I'VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT BEFORE!"
The words came from a dry suited diver who had just surfaced behind the stern of the research vessel, his voice breathless with excitement. After swimming over to the ladder, he removed his fins and mask and passed them up to the waiting barge chief. He hauled himself laboriously out of the water, his heavy cylinders causing him momentarily to lose balance, but a heave from above landed him safe and sound on the deck. His dripping shape was quickly surrounded by other members of the team who had been waiting on the dive platform.
Jack Howard made his way down from the bridge walkway and smiled at his friend. He still found it amazing that such a bulky figure could be so agile underwater. As he negotiated the clutter of dive equipment on the aft deck he called out, his mocking tone a familiar part of their banter over the years.
"We thought you'd swum back to Athens for a gin and tonic beside your father's pool. What've you found, the lost treasure of the Queen of Sheba?"
Costas Kazantzakis shook his head impatiently as he struggled along the railing towards Jack. He was too agitated even to bother taking off his equipment. "No," he panted. "I'm serious. Take a look at this."
Jack silently prayed that the news was good. It had been a solo dive to investigate a silted-up shelf on top of the submerged volcano, and the two divers who had followed Costas would soon be surfacing from the decompression stop. There would be no more dives that season.
Costas unclipped a carabiner and passed over an underwater camcorder housing, pressing the replay button as he did so. The other members of the team converged behind the tall Englishman as he flipped open the miniature LCD screen and activated the video. Within moments Jack's sceptical grin had given way to a look of blank amazement.
The underwater scene was illuminated by powerful floodlights which gave colour to the gloom almost one hundred metres below. Two divers were kneeling on the seabed using an airlift, a large vacuum tube fed by a low-pressure air hose which sucked up the silt covering the site. One diver wrestled to keep the airlift in position while the other gently wafted sediment up towards the mouth of the tube, the action revealing artifacts just as an archaeologist on land would use a trowel.
As the camera zoomed in, the object of the divers' attention came dramatically into view. The dark shape visible upslope was not rock but a concreted mass of metal slabs laid in interlocking rows like shingles.
"Oxhide ingots," Jack said excitedly. "Hundreds of them. And there's a cushioning layer of brushwood dunnage, just as Homer described in the ship of Odysseus."
Each slab was about a metre long with protruding corners, their shape resembling the flayed and stretched hide of an ox. They were the characteristic copper ingots of the Bronze Age, dating back more than three and a half thousand years.
"It looks like the early type," one of the students on the team ventured. "Sixteenth century BC?"
"Unquestionably," Jack said. "And still in rows just as they were laden, suggesting the hull may be preserved underneath. We could have the oldest ship ever discovered."
Jack's excitement mounted as the camera traversed down the slope. Between the ingots and the divers loomed three giant pottery jars, each as tall as a man and over a metre in girth. They were identical to jars that Jack had seen in the storerooms at Knossos on Crete. Inside, they could see stacks of stemmed cups painted with beautifully naturalistic octopuses and marine motifs, their swirling forms at one with the undulations of the seabed.
There was no mistaking the pottery of the Minoans, the remarkable island civilization that flourished at the time of the Egyptian Middle and New Kingdoms but then disappeared suddenly, around 1400 BC. Knossos, the fabled labyrinth of the Minotaur, had been one of the most sensational discoveries of the last century. Following close on the heels of Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of Troy, the English archaeologist Arthur Evans had set out to prove that the legend of the Athenian prince Theseus and his lover Ariadne was as grounded in real events as the Trojan War. The sprawling palace just south of Heraklion was the key to a lost civilization he dubbed Minoan after their legendary king. The maze of passageways and chambers gave extraordinary credence to the story of Theseus' battle with the Minotaur, and showed that the myths of the Greeks centuries later were closer to real history than anyone had dared think.
"Yes!" Jack punched the air with his free hand, his normal reserve giving way to the emotion of a truly momentous discovery. It was the culmination of years of single-minded passion, the fulfilment of a dream that had driven him since boyhood. It was a find that would rival Tutankhamen’s tomb, a discovery that would secure his team front place in the annals of archaeology.
