CHAPTER 20

In Which the Infant Science of Archaeology Is Radically Advanced

It took two days to clear the rubble from the tomb entrance and the small forechamber, filled as both were with sand and rocks and bits of shattered pottery. On the morning of the third day of the dig, Thomas and Kit stood together and viewed the main chamber of High Priest Anen’s tomb. “Someone was in a terrible hurry,” Thomas pronounced upon seeing the extent of the wreckage.

A new worry snaked through Kit. “You mean the tomb has been robbed?”

“Oh, no. That is not my meaning at all-quite the reverse, if I am not mistaken.”

“Then…” Kit puzzled over this, but the sense eluded him. “What?”

“The burial crew would seem to have been in some haste to discharge their duties and seal the tomb before it could be discovered. See here”-he gestured at the box-like room filled chockablock with debris-“in a funeral of state, the priests would have taken care to preserve the sanctity of the tomb. Egyptians loved ostentation-have you noticed how they decorated every inch of every available surface in a temple with all manner of paintings and carvings?”

“I have, yes.” It was true, thought Kit. Egyptian temple art was nothing if not spectacularly busy.

“It is the same with their tombs. Ordinarily, the chambers are filled floor to ceiling with objects the deceased required for his journey through eternity. A high priest would have anticipated a sumptuous afterlife surrounded by the objects he valued and all that was most needful for his eternal existence.”

“But they didn’t do that here,” said Kit, grasping for the meaning, “because they didn’t have time?”

“Precisely,” affirmed Thomas. He gestured towards the great heap of broken stone, the remains of building rubble. “We may learn the reason for their unseemly hurry when we have cleared all the chambers. There are two more, I believe?”

“That’s right.” Kit pointed across the room to a barely visible wall. He tried to visualise the chamber as he last saw it. “The room we’re interested in is somewhere back there. At least, it was the last time I was here.”

“Correct me if I am wrong,” suggested Thomas, his steel-rimmed glasses glinting in the faint light as he turned to address Kit directly, “but strictly speaking, you have never been in this tomb.”

“Strictly speaking, you’re right.” The tomb Kit remembered was in a different dimension-a fundamental fact, but one he had trouble remembering.

“We will begin clearing this chamber today,” Thomas said, rubbing his hands in anticipation. “But we want more workers. I think I shall send Khefri back to fetch Khalid and his crew from Luxor. Have you any objection?”

“None whatsoever. You’re the doctor.”

Three days later Khefri returned with the new workers-seven expert excavators, including Khalid-and three donkeys and five pack mules laden with additional tents, tools, water, and provisions for an extended stay in the desert. After half a day’s rest from the journey, the dig shifted into a higher gear, and Kit was glad to see the work progressing by leaps and bounds. At the end of the second day, the main chamber was cleared of rubble and the back wall fully exposed to reveal an expanse of white plaster with vertical bands of hieroglyphs in black and yellow.

“There is a door to a smaller chamber,” Kit explained, stepping to the wall. He ran his hands along the surface, turning his palms white from the plaster. “It should be right about here.” He brushed his hands on his trousers and turned to Dr. Young. “But you have to remember, none of this was here when I saw it before.”

“The plaster will be removed-starting in the area you have indicated,” Thomas told him. “That will be tomorrow’s exercise.”

The labourers were sent out to sift the rubble for any fragments of interest, while the doctor assembled his drawing instruments and drew up a scaled representation of the wall. Then Thomas, Kit, and Khefri set about painstakingly recording the hieroglyphic bands covering the area of the hidden doorway, a task that occupied them far into the night-and would have taken far longer but for Khefri’s native facility with rendering the old symbols.

The next day they were back at work before sunrise. The more skilled workers were detailed to chisel away the plasterwork covering the doorway to the hidden chamber-but only after Thomas was satisfied he had matched every symbol against the rendering copied the night before. “I will save these to decipher at my leisure,” he explained, rolling up the last long scroll of paper. He gave a nod to Khalid, who commanded the workmen to ply the hammer and chisel to the wall.

