Friday, February 1, 2013
The professor led the president toward the ruined dwellings, detailing his discovery of the site. The field assistants followed, clutching their tools and notebooks.
"Just show me the best one," President Mandu growled.
"The most complete dwelling would be, ah, which one, Miss Arinya?"
"Number 5, sir."
"Yes, Number 5, right over here." The professor stopped in the open doorway to put on his hardhat. "Only thirty percent of the roof has fallen in, but we can't be too careful, you know. Jerara, do you have another hat for the President?"
Mandu accepted the hat reluctantly, and stepped over the threshold onto the somewhat spongy surface of the floor. Bits of the interior wall were missing, exposing rotting beams. Mandu sneezed as a breeze through the gaping windows stirred up dust. That was why he hated archaeology. Too much dust.
"Sorry about that. My assistants have been cleaning the site carefully, but the walls continue to deteriorate," the professor explained. "We've located the food preparation area and bathing chambers, through this doorway and to the left."
"Multiple bathing chambers? Are you sure?"
"The plumbing is mostly intact, sir." Jerara's enthusiasm overwhelmed his awe of the president. "The Archaic system is quite intricate. The pipes lead from this basin to--"
"Thank you, I'm sure your paper will be quite detailed. What else is there?"
Barega showed the president back to the food preparation area. "Most of the potsherds were in this room. Later Corning period, generally."
"Which has a wide distribution on this continent, you know," Professor Warrigal interrupted. "Show him the box."
Barega opened a panel on a large box in the corner. "We found traces of food on these trays." He pulled a flat object from a shelf, and handed it to the president. "Each tray is divided into three sections, with different discoloration patterns. I, um, broke one. The tray is white inside, and looks sort of bubbly."
Mandu balanced the tray on his hand. "It's very lightweight, isn't it? Definitely not ceramic. Curious."
The professor led the way back to the main room. "Ah, but this is more curious." He waved his hand at a large object hanging on the front wall. "Look at this black oblong. The two skeletons we found here were facing it."
Mandu tried to hide his shiver. Skeletons were worse than dust. He was glad the professor had moved the remains to the field lab.
Unbothered by the idea of Archaic bones, the professor went on. "We have found more of them. Glossy black oblongs, or their fragments, in nearly every room of each dwelling. They vary in size. We have found small ones in the hands of individuals of all ages, male and female. No individual was farther than three arms from an oblong at the time of the Cataclysm."
"In Number 3, sir, we found an adult female skeleton, reclining on a collection of coiled wires," reported Mogo, the skeletal expert. "Textile fragments suggest it may have been some sort of bed. Even there, the subject had one of the oblongs. It was lodged beneath the skull."
"A few of these oblongs have been observed elsewhere, haven't they?" asked the president.
"Yes, but not whole, or in such concentration," Lowan put in. "Without evidence of any practical function, I suggest they may have had ceremonial or religious significance."
"Or, perhaps they were communication devices, capable of displaying information and entertainment," Barega said.
Mandu snorted. "That is preposterous. Our best modern steam mechanics have not produced any such item. Certainly the Archaics could not. No, a religious function seems more likely."
"Look at these." Lowan walked over to a shelf near the largest black oblong. It held many thin, rectangular objects. He picked one up and showed it to the president. Its bright colors had smeared.
"Is that text?" The president was surprised. "I didn't think the Archaic people had a written language."
"There has been little evidence of it in other locations," Professor Warrigal admitted. "But we plan to study the remnants available."
Lowan slid a tool into a crack in the rectangle. "Anyway, see what is inside." The object divided in two, and a colorful circle slipped out. It fell to the floor. Lowan picked it up carefully. "This side appears metallic, iridescent in sunlight. It is lightweight, but must have been valuable. I took measurements, and found that the diameter corresponds with this opening on the side of the large oblong."
Lowan slid the disc into the slit. After a slight push, the oblong pulled the disc inside. Lowan bowed his head. "The idol accepts the offering." He gestured to the shelves. "And this household had hundreds of them in store. This must have been a very devout family."
"You found similar objects in the other dwellings?"
"Quite a few, sir."
"So you see, President, how much there is to study at this site. I need more time, more assistants--"
"More funding, Warrigal?"
