The season’s Khamsin Winds had come and gone. As a consequence, the tawny desert plateau of Sakkara looked as if a vast broom had swept it smooth. Some ancient remains were choked with sand, while others tantalizingly peeked out from beneath their wind-blown overburden. Throughout, delicate though hellishly sharp Neolithic stone tools of black obsidian, tan flint, and brown chert lay on the surface waiting for a passerby to collect them. Gorgeous deep blue and green glazed faience fragments competed for similar attention. Such things the sharp-eyed Omar gathered, sometimes weighing down his cotton jellabiya’s pockets as if filled with lead.
But on this day, from afar, Omar saw an odd depression marring the terrain’s otherwise uniform contour. As he approached, the young lad found newly exposed bedrock and a long rectangular shape leading up to it. Next to one edge, Omar got down on all fours and brushed away some of the sand. Disregarding the sharp stone flakes cutting into his palms and knees, what Omar saw told the fourteen-year-old all he needed to know. He ran faster than his shadow to tell his father of his good fortune, while he loped down the ramp-like slope of the plateau toward the lush fields of the Nile Valley below.
Mere minutes later, the young man found his father who stood with a grimy wrench over a sputtering diesel pump. “Father! I have found something!”
Looking up to his son, Habib, the field foreman at the Temple of Ptah excavation, pulled out a rag from his back pocket and began wiping off his oil-covered tool. “So, my son, tell me of your many adventures.”
That very day and only a scant ten meters away, a middle-aged Egyptologist named Dr. Erik Reissen was hard at work within the Temple of Ptah, located within the ancient site of Memphis. Perspiration streamed down the sides of his chiseled face and darkened his tan shirt in ever expanding areas that ended in dried salt stains. Reissen’s personal devil was the Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser, which conspired to raise the ground water of the valley. His trenches consequently had bilge pumps that fought off their transformation into deep buffalo mud wallows. Secretly, the Austrian yearned for the Egyptian government’s permission to dig in a more suitable environment—like the one just above him on the Sakkara plateau. Then, at that moment, his last functioning water pump gave up in a shriek of metal and a plume of diesel smoke.
“Scheisse!” he cursed. “This ruins the budget. Now, I have four pumps that need rebuilding. This accursed season is now total rubbish!” His nearby graduate students cringed while pretending not to hear.
The archaeologist stood over the sizzling hot, seized motor. Its ruined head gasket freely bled fuel. Disgusted, and with hands on hips, Reissen stared at it with a defeated look on his face as seeping ground water already inched in.
“Erik,” his experienced field foreman, and long-time friend, said in Arabic, “things could be worse.”
“Everything is in the hands of Allah.”
The frustrated archaeologist stared back with a tight jaw, while sweat dripped from the tip of his straight nose.
“My friend, fifteen minutes ago my ever-adventurous son came to me with some news. He found something on the plateau that he is very excited about. He wants to tell his Uncle Erik about it.”
“Well I suppose now is about as good as any.” The Austrian said with a kick. “This pump is worthless.” He nodded to his foreman. “Okay then. I ready to hear what Omar has to say.”
Habib waved his son over. “Alright, my son, tell Uncle Erik what you told me.”
All excited and wringing his hands, Omar did, but Reissen only half listened as he eyed the boy’s bulging jellabiya pockets.
Raising his hand to pause the jumbled narrative, “What’s in your pockets, Omar?”
The blushing boy said, “Some things that I found in the desert.”
“Let’s see them,” the archaeologist encouraged, as he took Habib’s oily rag and laid it out on a flat foundation stone.
So Omar did, carefully laying out all of his new-found treasures. Seeing them transported Reissen back to his youthful home in the mountain village of Steinegg, Austria, where he too once scoured the countryside in search of stone tools. Carefully, touching each, the Austrian smiled and conspiratorially said, “Omar, these tools are beautiful. Now, please continue and tell me what you found.”
After several minutes, Reissen decided, slapping his thighs. “Let’s take the truck and go see Omar’s find.”
After a brief drive up from the valley to the Sakkara plateau, Reissen parked his tan Toyota pickup in the bus parking lot next to the massive Step Pyramid complex. There, the threesome got out.
“Omar,” his father said, “take us to your discovery.”
“Yes, father.” And off the scamp went, heading north, his sandals leaving rooster tails of sand in the air. On and on he went, past the Pyramid of Userkaf, and the many flat-topped tombs of the Old Kingdom.
While Reissen and Habib tried to keep up, the Austrian remarked, “Must be nice to be so young.”
On the windward side of a minor eminence, Omar stood impatiently waiting, unconsciously bouncing on his toes. An exposed bedrock outcrop and its all too regular adjacent depression then came into view. Reissen stopped and looked around to get his bearings. I’m just west of the tombs of the First and Second Dynasty kings. I wonder ...