“Do you know how to read them?” wondered Kit, watching as the first blow of the hammer erased a line or two of ancient pictorial text.

“It is devilishly difficult at best,” allowed Young, “but we are making progress. Each new discovery adds to our store of words, and the knowledge of the ancient text increases. There are some here I have never seen before, but I can foresee the day when we will be able to read the old script as easily as the daily newspaper.”

“The ones you have deciphered,” prompted Kit, “what do they say?”

“They seem to be prayers of a sort, addressed to various gods-invocations of protection for the tomb and for the Ka, that is, the soul of the deceased. Others seem to be petitions for guidance on the journey to the afterlife. Some of the writings I have seen undoubtedly show incidents from the life of the deceased-lists of properties and assets, descriptions of family members, notable events, and that sort of thing. Because we are beginning to see certain collections of symbols repeated in the tombs and on sarcophagi we surmise that the prayers seem to follow what we believe is a rote formula.”

Kit nodded. What little he knew about Egypt, he had learned in school visits to the British Museum. “From the Book of the Dead, perhaps,” he volunteered. A large chunk of plaster tumbled to the floor and smashed into pieces, disclosing bare stonework behind.

“Ah! You have heard of it. But of course you would. In your time, it must be very well known. Tell me, is Egyptology a well-studied discipline in your world?”

“It is very popular,” Kit allowed, thinking primarily of mummies and movies about mummies. “Archaeology is big business in the home world.”

“And do its practitioners solve the many riddles posed by hieroglyphic writing?”

“Well, I would say-” began Kit.

“No! Do not tell me. I should not know. It was wrong of me to ask. I have already pressed you far enough.” He smiled nervously. “Please, excuse my impetuosity. I sometimes forget myself.”

“No harm done,” replied Kit amiably. “What’s a little professional curiosity between friends?”

“All the same, professional curiosity could lead to some very unfortunate consequences. A single word might put time out of joint-if you see what I mean.”

“I might say something that would reveal too much of the future,” Kit surmised.

“And that could cause irreparable harm,” the doctor concluded.

“Or good.”

“I am not prepared to take that risk. Are you?” His gaze became intense.

“I suppose not,” replied Kit, realising he had been revealing whole reams of knowledge about the future from the moment he showed up. “Getting back to the Book of the Dead,” he suggested by way of changing the subject.

“In actual fact, its title is The Book of Coming Forth by Day. As I was about to say, we have yet to recover the whole text, but we have retrieved many portions and fragments.” The doctor paused a moment and collected his thoughts, then recited a verse from memory: I wake in the dark to the stirring of birds, a murmur in the trees, a flutter of wings.

It is the morning of my birth, the first of many.

The past lies knotted in its sheets asleep.

Winds blow, making flags above the temple ripple.

Out of darkness the earth spins towards light.

I feel a change coming.

My thoughts flicker, glow a moment and catch fire.

I come forth by day singing.

“That’s very good,” said Kit appreciatively. “I like that.”

“It is not about death, you see, but about rising to eternal life. For the ancients, death was simply an emergence-a coming forth-from darkness into the glorious light of a new and better day. They were fascinated by immortality-obsessed with it. As a civilisation, they turned vast resources to furthering their understanding of the afterlife in the hope of eradicating death entirely.”

Whole sections of plaster were tumbling to the floor now, raising clouds of thick white dust. Khefri, a damp keffiyeh over his nose and mouth, was given the task of supervising the demolition work; Thomas and Kit retreated outside to wait until the dust-making destruction was finished.

Kit tumbled up the steps and into the bright morning light. He stood blinking up at the sky, clean blue and high above, and it did seem as if he had stumbled from darkness into the all-pervading radiance of a better world. Stepping free of the tomb, he felt compelled to ask, “Why were the ancients so in love with death?”

“Who told you they were in love with death?” wondered Dr. Young, pulling a soft cloth from a rear trouser pocket. He removed his glasses and began wiping off the dust-covered lenses.