"Naturally. But I'd appreciate your discretion in securing it. I'm not ready to share this find with our rivals yet."
"I'll see what I can do."
The group stepped outside again.
"Let's go back to the field office for some refreshments," Professor Warrigal suggested, "and we can review my plans for--"
"What is that?" Miss Arinya pointed, and walked toward a thicket of trees. She carefully walked around the foundation of a more completely ruined dwelling, with the others trailing after her. "I thought I saw a reflection..."
She pushed branches aside and found a wall. President Mandu watched as the professor and other assistants pulled back vines and pushed through shrubbery.
"Over here!" Lowan called. "I found a door!"
"Well done, Miss Arinya," the professor said as the group followed Lowan's voice. "I believe you have found Number 10."
"Will my name be on the paper?" she asked.
"Of course, right after mine."
"And mine," put in the president as Lowan and Barega shouldered the door open. "This discovery will redound to the glory of New Tamani University."
Arinya's sigh turned to a gasp. The floor of the dwelling was covered with a soft textile. The walls were not crumbling. The windows' transparent coverings were intact. Cobwebs and a thick layer of dust were the only evidence of the time this house had stood alone.
And dusty skeletons, of course. This room held three of them. Two sets of small bones, swathed in strange fabrics, lay near a pile of brightly colored, knobby bricks. Some of the bricks had been formed into fanciful shapes.
"Start sketching, Miss Arinya," the professor directed unnecessarily. She had already filled one page of her notebook. The rest of the team dispersed through the dwelling. Mandu heard Jerara exclaiming over the plumbing, Barega counting intact pieces of crockery.
Mogo reported the presence of seven skeletons within the dwelling. "Two are holding tools, seemingly in the process of building something. One is in the food preparation area." "There appears to be an adolescent female in the bathing chamber." The normally imperturbable young man shuddered. "There's no fabric on the bones, but there is metal attached to her teeth." He shook his head, then went back to take proper measurements of each.
Lowan returned, looking frustrated. "I can't find any of the black oblongs."
Miss Arinya looked up from her sketchbook. She saw a panel on the wall and slid it open. "There you go. They had one, too."
"It is quite small for a family shrine, don't you think? And the door was closed. Everyone else in the village was looking to their idols when the Cataclysm came. What about these people?"
Miss Arinya shrugged. She approached the large skeleton which was seated on a soft platform. "Perhaps they were poor, or maybe they had different beliefs." She carefully extracted an object from the dusty phalanges. A thin, flat piece of it drifted to the floor. "Look. A book."
President Mandu turned to stare at her. "A paper book? With text?"
"Full of it." Miss Arinya looked around. "And there are more." Lowan and the president looked at the shelves. Instead of the uniformly sized offering boxes of Number 5, these shelves held books. Large, small, colorful, dull. Hundreds of books.
Mandu held out his hand, and the young lady reluctantly gave him the first book. She turned back to the wall. The lowest shelf held something different.
She crouched to examine the flat objects. Lowan joined her, pulled some off the shelf, and handed a few to Miss Arinya.
"Heavy paper," he noted, "decorated with different images..."
Miss Arinya looked through her stack. She held one square by its sides, wishing she could read what was written on it, when something fell out. A large, flat, black disc. "What on earth?"
Barega stepped in, holding a large pitcher. He eyed the circle on the floor. "Maybe it was some sort of sound storage, for music and the like."
Lowan snorted and Arinya rolled her eyes.
"Just kidding," Barega said. "Take a look at this, President." He stepped back into the food preparation area, Mandu following.
Arinya gently slid the black disc into its covering, and stood up. Something caught her eye near the doorway.
"Here's an oblong for you, Lowan." Instead of a glossy black surface, it held an image of people. They were very pale, but smiled, with their arms around each other.
"An amazingly realistic depiction," Lowan murmured. "Very advanced art. Perhaps they worshiped these figures, with the black discs, somehow..." He searched for a slot near the image.
"...six, seven." Miss Arinya finished counting. "No. I think this shows something the individuals valued, but not as an object of worship."
"What could be more important to an Archaic household than its idols?
"It's a picture of this family."
For once, Lowan had nothing to say.