For Jack these images were enough. Yet there was more, much more, and he stood transfixed by the screen. The camera panned down to the divers on a low shelf below the clump of ingots.
"Probably the stern compartment." Costas was pointing at the screen. "Just beyond this ledge is a row of stone anchors and a wooden steering oar."
Immediately in front was an area of shimmering yellow which looked like the reflection of the floodlights off the sediment in the water. As the camera zoomed in, there was a collective gasp of astonishment.
"That's not sand," the student whispered. "That's gold!"
Now they knew what they were looking at, the image was one of surpassing splendour. In the centre was a magnificent golden chalice fit for King Minos himself. It was decorated in relief with an elaborate bullfighting scene. Alongside lay a life-sized golden statue of a woman, her arms raised in supplication and her headdress wreathed in snakes. Her bare breasts had been sculpted from ivory, and a flickering arc of colour showed where her neck was embellished with jewels. Nestled in front was a bundle of golden-handled bronze swords, their blades decorated with fighting scenes made from inlaid silver and blue enamel.
The most brilliant reflection came from the area just in front of the divers. Each waft of the hand seemed to reveal another gleaming object. Jack could make out gold bars, royal seals, jewellery and delicate diadem crowns of intertwined leaves, all jumbled together as if they had once been inside a treasure chest.
The view suddenly veered up towards the ascent line and the screen abruptly went blank. In the stunned silence that followed, Jack lowered the camera and looked at Costas.
"I think we're in business," he said quietly.
Jack had staked his reputation on a far-flung proposal. In the decade since completing his doctorate he had become fixated on discovering a Minoan wreck, a find that would clinch his theory about the maritime supremacy of the Minoans in the Bronze Age. He had become convinced that the most likely spot was a group of reefs and islets some seventy nautical miles north-east of Knossos.
Yet for weeks they had searched in vain. A few days earlier their hopes had been raised and then dashed by the discovery of a Roman wreck, a dive Jack expected to be his last of the season. Today was to have been a chance to evaluate new equipment for their next project. Once again Jack's luck had held out.
"Mind giving me a hand?"
Costas had slumped exhausted beside the stern railing on Seaquest
, his equipment still unbuckled and the water on his face now joined by rivulets of sweat. The late afternoon sun of the Aegean drenched his form in light. He looked up at the lean physique that towered over him. Jack was an unlikely scion of one of England's most ancient families, his easy grace the only hint of a privileged lineage. His father had been an adventurer who had eschewed his background and used his wealth to take his family away with him to remote locations around the world. His unconventional upbringing had left Jack an outsider, a man most at ease in his own company and beholden to nobody. He was a born leader who commanded respect on the bridge and the foredeck.
"What would you do without me?" Jack asked with a grin as he lifted the tanks off Costas' back.
The son of a Greek shipping tycoon, Costas had spurned the playboy lifestyle which was his for the asking and opted for ten years at Stanford and MIT, emerging as an expert in submersible technology. Surrounded by a vast jumble of tools and parts that only he could navigate, Costas would routinely conjure up wondrous inventions like some latter-day Caractacus Pott. His passion for a challenge was matched by his gregarious nature, a vital asset in a profession where teamwork was essential.
The two men had first met at the NATO base at Izmir in Turkey when Jack had been seconded to the Naval Intelligence School and Costas was a civilian adviser to UNANTSUB, the United Nations anti-submarine warfare research establishment. A few years later Jack invited Costas to join him at the International Maritime University, the research institution which had been their home for more than ten years now. In that time Jack had seen his remit as director of field operations at IMU grow to four ships and more than two hundred personnel, and despite an equally burgeoning role in the engineering department, Costas always seemed to find a way to join Jack when things got exciting.