“Is that not why they perfected mummification-to preserve the body as long as possible? Isn’t that why they went to such great lengths with all their elaborate tombs and mortuary temples and such?”

“On the contrary, dear fellow. They were in love with life!” corrected Thomas, replacing his spectacles. “And such life-life in great abundance, life in all its glorious splendour. Death was anathema to them. Death, though natural and common, was unacceptable. Death was seen as nothing short of tragic disaster-at the very least an unfortunate accident along the happy road of existence, and one which, in time, they hoped to learn to avoid altogether. They were searching for immortality precisely because they wished life to continue forever without end.”

“Don’t we all.”

“We do!” cried the doctor. “Of course we do. We were made for it, after all. I know not what it is like in your time-perhaps your world enjoys a more enlightened view-but in this current mechanistic age such thoughts are increasingly considered backwards and unscientific.” He shook his head sadly. “Too many of my brother scientists are succumbing to a view that holds all religion as outdated nonsense-nursery tales from mankind’s infancy, dogmas to be outgrown and swept aside by scientific progress.”

“I’m familiar with the view,” confirmed Kit.

“But see here,” continued Thomas, brightening once more. “Contrary to what many may think, immortality is not a fairy tale invented to compensate for an unhappy life. Rather, it is the perception shared by nearly all sentient beings that our conscious lives are not bounded by this time and space. We are not merely lumps of animate matter. We are living spirits-we all feel this innately. And in our deepest hearts, we know that we can only find ultimate fulfilment in union with the supreme spiritual reality-a reality that appears, even during this earthly life, to take us beyond the narrow limits of time.”

Kit pondered this. Although somewhat alien to his thoughts, he heard in the words, as from a far country, the distant but undeniable ring of truth. At last, he said, “Do you think we live forever?”

“Oh, I do. I most certainly do. We are all immortal, as I said.”

“That’s right, you did.” Kit savoured the idea for a moment, thinking of Cosimo, Sir Henry, his own parents, and all he had known who had gone before. “It’s a good thought.”

“Yet I perceive you remain unconvinced.” The doctor pursed his lips and regarded Kit doubtfully. “Could it be as I fear? Has the concept fallen out of favour in the age to come?” Before Kit could reply, he rushed on, “I challenge you to clear thinking, Mr. Livingstone. Consider! Consciousness is who we are-we interact with the material world as conscious beings and in no other way. Is that not so?”

“That is so.”

“Consciousness, then, is the most evident brand of existence there is. You might call it self-evident, and it is not necessarily bound to matter at all. That much is easily demonstrated. Can you not bring images to mind of far-off places, friends and relations fondly remembered, or of things that made you happy in the past? Can you not imagine acts of kindness, or cruelty? Do you not recognise the truth of something when you hear it, or know beauty when you see it?” He glanced at Kit for confirmation, then pressed towards his conclusion. “All these, and more, are expressions of consciousness, and they are not bound by matter or space or time in the least. Since this is the case, it will be most natural for our more limited human consciousnesses to recognise and yearn for an affinity with the One Great Consciousness that made us-the spiritual consciousness of the Creator. Sharing in this divine awareness is the most natural form of existence.” He leaned forward and planted a finger on Kit’s chest. “See here, if we can establish an affinity with the eternal, ever-living Creator, then is it not likely that this affinity, this relationship, if you like, will endure beyond the death of the material body?”

The doctor did not wait for an answer. “I tell you it is,” he declared triumphantly. “And it is because we can establish an affinity with the eternal Creator that immortality becomes more than a fairy tale. At the very least, you must allow, it becomes a most reasonable hope.”

Just then they heard raised voices echoing up from the open stairwell behind them, and Khalid’s head and shoulders appeared in the excavation hole. “Come quick, sirs!” he called, waving them towards him. “The doorway is revealed.”

Once inside, Thomas inspected the work and approved it. “Well done, Khalid. Have this rubble cleared away, and then we shall dismantle the sealing blocks.”

