Authors: Paul E. Cooley
A large bird circled overhead. John watched as it dipped down and dove before pulling back up to glide on the thermals. In the past week he'd seen dozens fly like that. Or, perhaps, it was the same bird. He smiled at the thought.
A melodious laugh broke the spell and he turned to look at Steph Harvey. A manic smile lit her face. "John? Aren't you supposed to be more interested in what's beneath your feet?"
John grunted and pointed to the large mound of black and white dirt at the base of the cliff. "I think I've seen enough of that already."
Shaking her head, Steph walked to the timbers holding up the entrance to the small cave. Her long pony tail bounced against her back with each step. John sighed, took one last look at the albatross performing its aerial acrobatics, and followed her.
John passed by the LED lamps fastened to the black, rock walls. Whenever he entered the cave, he felt as though he were being swallowed by some prehistoric creature.
The cave had taken the five archaeologists and twenty Peruvians weeks to dig. They'd had to cut timbers, and drag them back from the forest using a truck to prevent a cave-in. Placing them had been hell. John was certain his back would never be the same. Stooped over to keep from hitting his head, his lower back twinged as if in reminder.
He followed Steph through the fifty feet of rocky ground. His hands were covered in scratches, nicks, and barely healed blisters. They ached from the weeks of labor and even now, when they weren't doing anything, they reminded him of their abuse.
He entered the small 6' by 5' chamber and dropped to one knee. Linton was up against the wall, his black, sweat covered skin shining beneath the garish LED light. John grinned as he saw Linton's wide, toothy smile.
"Where are we?" he asked.
Linton pointed with his finger at the hole in the floor. "We hit something."
John raised an eyebrow. "Something? Can you be a little less specific, Linton?"
Steph rolled her eyes. "He means we hit stone."
The big archaeologist shook his head. "What kind of stone?"
Linton's grin grew. "The kind this place is not made of." The lithe man held up his left hand. In his palm was a piece of chipped sandstone.
John nodded. "Okay then. You're the prime digger, Mr. Geologist. I'm used to sifting through sand and dirt, not sandstone. So what do we do now?"
Linton shrugged. "We dig. Just a little more carefully."
"Do you want me to call in the diggers?" John asked.
Linton shook his head. "Nope. They did the heavy lifting to get us in here. Now we need to be careful."
Steph pulled a small spade and hammer from the leather pouch hanging at her waist. She nodded toward Linton. "He and I will continue excavating. At least until we get past the sandstone. But I wanted you to see this." She pointed down into the hole.
John raised an eyebrow before shuffling over and getting on his hands and knees to peer into the excavation. Steph pointed a flashlight. John waited for his eyes to adjust and then stared in wonder.
Most of the dirt had been cleared away from a sandstone block. Its surface was covered with squiggles and shapes. Unlike most civilizations that pre-dated writing, the denizens of Norte Chico hadn't even carved stick figures to describe their daily lives. Since they had disappeared without leaving any traces of their language, it would be impossible to decipher the glyphs.
"That's writing," he said. "Or sigils."
Steph slapped him on the back and the big man twitched. "You got it, Big John. Writing."
He raised his head and stared at Linton. "Linton? I want pictures. And I mean as many as you can take."
The wiry man nodded. "Already on it. As soon as we clear away the rest of the dirt, we're going to photograph the shit out of it."
John turned to Steph, his face lit in a wide smile. "Have you checked for gaps?"
She shrugged. "After we hit it and started clearing away the dirt, I dug a little on the left side." She pointed into the hole, but John didn't take his eyes from hers. "John, that's not a lid. I think it's just a cap on a deeper hole."
"So it's not a sarcophagus?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so. I could be wrong, of course, but I think it's a kind of headstone or tombstone."
"That tracks," John said. He grinned at Linton. "I want pictures sent over as soon as you have them. What other gear do we need?"
Steph and Linton traded stares. Finally she spoke. "I think we're good. We might need Blanco and Alonso. They've got the best hands."
John shuffled back on his elbows and pushed himself into a sitting position. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead. "I'll get them in here. I reckon we can't get the ground radar in here to see how deep it is."
Linton shook his head. "No, John. We're just going to have to dig."
"Right," John said. "Photographs. Then get to digging it out." His grin returned. "Norte Chico...you're going to give us something today."
Steph giggled and handed the piece of broken sandstone to John. "You might want to keep this, boss."
He slipped the shard in his shirt pocket. "Good job, guys."
As he walked back through the cave to the arid Andean air, the shard bumped against his chest. He couldn't stop grinning. This was the greatest find of the new millennium. A civilization that left no words, and almost no pottery, had left something they could study. Finally. All the bickering between the different archaeologists since the 90s could be put to rest. And what was in the hole? Was it a burial site? A time capsule of sorts? John walked into the bright sun and headed toward the tented camp just fifty yards away.
BIG John sat before the campfire. The yellow crescent moon hung low over the mountains, just beginning its ascent. The last rays of sunlight had disappeared over an hour ago and the air had turned cold. Sitting in front of the crackling flames, he felt warm and elated.
Steph and Linton had dug the rest of the morning and into the evening. Blanco and Alonso had joined them with small sweepers, tiny shovels, and cameras. Each layer of sediment they removed from around the cap had been placed in containers for dating.
The team didn't have access to radio-carbon dating in the field, so they had to look at the sediment itself. Linton had taken a sediment core when they first began excavation. The man-made cave was at least four thousand years old.
