I am afraid there is no way for you to see the document. It’s locked in a vault.”
I had arrived in Rio de Janeiro and was speaking on the phone to a university student who had been helping me track down one more manuscript, what Fawcett considered the final piece of evidence supporting his theory of a lost civilization in the Amazon. The manuscript was in Brazil’s National Library in Rio, and was so old and in such poor condition that it was kept in a safe. I had filed formal requests and made appeals by e-mail. Nothing worked. Finally, as a last effort, I had flown to Rio to make my case in person.
Situated downtown in a beautiful neoclassical building with Corin thian columns and pilasters, the library contains more than nine million documents-the largest archive in Latin America. I was escorted upstairs into the manuscript division, a chamber lined with books that climbed several stories toward a stained-glass ceiling, where a faint light seeped through, revealing, amid the room’s grandeur, a hint of disrepair-dilapidated wooden desks and dusty lightbulbs. The area was quiet, and I could hear the soles of my shoes clapping against the floor.
I had arranged an appointment with the head of the manuscript division, Vera Faillace, an erudite woman with shoulder-length dark hair and glasses. She greeted me at the security gate, and when I inquired about the document she said, “It is, without question, the most famous and sought-after item we have in the manuscript division.”
“How many manuscripts do you have?” I asked, surprised.
“Around eight hundred thousand.”
She said that scientists and treasure hunters from all over the world have wanted to study this particular document. After it became known that Fawcett had drawn on the manuscript for his theory, she said, his devotees have treated it almost like a religious icon. Apparently, it was the Holy Grail for the Fawcett freaks.
I had rehearsed everything I planned to say to persuade her to let me see the original document, including how important it was for me to assess its authenticity and how I promised not to touch it-a speech that began soberly enough but grew, in my desperation, more abstract and grandiose. Yet before I could start Faillace waved me through the security gate. “This must be very important to you to come all this way without knowing you’d be able to see the document,” she said. “I’ve put it on the table for you.”
And there, only a few feet away, opened like a Torah, was the roughly sixteen-inch-by-sixteen-inch manuscript. Its pages had turned almost a golden brown; its edges had crumbled. “This paper is not parchment,” Faillace explained. “It was from before wood pulp was added to paper. It’s a kind of fabric.”
Scrawled across the pages, in black ink, was beautiful calligraphy, but many sections had been washed out or eaten through by worms and insects.
I looked at the title on the top of the first page. It said in Portuguese, “Historical account of a large, hidden, and very ancient city… discovered in the year 1753.”
“Can you make out the next sentence?” I asked Faillace.
She shook her head, but farther down more words became legible, and a librarian who spoke fluent English helped me to slowly translate them. They had been written by a Portuguese
After the expedition returned to civilization, the
It is not known what the viceroy did with the report, or if the
The librarian pointed to the bottom of the manuscript. “Look at that,” she said.
There were several strange diagrams that resembled hieroglyphics. The
The library was closing, and Faillace came to retrieve the ancient scroll. As I watched her carefully transport it back into the vault, I understood why Brian Fawcett, seeing the document years after his father and brother vanished, had proclaimed, “It feels genuine! It