professional?”

“You’re welcome to record the next one if you want,” Lisa said loftily.  “Go on, listen to the message.  Maybe someone wants to ask you out—someone with a sexy British accent.”

“Yeah, right,” Diane replied.  “He’s my boss, he’s not allowed to ask me out.  Okay, hush, let me hear it.”

She pushed play again.  The voice that emerged was male, a pleasant light baritone, and did indeed have a distinct British accent that could have come straight out of Masterpiece Theater.

“Oh, I’m supposed to talk now, aren’t I?  Right.  Well. This is for Diane, of course.  I was just wondering if you and Thomas would like to take a closer hands-on look at the new pieces I’ve acquired from the Drayer Foundation. They just arrived today, and I’m uncrating them this evening.  Come by the office around… let’s say, ten? Give me a call when you arrive and I’ll come down and let you into the building.  Well. Hope that’s sufficient enticement to lure  you out on  a Saturday night.  Hope to see you soon, then….”

“See?”  Lisa grinned.  “What did I tell you?  Nothing like a late night secret rendezvous over ancient Egyptian artifacts—so romantic.”

“Stop it,” Diane let a bit of annoyance show in her tone—the joke was getting a bit old now, and Lisa really did know better.  “Besides, if TJ is there, and he will be there if he gets the same message, this is going to be work. What time is it—ten-thirty?  Oh, shit, I’d better get a move on—“

“What—going in to work now? Can’t this wait until, you know, Monday?” Lisa asked.  “Or at least normal working hours?  Are you crazy?”

“No, I’m an archaeologist,” Diane said, scooping up her car keys and cell phone.  “Besides, if he did get some pieces from Drayer, no way am I gonna let TJ hog all the fun.”

“You have a really weird idea of fun.”

“Oh, like I’ve never been told that before,” Diane said, grinning. “I’ll see you tomorrow, don’t wait up—“

*          *          *          *          *

When she arrived, it was TJ who came down and let her in the building.  He was two years older than Diane, a tall and lanky young man with long sandy-blond hair he kept tied back with a rubber band.  This was TJ’s second summer working for Dr. Hewitt, so he was well-accustomed to their professor’s quirks, including (apparently) late-night lab sessions with newly acquired artifacts.

“Hey, Di—“ he said.  “Your timing is spot-on, we were just about to open it.”

“What is it?  What did he get?” Diane had to stretch her legs to keep up with him, especially going up the stairs.  “Come on, TJ, is it authentic or what?  Give!”

“You’ll see,” he said, grinning down at her.  “Hey, don’t blame me, Charles made me promise to not talk about it outside the lab.”

“Oh? A vow of silence now? This had better be good.”

Except for the security lights, the building was mostly dark. But there was light coming from the office at the end of the hall.  The name on the door read Dr. Charles E. Hewitt, Archaeology. It wasn’t a terribly big office, since Charles was only a part-time adjunct, but the office had a second door into a very well-kept working lab, and that was where the professor and his surprise awaited.

Diane saw it on the table as soon as she came through the door: a large square box of carved and painted alabaster. The sides were inscribed with columns of hieroglyphic characters and the figures of four goddesses, and the lid was adorned with the recumbent figure of a traditional Anubis jackal,  its head raised on guard duty.

“A canopic chest,” she said in awe. “Oh my God, Charles—is that what I think it is? Is it authentic? No, it can’t be, can it.  I’ve seen your budget…”

“Is it really 19th Dynasty, is that what you mean?” Charles Hewitt, PhD, was tall, slim and professorial, from his wire-rimmed glasses down to his khaki slacks and sensible shoes.  He also sported a waxed moustache and long sideburns, which (along with his accent) rather made him appear as though he just stepped out of a BBC documentary. “Well, take a look.  You tell me.”

Accepting the challenge, Diane leaned closer, to better study the hieroglyphic text inscribed on the side closest to her.  After a few minutes, however, a slight frown creased her brow, and then she exhaled.  “Gibberish,” she pronounced at last.  “It looks good—until you try to read it. And there are symbols here I’ve never even seen before.  How old is it, really?”

“Very good,” Charles said, nodding approval.  “Circa nineteen-twenties, according to the provenance the Drayer Foundation had on it.  There were a lot of replica artifacts made back then—it was all the rage, as they say.  And according to the documentation, it’s complete—shall we look inside?”

“We were waiting for you,” TJ says.  “Okay, we weren’t going to originally, but since you called, Charles insisted we had to wait.”

“Thanks so much, TJ,” Diane says.  “I’ll remember that.  Sure, let’s see what’s inside.”

The stone lid to the chest was quite heavy, so they used the portable winch—the same piece of equipment that had doubtless assisted with raising the stone chest to the reinforced table top earlier in the evening.  The winch lifted the lid without a hitch and set it down gently in the prepared space for it further down the table, allowing them to see what was inside.

The canopic jars themselves were nestled in their compartments, padded with some carefully placed bubble wrap and felt to prevent the jars from shaking around too much during transit.   Charles donned gloves and lifted each one out, setting them down on the table with great care.  Like the chest, they were made of alabaster.  They stood about sixteen inches tall, and each had a well-fitted lid in the shape of a head—a man in Egyptian headdress, an Anubis jackal, a Horus falcon, and a baboon.

“All four jars—at least it’s a really nice fake,” Diane said, looking them over. “And the hieroglyphics on the jars look like the traditional text.  Though… that’s odd. Look at the base of each head… I’ve never seen that before.”

“That is most unusual,” Charles agreed.

Around the base of each head there was an additional raised lip, perhaps intended to provide additional security for the jar’s lid.  There also appeared to be something inscribed on the lip.