The Egyptian overseer bowed his head to show he understood, and then turned to command his crew. “Yboud!” he ordered, and the workers began scooping rubble into baskets of woven hemp.

“It is of utmost importance not to rush at this stage,” the doctor explained when they returned to the wadi. “Everyone is always curious to see what lies beyond the door, what treasures may appear. In haste, irreparable harm often results-injury to artefacts and grave furnishings that can easily be avoided allowed sufficient patience and care.”

“That sounds like the voice of experience,” Kit observed.

“Oh, aye,” agreed Thomas ruefully. “It has been my misfortune to have arrived on the scene of several digs too late to prevent the stampede, and I have witnessed what can happen when excavators contract gold fever. In the race to get their hands on the treasure, they will trample valuables still more precious to the scholar and scientist. Some of these items are in an utterly fragile and delicate condition.” Thomas turned to gaze at the dark rectangular hole as the first workman appeared, bearing a heaping basket on his shoulder. “We will be having none of that on my digs!”

“Glad to hear it,” remarked Kit. “I expect the map is especially fragile. It’s just an old piece of skin, after all.”

“And, if you are right, Mr. Livingstone,” added Thomas, “that old piece of skin is one of the most uniquely valuable artefacts the world has ever seen.”

Once the room had been cleared and swept clean, more oil lamps were lit and placed all around the area to be excavated, and under Dr. Young’s eagle eye, the sealed doorway was opened, block by carefully chiselled block. As the hole grew bigger, Kit’s pulse quickened. When the hole was big enough to reach through, Thomas took up a lamp and, standing on some of the blocks, passed the lamp through the breach.

“See anything?” asked Kit, edging forward.

“Objects,” replied Thomas, stepping down once more. “The room is filled with grave goods.” He nodded to Khalid. “Take it down.”

The bricks came thick and fast now, and soon the last of the sealing blocks was removed; Thomas ordered more lamps to be lit. He passed one to Kit, and one each to Khefri and Khalid.

“After you, Dr. Young,” said Kit, indicating the darkened doorway with his lamp.

The archaeologist hesitated.

“Seeing as you’re the leader of this excavation and its benefactor, I insist.”

The doctor gave a nod and stepped to the threshold and, holding his lamp high, peered into the darkened room. He stood motionless-as if frozen in an attitude of searching expectation.

“Doctor?” said Kit. “What do you see?” He glanced at Khefri, who held his hands clasped beneath his chin, his dark eyes aglint in the flickering lamplight.

“Indescribable,” breathed the doctor, edging farther into the doorway. Turning slowly, he beckoned Kit and Khefri to join him. “You had better come and see for yourselves.”

The two stepped through the darkened doorway. In the faint illumination of the single lamp, he saw a confused and jumbled wall of objects and furniture crammed floor to ceiling and jammed into every available space: boxes large and small; chests of cedar, lime wood, and acacia; latticework room screens; collapsed bed frames; stools and footrests and headrests; chairs both simple and ornately carved; bronze-rimmed chariot wheels and disassembled harness trees; innumerable jars of all shapes and sizes; weapons-spears, swords, daggers, throwing sticks-both functional and ceremonial; a collection of painted rods and flails of office; and a host of small clay models of everything from cows and hippos to women making beer and men planting barley, bald-headed scribes, half-naked slaves, kohl-eyed goddesses in form-fitting gowns, and enough servants to populate a village, and more. It was as if the entire contents of an antique dealer’s showroom had been stuffed higgledy-piggledy into a receptacle no larger than the living room in Kit’s old flat, and then locked away for several hundred eons. Moreover, everything was shrouded with a heavy layer of powdery ochre dust.

He did not know what he expected, but the sight left him speechless all the same. Somewhere in the midst of a small museum’s worth of antiquities, awaiting discovery, lay the Skin Map-perhaps in one piece. It was all he could do to keep from tearing into the heap.

Sensing something of the frustrated expectation, Thomas offered, “We will find your treasure, my friend. Never fear. If it is in there, we will soon have it in hand.”