Standing proudly over the narrow depression in the afternoon sun, Omar pointed, “Here, father. Here it is, Uncle Erik.”
Reissen dropped to his knees and examined the very spot that Omar had cleared away. He allowed his fingers to follow along the exposed, chiseled edge. “This looks very promising.”
Looking over at a grinning Omar who had squatted down opposite, the Austrian smiled, shook his head, and said, “Habib. Is it allowed to reward your son with a box of ice cream?”
Habib, seeing his friend’s ploy, stroked his thick salt and pepper moustache in pretended consideration. “Well, I suppose. He is, after all, a good son.”
At hearing this, Omar, still grinning ear-to-ear, squeezed his hands together in gleeful anticipation of the rare treat.
The Austrian sat back on his weathered boot heels, pulled out his smart phone, and called the Antiquities Inspector of the Sakkara plateau, a man named Dr. Hussain Kama. To his mild surprise, he found that the bureaucrat was still at his desk.
“This is Kama,” The man answered tersely.
“Inspector Kama, this is Dr. Erik Reissen of the Austrian archaeological mission. I apologize for this intrusion so late in the day, but I am calling to inform you of a new discovery in your district.”
“Dr. Reissen, where in my district?”
“North Sakkara. Just north of the pyramid of Userkaf.”
“Dr. Reissen, I was under the impression that you were in Memphis at the Temple of Ptah. How did you happen upon this news?”
“A tip, Inspector Kama.”
“I see, and where are you now?”
“I am looking down at it right now.”
“And what’s its condition, Dr. Reissen?”
“I have no idea, inspector. It appears to be undisturbed. The recent sand storm must have exposed it.”
“Where did you say you were again?”
* * *
Kama put down the receiver with a heavy sigh, pausing to think.
Yet another issue to address.
Should I send out my assistant Ali Hassan to assess this? No. I’ll go. I need the exercise. Besides, Reissen’s voice was quite revealing. While still quite clipped and precise, it actually betrayed much more. That stiff-necked Austrian was actually excited about something.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, a white Toyota Corolla jounced along the secondary road that faced the massive tombs of the First and Second Dynasty kings. Kama had to admit that it was good to get out of the office. Besides, Reissen’s poorly concealed excitement was contagious.
Parking his car on the side of the road, the Egyptian antiquities official got out, and saw Reissen waving his arms from high above on the plateau. As the thick man fought his way up the steep slope and its loose surface, each labored step reminded him why he no longer worked in the field.
Kama, heavily perspiring and puffing hard, said, upon reaching where Reissen and two others stood, “This had better be good, Dr. Reissen!”
“Look for yourself, Inspector Kama,” the Austrian gestured. “This depression appears to be the entrance to something—perhaps even a tomb.”
Accessing the length and width of the depression, Kama got down and felt along the exposed chiseled edge. Standing up and brushing off the knees of his pants, “It certainly does.”
Now looking the Austrian in the eye, “Does your mission have the resources to look into this?”
Shrugging, Reissen said, “Yes, Inspector Kama, it does. We can provide you a preliminary assessment. But on one condition.”
“That next season this site is added to my current excavation permit.”
Now Kama, shrugging, thought, all of my archaeological resources are already stretched beyond their capacity. Reissen and his team represent a quick and ready fix.
Mind made up, Kama answered, “That seems a reasonable request, Dr. Reissen. I will see to the amendment of your mission’s permit myself. How quickly can you secure this site?”
“Immediately, Inspector Kama. Just inform your antiquities security detachment of our arrangement, and I’ll see to the rest.”
* * *
The next morning, Reissen held a meeting of his entire field staff. The group agreed that Habib and the bulk of the Austrian field crew would wrap up their season at the Temple of Ptah, record and secure their finds, and fill in their trenches three weeks early. Reason: no bilge pumps.
In the meantime, Reissen and three graduate students would begin their investigation of what had become the “Omar Find.” Yes, there was lots of grumbling, but as soon as the temple team finished their duties to Habib’s satisfaction, they too were to join Reissen up on the plateau. This carrot silenced the grousing.
By mid-morning of day one, Reissen and his band had loaded up their truck with all their gear, drove up to the plateau, and stood before the suspicious rectangular depression.
“Okay, everyone,” Reissen said, “Time to get to work!” And they did, naturally falling into their practiced activities.
Jürgen Peters and Willim Franks busied themselves with the set up of their state-of-the-art base station—a laser surveying tool. This high-tech toy would provide the team with a versatile and state-of-the-art 3D plot of the entire site.
Else Wald, a willowy red-haired woman with freckles and wearing a cap with back and side flaps, wasted no time and began snapping photos. It was her task to capture the site while in its pristine state—to provide the needed imagery to establish an archaeological baseline.