Diane found a pair of gloves and examines the nearest jar, the one with the Anubis jackal head, more closely.   “Interesting… it’s a lotus pattern.  Rather an odd place to put one.”

“A—a lotus pattern, did you say…”  Charles murmured.  He had picked up the last jar in the line, the one with the human head.

TJ donned gloves as well, and picked up the falcon-headed jar.  “Yeah, definitely lotus—why?”

“How odd—“  Charles was still staring at the jar in his hands.  “Come over here and tell me I’m not seeing things? Because I might be… does this look like a lotus pattern to you?”

Diane put the jackal-headed jar back down and started around the table to take a better look.

“I’m probably seeing things,” Charles said.  “Am I?”

“No, Charles,” TJ said, leaning closer.  “That is definitely not a lotus pattern. Looks like some kind of writing, but I’ve never seen those characters before.   Diane, take a look at this one, you’re the Paleography geek…..”

“Flatterer,” Diane said, and leaned over their professor’s other shoulder. “Those are definitely not hieroglyphs—or hieratic, or demotic, or anything I’ve seen before. Why is this one different than the others?”

“This jar isn’t the same grade of alabaster, either,” TJ pointed out. “Look at the graining here, and the color.  It’s close, I’ll grant you, but it’s not the same.  The bands of darker color are thicker on the three other jars, and they are more or less at the same height.  But this one, that’s not really a thicker band, see? Look at it through the magnifying glass.  See the layering?  It’s still the same kind of stone, but the grain is much finer.  And the layering shows it came from a different place, where the calcite sediments were built up at a different rate.”

“So one of these things is most definitely not like the others,” Diane said, thinking aloud.  “But why would the Drayer not list it separately?  Why try to pass it off as a part of a replica set?”

“That’s a very good question,” Charles agreed.  “I did some authenticating for them from time to time, but they never showed me this set. I only learned about it when I saw the sales catalog.”

“If they thought it was a modern replica, why bother?” TJ added.  “But you’d think that script would have caught someone’s eye before now.”

“Charles… what if this jar—just this one—isn’t a replica?”  Diane asked.  “Could it be authentic? A genuine artifact? Maybe we should have it tested.“

The professor re-arranged the order of the jars on the table, putting the falcon-headed jar next to the more unusual human-headed one.  “I think I’ve seen this before.  That raised lip… on a falcon-headed jar.   Not quite like that one, but—“

“Yes—yes, now that you mention it—” TJ closed his eyes for a moment.  “Let me think… yeah.  It was in some auction catalog, I’m pretty sure, from when I did all that filing last winter. Right-hand side of the page.  Falcon-headed jar, not a very big pic, but I think it did have that extra lip.  Don’t remember which auction though.”

“In these files?  Let’s just take a look.”  Diane went straight to the file cabinet.  “Auctions, auctions—here we go.”

Twenty minutes later, with all three of them paging through old sales catalogs, TJ gave a whoop.  “Found it!  Here we go.  KMX-3426, canopic jar with falcon head, oriental alabaster, circa New Kingdom. Found Valley of the Kings, estimated 1890s, provenance unknown.”

“That’s the one,” Charles agreed, bending over TJ’s shoulder.   “See, it’s got the same lip. And the stone looks the same too—“

TJ attempted to study the photo closer with the magnifying glass.  “Dammit,” he muttered.  “Can’t see the detail on the lip.  It could be that script, or… maybe something else.”

“Let me take a look—“ Charles took custody of the catalog and magnifying glass, bringing it over under one of the working lamps.  “Yes, there is something.  Damnation. I should have taken a better look at it when I had the chance—“

“You were there?” Diane said, her voice rising in excitement.  “Charles!  It was an auction, right?  So someone must have bought it.   Maybe we can find out who the new owner is, and get some better pictures.”

“Or maybe they’ll let us see it close up,” TJ put in.  “Wouldn’t it be cool if they were originally  part of the same set?  I wonder how they got separated?  Who breaks up a matched set of canopic jars, anyway?  Seems almost, you know, sacrilegious.”

“Especially if you’re an ancient Egyptian,” Diane added, wryly.  “Charles—?”

“I’m sorry, what?”  Charles looked up, a somewhat startled expression on his face.

Charles,” Diane repeated, to make sure she had his attention.  “We have to find out who bought this jar.  So we can go take a look at it.  See if the same script is on that one too.  We can call the auction house on Monday. They must have records—“

“Oh,” Charles said. “Oh, there’s no need for that.  I know exactly who bought it.”

“You do?”

“Yes, of course I do.  The blasted fellow outbid me, you see.  Though he might not still have it, he was a broker—handled sales on behalf of some very wealthy clients, and he certainly had deeper pockets than I did. But he’ll have records.  He’ll know who the current owner is, I’m sure.”

“Great!” Diane pulled out her notepad.  “Can you find his number? I’ll call him first thing Monday morning—“

“Uh, actually, if you don’t mind,” Charles said, “I think this is one phone call I’d better make myself.  Professional courtesy, you know, one old hand to another.”

“Okay, Charles, if you want to do it that way,” Diane nodded.  “Then I’ll start looking to see if I can find any clue as to what that script is, or where it might have come from.  Just because I’ve never seen it before doesn’t mean there aren’t other examples somewhere.  Maybe we can start making some headway on figuring out what it means.”

“Excellent idea,” Charles said, beaming at her.  “And I will call my contact to see if we can get some better photos of the other jar, or possibly even go see it in person.  This is exciting, isn’t it?  We might actually discover something this summer after all!”

 To be continued…..   

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