Over the next two days, the contents of the main chamber were cleared piece by piece, and each item was numbered by Thomas and recorded in a book along with a brief description of the item and its condition. In order to speed the process along, Kit set up a relay system and convinced the fastidious doctor to go along with it. He had a canopy erected in front of the elaborately carved doorway across the wadi from the tomb; there, in the great empty chamber Kit called the temple, he established Dr. Young at a table beneath the canopy. Then, with Kit directing the excavation work inside the tomb, each object was carefully pulled from the tomb and either carried or relayed hand to hand by workmen to the table where Thomas first inscribed a small number on it in sepia ink, then recorded the find in his ledger; the artefacts were then conveyed to the empty chamber where Khefri supervised their storage. There they would remain under guard until Thomas could arrange for their transportation to London and, ultimately, the British Museum.

Each box, chest, and jar was personally examined by Kit as it came from the burial chamber. Hands, clothes, hair, and every inch of exposed flesh became pale with dust; he looked like a powdered ghost. With a damp handkerchief tied around the lower half of his face, he doggedly kept at his work, always expecting that the next ancient container he put his hand to must contain the map. In this he trusted to Thomas’ simple dictum that by process of elimination they must, sooner or later, find his treasure. While all this cataloguing and recording might have been a logical and reasonable and properly scientific way to proceed, it did nothing to assuage Kit’s continual urge to just rush in and start prying open the various containers until he found it. And although there was no end of interesting objects issuing from the tomb, they found neither gold-in the form of rings, bracelets, belts, or other items of jewellery-nor the prized roll of human parchment they sought.

This exacting activity continued each of the four days it took to unpack the burial chamber. On the morning of the fifth day, the workmen finally removed the folding room screens of carved acacia wood that had stood along the back wall of the tomb-the wall of painted panels depicting various events in High Priest Anen’s life, all impressively rendered, vivid and lifelike.

“More lamps!” called Kit, and sent Khalid to invite Thomas and Khefri to come and see the masterpieces. “These are the paintings I was telling you about,” said Kit. The three stood together holding their lamps high to admire the exquisite rendering.

“I must bring an artist as soon as it can possibly be arranged,” Thomas said. “Though I doubt any mere copy could do justice to the original.” His expression, alive with pleasure in the glow of the lamp, was that of a boy at Christmas. “They are wonderful.”

“That one looks like my father,” observed Khefri quietly. He pointed to one of Anen’s priestly attendants. “And there-that is the very image of my cousin Hosni.”

“Over here, gentlemen,” said Kit, directing their attention to the panel where a shaven-headed priest stood next to a Caucasian man in a colourful striped robe, open at the chest to reveal a cluster of tiny blue symbols on his skin. “I give you the man himself.”

“Upon my word!” gasped Thomas. “Here he is.” He searched among the hieroglyphs beneath the painting, found the one he was looking for, and traced it lightly with a fingertip. “The Man Who Is Map.”

“Arthur Flinders-Petrie,” said Kit.

“He was here,” said Khefri. “High Priest Anen knew him.”

“Yes, he did.” Kit stepped to the last panel. “And now,” he said, with a gallery owner’s flair, “the piece de resistance.” He directed their attention to the figure of the shaven-headed priest, a little older and heavier, standing with what looked like a scrap of leather in his hand. “That,” declared Kit, “is the Skin Map as it once existed. And see, Anen is pointing with his other hand to that big star behind him. What is that?”

“Hmmm.” Thomas held his lamp closer. “It appears to be the constellation Canus Major. I take it to be Sirius-a star especially revered by the ancients, no doubt due to its prominence and seasonal qualities.”

“That is more or less what Cosimo and Sir Henry thought,” confirmed Kit. “And the object Anen is holding,” he continued, “that is the Flinders-Petrie map-you can tell from all the little blue symbols on it. And, based on Cosimo’s assessment, it appears to be all in one piece.”