"Thanks, Jack." Costas slowly stood up, too tired to say more. He only stood as high as Jack's shoulders and had a barrel chest and forearms inherited from generations of Greek sponge fishermen and sailors, with a personality to match. This project had been close to his heart as well, and he was suddenly drained by the excitement of discovery. It was he who had set the expedition in train, using his father's connections with the Greek government. Although they were now in international waters, the support of the Hellenic Navy had been invaluable, not least in keeping them supplied with the cylinders of purified gas which were vital for trimix diving.
"Oh, I almost forgot." Costas' round, tanned face broke into a grin as he reached into his stabilizer jacket. "Just in case you thought I'd faked the whole thing."
He extracted a package swaddled in protective neoprene and handed it over, a triumphant gleam in his eye. Jack was unprepared for the weight and his hand momentarily dropped. He undid the wrapping and gasped in astonishment.
It was a solid metal disc about the diameter of his hand, its surface as lustrous as if it were brand new. There was no mistaking the deep hue of unalloyed gold, a gold refined to the purity of bullion.
Unlike many of his academic colleagues Jack never pretended to be unmoved by treasure, and for a moment he let the thrill of holding several kilogrammes of gold wash through him. As he held it up and angled it towards the sun, the disc gave off a dazzling flash of light, as if it were releasing a great burst of energy pent up over the millennia.
He was even more elated when he saw the sun glint off markings on the surface. He lowered the disc into Costas' shadow and traced his fingers over the indentations, all of them exquisitely executed on one convex side.
In the centre was a curious rectilinear device, like a large letter H, with a short line dropping from the crossbar and four lines extending like combs from either side. Around the edge of the disc were three concentric bands, each one divided into twenty compartments. Each compartment contained a different symbol stamped into the metal. To Jack the outer circle looked like pictograms, symbols that conveyed the meaning of a word or phrase. At a glance he could make out a man's head, a walking man, a paddle, a boat and a sheaf of corn. The inner compartments were aligned with those along the edge, but instead contained linear signs. Each of these was different but they seemed more akin to letters of the alphabet than to pictograms.
Costas stood and watched Jack examine the disc, totally absorbed. His eyes were alight in a way Costas had seen before. Jack was touching the Age of Heroes, a time shrouded in myth and legend, yet a period which had been spectacularly revealed in great palaces and citadels, in sublime works of art and brilliantly honed weapons of war. He was communing with the ancients in a way that was only possible with a shipwreck, holding a priceless artefact that had not been tossed away but had been cherished to the moment of catastrophe. Yet it was an artefact shrouded in mystery, one he knew would draw him on without respite until all its secrets were out.
Jack turned the disc over several times and looked at the inscriptions again, his mind racing back to undergraduate courses on the history of writing. He had seen something like this before. He made a mental note to email the image to Professor James Dillen, his old mentor at Cambridge University and the world's leading authority on the ancient scripts of Greece.
Jack passed the disc back to Costas. For a moment the two men looked at each other, their eyes ablaze with excitement. Jack hurried over to join the team kitting up beside the stern ladder. The sight of all that gold had redoubled his fervour. The greatest threat to archaeology lay in international waters, a free-for-all where no country held jurisdiction. Every attempt to impose a global sea law had ended in failure. The problems of policing such a huge area seemed insurmountable. Yet advances in technology meant that remote-operated submersibles, of the type used to discover the Titanic
, were now little more expensive than a car. Deep-water exploration that was once the preserve of a few institutes was now open to all, and had led to the wholesale destruction of historic sites. Organized pillagers with state-of-the-art technology were stripping the seabed with no record being made for posterity and artefacts disappearing for ever into the hands of private collectors. And the IMU teams were not only up against legitimate operators. Looted antiquities had become major currency in the criminal underworld.
Jack glanced up at the timekeeper's platform and felt a familiar surge of adrenaline as he signalled his intention to dive. He began carefully to assemble his equipment, setting his dive computer and checking the pressure of his cylinders, his demeanour methodical and professional as if there were nothing special about this day.
In truth he could barely contain his excitement.
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