The denizens of Norte Chico had flourished between 3500 and 1800 BCE, which meant this cave was made somewhere around their demise. The idea the team might have found the civilization's last monument set his stomach aflutter.
The rest of the day, he'd written in his dig journal and continued to categorize specimens found during the excavation. Although the supe-Caral peoples had been pre-ceramic, the team found fossilized wooden carvings of Andean birds like the albatross and the condor. All through the Andes, the ancient peoples had worshipped the birds as gods. The symbols of the animals were usually held sacred, and appeared on structures rather than wooden castes.
Burying them, however, seemed like an act of heresy. John had searched through the reports and journals of all the other Andean digs and could find no evidence or reports of the symbols being buried. Ever. That meant this cave was unique.
And it wasn't just one or two of the wooden castes. As they had dug through the base of the hill, they'd found dozens of them. The symbols were nearly identical, as were the shapes. The fact they'd buried them seemed to indicate their use as a ward of protection, or some other holy intent. John wasn't certain what it meant.
Once the cataloging was finished, he'd sat in a chair near the fire and continued writing notes. The solar batteries had stored more than enough energy to run all the equipment, including the heaters, but he much preferred a real fire.
"Enjoying your rest, boss?"
John turned his head and watched as Steph crouched by the fire. She rubbed her hands and stared into the flames.
"Finally got cold, eh?"
She smiled. "You could say that, Boss. Damned chilly tonight."
He nodded. "You look cleaned up now."
"Yeah," she said. "Portable showers for the win. But now I'm freezing."
She shrugged. "A little peaked. I think we dug a little too long today. Alonso and Blanco are exhausted too." She walked to a chair set up across from him and pulled it closer to the fire. Steph sat down and shivered in the cool air. "You look at the photos?"
He nodded. "The glyphs came out perfect. I got their dimensions fed into the computer. If Willet's algorithms find a match, we'll know about it tomorrow. Or the next day."
"That little bastard. How much you think he gets paid to do math while the rest of us sacrifice our bodies?"
Big John laughed. Steph loved being an archaeologist, but she was always ready to point out discrepancies in pay. Dr. Michael Willet had created a program some years back that used information about shapes to compare different artifacts from different civilizations. Willet's thesis had been an argument that was part Jungian and part common sense--disparate civilizations contained many similar structures, glyphs, and construction. Willet's work sought to combine the idea of the collective unconscious with that of ancient civilizations communicating with one another.
For instance, why were the Aztec pyramids so much like the ziggurats found in Mesopotamia? Why were certain symbols found in peoples that were separated by vast oceans?
Willet had been written off as a crank, but his algorithmic work had netted him several contracts, including one with Homeland Security. At least Willet had been kind enough to offer archeologists free use of the system as opposed to what he charged the feds.
Despite his insistence he was an anthropologist, Willet had never been in the field nor stepped out of the United States. The single time John had met him, Willet had come off as an arrogant bastard. Talented, perhaps, but very arrogant. If Willet's program found a match, however, John would make sure it got its due in the journals.
Steph picked up a metal poker. She nudged the logs with its tip. The fire crackled and a shower of sparks flew into the air. "What do you think, boss? It's something unique, right?"
John nodded. "I can't find any accounts similar to what we've found. In the few burial sites where bodies were recovered, the symbols for the gods were found on the shroud itself or buried with the body. And even then, only a single piece of stone or wood was found that had the carving on it. This is...strange."
"Unique," Steph said as she stared into the fire. "I don't understand why they dug the cave. This post is over three kilometers from where we found the pictogram. Why would they create this so far away from their city?"
he said to himself. Three weeks before their funding was due to expire for Caral site 376, Steph and Linton found a chamber beneath a Caral temple. The temple was little more than seven feet high and very small compared to other sites. The ground penetrating radar revealed a small space beneath the mound. The team worked for nearly a week to excavate it without disturbing the temple itself.
They'd found a stone wall with a few symbols and lines. The symbols were of mountains and hills. The lines seemed to be a road or path. Big John had instantly recognized it as a map, but the pictogram didn't reveal any hints about what the map led to.
John spent most of a day putting the landmarks on the map with those surrounding the temple. Once he had, finding the path was relatively simple. Unlike other South American sites in the Amazon, the arid Andes climate was superb for preservation.
The supe-Caral tribe had buried the map and it had led to an artificial cave. John couldn't imagine how long it had taken them to dig through the rock and create the chamber. Luckily for his crew, they hadn't done such a thorough job of filling it back up.
"You know, Steph, the cave is still within viewing distance of the temple."
"What?" she asked and turned toward him.
John pointed toward the desert beyond the campsite. "The temple where we found the pictogram. It's within sight."
"Sure, if it was still daylight."
He rolled his eyes. "No, Steph. What I mean is--"
"I know what you mean," she said between chattering teeth. She stood up and moved the chair closer to the fire. Once seated, she rubbed her arms. "That's better," she said to herself. "You think they did that on purpose?"
"Why not?" he asked. "There are other soft spots in this hill they could have dug. They could have even put it on the other side. Instead, they put it on the eastern side facing the temple, but not facing the city itself."
She cocked her head and sighed. "Okay. But what's your point?"
John grinned. "Not sure I have one. Just more information to put in the journal."
"Great. More questions." She poked the fire and another shower of sparks rose toward the stars. "This is the only expedition I've been on that has no answers."