“Extraordinary,” breathed Thomas. “It is very much as you described.” He turned a grinning face to Kit. “As it has not been discovered in any of the boxes or chests yet examined, it must be in one of the few left.”

Kit cast a glance around the room at the several dozen or so remaining containers. “We live in hope.”

The work resumed. Kit returned to removing and, with Thomas, opening the last boxes and chests, his hopes soaring and crashing with each one until Khalid appeared at the table beneath the canopy to say, “This is the last.” He placed a small black lacquered box on the table. Inlaid with ivory and lapis in a geometric design, it did seem the kind of box to hold a treasure.

“Open it,” instructed Thomas. With a trembling hand, Kit lifted the lid upon an elaborate beaded necklace of lapis, carnelian, and amber… a priceless object in anyone’s estimation. There were also a matching ring and brooch.

But no map.

“Well, that’s it,” muttered Kit. “All this for nothing.”

“Not for nothing!” tutted Thomas. “We have excavated a very important tomb and have made considerable archaeological finds. The hieroglyphics alone will prove invaluable to our understanding. This is a major discovery. It will advance the science of archaeology by leaps and bounds. You should be proud.”

“Sure,” allowed Kit, “but you know what I mean. We came here to find the map.” He gestured forlornly in the direction of the storage chamber cut in the sandstone of the wadi wall behind them. “We’ve got a whole truckload of treasures-everything except the one we came to get.”

“And yet,” suggested Thomas, his steel-rimmed glasses glinting in the sun, “there is one container we have not searched.”

“I looked in every blessed box and jar myself,” blurted Kit, disappointment making him raw. “It wasn’t there.”

“Oh, ye of little wit,” admonished the doctor. “Use that brain of yours, sir. Think!”

“I am thinking,” Kit muttered. “I am thinking we’ve been on a wild goose chase.”

“My impetuous friend,” chided Thomas, shaking his head, “we have not looked in the sarcophagus.”

“The sarcophagus…” Hope, instantly renewed, flared in Kit’s despairing soul. He started back to the tomb on the run. “All hands on deck! We’re going to need all the help we can get.”

“Khalid, bring the heavy-lifting equipment,” called the doctor. He paused and shouted towards the temple. “Khefri, fetch the cook and bring a team of mules-we may need them.”

Carved from a single block of red granite, the hulking mass of stone sat in the centre of the chamber, as yet untouched. Kit swept away the dust with a handful of rags to expose the smooth, stylised visage of a man, features impassive, staring with blank eyes into the darkness of eternity. Below the face, the rest of the stone lid was engraved with row upon row of hieroglyphs.

“This won’t be easy,” observed Kit. “The thing must weigh twenty tons. How are we going to lift it?”

“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I shall move the earth!” Thomas told him. “Archimedes.” He squatted down beside the massive granite case and ran his fingers along the seam joining the lid to the bottom. “We will also use wedges and ropes.”

Setting the lamps in a perimeter around the great stone case, the labourers set to with levers and wooden wedges; working in tandem-two levers a few inches apart-they eased up an edge of the lid and held it while another workman hammered in a wedge. The process was repeated time and again all along the right-hand side of the huge stone top. When they finished, they started over again, raising the lid a little more and driving in the wedges that much farther.

After the third round of prying and hammering, they had succeeded in raising the weighty red granite a few inches. Ropes were passed around the centre of the lid and these sent up to be secured to the mule team. The levers were applied, nudging the carved top a little higher-enough to drive even larger wedges into the gap and tilt the lid to one side. Little by little the top rose and tilted until, with a low grinding sound like the rumble of distant thunder, it began to slide off. The ropes grew taut as the mules took the strain. Khalid dashed to the chamber doorway and called instructions for Khefri to relay to the mule drivers. Slowly, slowly, with a creaking complaint of ropes and wood, the massive stone lid tilted and slid. All at once, one of the ropes gave way. The stone slewed to one side, teetered, then crashed to the floor with a thud that shook the ground beneath their feet.