Peters, a short, well-built, and shaggy-haired Bavarian, made his measurements at the base station. Franks, like a lanky and hyperactive toad, hopped about from datum point to datum point with his surveyor’s rod. All of this activity Wald photographed for posterity.
Before noon, the virgin site had been recorded, mapped, measured, and entered into Reissen’s laptop. Satisfied with these preliminaries, the archaeologist announced, “The preliminary survey is encouraging. The width of this depression, from edge to edge, is precisely 4.57 meters, or ten Egyptian cubits. That number is not accidental. If this is a tomb, that measure would provide more than enough room for a stone sarcophagus.”
Bright and wide grins shined all around.
“But as for the length of this depression, only one thing can provide that ...” Reissen turned to the truck and pulled out four, short-handled garden hoes and several rubber tire baskets.
“Alright everyone,” Reissen said, “Let’s clear out this depression.”
Rather quickly, the Hollywood allure of Egyptian archaeology became serious work. The four-some spread themselves out along the depression’s length, with each clearing away a side. Reissen chose the end nearest the bedrock outcropping, while Peters, the opposite.
The grueling drudgery of moving and lifting sand and rock went on for the next seven days. From dawn until noon, Reissen and his team labored.
On day eight, Peters announced that he had exposed the beginning slope of a ramp in the native limestone bedrock. Work immediately stopped while the rest of his team examined his claim.
“Excellent, Jürgen!” Reissen beamed. “Else. Grab your camera and meter stick to record this moment! Meanwhile, let’s take a water break. I must take some notes.”
* * *
As it turned out, Jürgen’s find marked only the beginning. The sharply chiseled edge along the depression’s length quickly gave way to smoothed vertical limestone walls decorated with a long, raised relief of an undulating snake on each side. On day twelve, Jürgen was the first to note this detail when he uncovered the unpainted tip of a snake’s tail at the ramp’s entrance.
At this point, Habib and the rest of the Austrian field crew joined in. To Reissen’s amazement, the cleared depression became a long descending entrance ramp that ended with a raised cobra deity on each side—in clear protection of the deceased. The cobra deity, Wadjet, was the royal insignia of Lower Egypt that usually appeared on a pharaoh’s brow.
Is this an entrance to a royal’s tomb?
The ramp ended at a decorated bedrock grotto partially shaded from the sun. The central image was a beautifully carved false door and lintel—an ancient Egyptian funerary device that provided a magical entrance to the underworld. Around this carved image of a door was arrayed the deceased’s biographical data complete with a portrait front and center. Surrounding the false door proper, the smoothed limestone bedrock was covered in twelve registers or columns of delicate raised relief hieroglyphs. An offering slab before the false door completed the scene, where relatives could place funerary offerings of beer and food for the enjoyment of the deceased.
But there was more. Before the false door and its offering table a grotesque scene was preserved in the talcum powder-like sand. Five naturally mummified figures lay in preserved postures of exquisite agony. Their measles-like skin, dried to the consistency of brittle parchment, was peppered with bloody punctures. Four huddled individuals cowered before the false door and hid their heads in tight fetal positions. The fifth had attempted to escape by crawling away up the ramp, dragging behind him outstretched, apparently useless legs. His arm groped for something just beyond his grasp. What was he reaching for? Reissen wondered.
Found discarded near each grave robber lay a copper chisel and wooden mallet, once valuable objects dropped for some dire reason. The team also noted in the flooring before the false door five chisel marks in the bedrock. All matched the abandoned copper chisels. Whatever happened to the five, it occurred shortly after their first chisel strikes.
“A most horrible way to die.” Habib concluded from his squatted position near the bodies. Reissen soberly nodded in agreement. “But of what? That’s what I want to know.”
As the Austrian stood up, he looked around, and then beckoned. “Else. I want tight shots on these individuals, especially their skin. While we can’t do autopsies on them, perhaps someone back home can tell us what happened to them.”
Returning his gaze to his foreman, “Once we record these remains, I’ll call Inspector Kama for further instructions.”
In the meantime, Else carefully picked her way between the fallen forms, placing metric scales and signage next to each before capturing their grisly images.
Reissen could tell that his field photographer was uncomfortable with the necessary process. In fact, the entire team just stood around and stared in disbelief.
Willi Franks summed it up best, “Grave robbing in Egypt is a high-risk business.”
On the last day, Peters and Franks resurveyed the site. Wald painstakingly recorded its many details, totally oblivious to what her images would reveal. With the inscribed walls securely tarped and the hole filled in with the help of a borrowed bulldozer, the season came to a close for the Austrian archaeological mission. For Reissen and his team, they had made a herculean effort during those three weeks. Now, they had to wait until next season to continue.