The dust was still rising in the air as Kit, Thomas, Khalid, and the nearest labourers rushed forward to catch the first glimpse of the interior of the sarcophagus. Any hope for jewelled treasure or golden ornaments was swiftly dashed. For inside was a second sarcophagus of limestone, richly painted to resemble the deceased high priest in his ceremonial robes. The lid of this second sarcophagus was lighter and was raised with little difficulty by the workmen to uncover a third coffin of wood, also painted.

The third lid was prised off in a moment to reveal the mummified body of Anen, tightly bound in linen bands to withstand the ravages of time. Over the chest had been placed-not jewelled ornaments or ceremonial trinkets, as in the case of others of high-born caste-but only a simple olive wood ankh, the ubiquitous cross with a loop, symbol for life. Nothing more.

Kit, leaning over the mummy, scanned the interior of the coffin, but saw no boxes, chests, or bundles of any kind. He felt the heat of discovery begin to fade into the gloom of disappointment once more. “Well, what do you think? Should we unwrap him?” he asked doubtfully.

“We do not have the proper equipment,” said Thomas. “But I doubt we would find anything. I am sorry. I fear we have been grossly misinformed.”

“I guess.” Kit, miserable with frustration, moved to the painting of the priest holding the map and pointing to the star. What was the old boy trying to tell them?

“Kit Livingstone!” said Khefri suddenly. “Look here. The headrest!”

The doctor returned to the sarcophagus. “What sharp eyes you have, my boy,” breathed Thomas. “I do believe you’re right…”

Kit turned to see the doctor and Khefri leaning over the mummy once more. Crossing the distance in three bounds, he watched as Thomas reached down beside the linen-wrapped corpse. “Here, give me a hand. Lift the mummy-gently, carefully… there. Got it!” He straightened, and in his hand was a square of something wrapped in linen; it looked like a mummified sofa cushion. “Our friend Anen was using it as a pillow.”

“Here-let’s get it out into the light where we can see it better,” suggested Kit, already heading for the door.

Out in the daylight, the carefully wrapped packet was examined for any external markings. There were none; the linen bindings were the same as those used to swathe the mummy. “I will enter this find in the ledger,” said Thomas, moving towards his station beneath the canopy. “Then we shall open it.”

If Kit had had his way, he would have torn off the bandages then and there, but he agreed and followed the doctor to the table and watched with mounting impatience as Thomas made his entry. Then, handing Kit a thin-bladed knife, he passed the parcel to Kit along with the admonition to be very careful and take his time so as not to damage the delicate artefact within.

With trembling fingers, Kit slit open the top layer of bands and began unwinding the long narrow strips.

One after another, the layers were removed-seven in all-and as each fell away, excitement grew until Kit was almost hopping from foot to foot. The last layer of binding strips was unwound and there, on the table before them, lay a pair of wooden plaques tied with a cord of braided hemp that had been died red. The plaques were olive wood, raw and unvarnished, but covered with columns of black writing-not hieroglyphics, nor any language Kit had ever seen before.

He licked his lips. “Do you recognise the script?”

The doctor raised his glasses and bent down to scrutinise the writing, so close his nose almost touched the ancient wood. “I cannot say that I have ever encountered it.” He clucked his tongue. “Alas, I don’t know what it might be.”

The cord was tied with a simple knot, and the doctor reached for it, then hesitated. “I think,” he said, pushing the bound wooden plaques towards Kit once more, “that you should have this honour.”

Kit, his mouth dry, tugged at the woven cord, which parted as the ancient fibres shredded beneath his fingers. He brushed aside the disintegrating fragments and, holding his breath, lifted the top wooden plate. There, covered with a thin square of gossamer-fine linen, pressed like a rare leaf between the preserving sheets of a scrapbook, lay an irregular scrap of parchment almost translucent with age. The fine-grained leather, thin as gossamer and brittle as a scarab shell, was covered with a wild scattering of the most superbly etched symbols in dark blue.

Like a shadow shrivelled by the noonday sun, doubt vanished at the sight, and Kit knew that he had found the Skin Map.

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