The car park was empty now, the team of archaeologists had finally gone home after a long day’s scraping in the rainbow-textured, damp soil. Their discovery of ‘The Usurper’ under the nondescript tarmac had shocked and amazed everyone, not so much those doing the investigation, but more those cynics that could not credit the possibility of the research unit’s hard work actually panning out. It had always seemed to be such an incredibly long shot.
Sitting in his all-weather hut, Ray Sheridan, the lone site security guard, huddled closer to the heater to make the most of its feeble warmth. To take his mind off the mind-numbing boredom of the job and to keep his thoughts off the ever-dropping temperature, he was immersed in one of his favourite pastimes, reading a zombie novel.
Ray glanced up occasionally, checking that the area was secure. He debated with himself whether to bother going outside for a look around the site, not that there was anything for him to see really apart from a bloody great big hole in the ground and a lot of dirt. Nah, he’d stick with his book for now.
Anyway, he had no idea what the hullabaloo was all about and could care less. So what if a few bones from some old king had been found? Ray had no idea what the discovery’s significance was, he especially didn’t understand the weirdoes from the historical society that kept on hanging around. Suppose he should thank them really, at least they’d provided him with some security work. At least if he’d been at a factory then a crook would have something of value to nick, making his job worthwhile. Looking around the sparsely furnished hut, Ray was mildly surprised to see that everything was lightly coated with a fine white dust. He consoled himself with his new book, ‘The Common Cold: A Zombie Chronicle’, sneezing as he dusted off the coating that had settled on his iPad. He was just coming up to a good bit, blood and gore, his favourite.
The car park was garnering a bit of notoriety. Not only had the archaeologists found the bones of Richard III, but some clever sod had kept on digging and had discovered what appeared to have been a plague pit, piled with at least fifteen bodies, thrown in with careless abandon, certainly not laid to rest with any great ceremony. Problem was, the remains were much older than the 15th century, and judging by the few possessions found with them, cloak buckles and a couple of coins, they indicated the bodies had lain there, undisturbed, since about one hundred AD, during Roman times. Definitely not a plague pit then. Another really odd thing was the fact that each corpse had a broken skull, either caused by blunt force trauma or at the point of a spear. Each complete skeleton they had pieced together so far exhibited crushed or cut bones, like they had been hacked and clubbed, possibly while still alive. The bones had become brittle, and as the team gingerly removed them from their resting place, they would break and dissolve to dust at the slightest provocation. It had been a windy day when they’d been discovered, and a cloud of the dust had blown all around the dig, catching in the archaeologists’ throats and making them cough. A small crowd of onlookers that had gathered out of curiosity around the hole had also been lightly dusted by the ash-like remnants, stinging their eyes and feeling like grit in their mouths.
A few of the skeletons had been successfully disinterred, together with the soil they lay on, and then delivered to the University laboratories for testing. The remainder would be removed over the next few days. The fear was that they would crumble away before they could be properly studied, so it had been a matter of urgency to get at least some of the find inside before it disappeared. Osteologists in the research team were confused. Although ancient bones could be brittle, none had seen such a complete breakdown of skeletal tissue. It was as if the bones were made of sand, and as they dried they were returning to dust. Positively biblical.
“So, what are we looking at,” Sarah Lewis, asked. She was the manager of the lab, and due to the importance of the find she had interceded to do the specimen preparation and analysis herself, rather than allocate it to a technician. The morning after the heavily media covered discovery, she found herself sitting alongside one of the archaeologists, Professor Brenda Mulroney. They were studying a piece of femur that had broken off and had been placed in a glass dish under the objective of a low resolution microscope.
“This is part of the ball of a femur, the part that fits into the socket of the hip. Don’t touch it, it’ll fall apart.”
They peered closely at the surface, Brenda watching a monitor screen that relayed what the microscope saw. “It doesn’t look like any bone I’ve seen before,” Sarah stated, matter-of-fact. “If you hadn’t told me what was there I’d have said it was a collection of spores, pressed together to form a clump.”
“Spores?” the professor asked, disbelieving of what she was hearing.
“Yes, that’s exactly what they look like, in fact a bit like pollen. That might explain the dust-like quality of the remnants.” Ignoring the Professor’s command not to touch the specimen, Sarah scraped the surface with a small pick. “It seems that as it dries, they are released and fall off like fine sand. You’d probably do well to put a face mask on, you don’t want to breathe this stuff in. We don’t know what it is.” Sarah went to a side cupboard and returned with two masks. “Here you are. Do you think there’s a chance you’ve breathed any in? On the dig site or here in the lab?”
“I don’t know. It was pretty breezy the day we found the bones.” She remembered everyone coughing in the dust. “Do you think there’s a risk of infection?”
“Hard to say. Spores are designed to last a long time, possibly hundreds of years, but we’re talking nearer two thousand, so who knows.”
“Remember the curse of Tutankhamen’s Tomb? That was reasoned to be bacterial spores, or some form of live pathogen, and they were talking nearly three and a quarter thousand years ago.” Brenda’s voice was becoming tremulous, her hands starting to shake with the thought of an unknown infection that could be wending its fibrous tendrils through her body at that very moment. She now looked significantly older than her fifty two years, and yet somehow childishly vulnerable as she began, unconsciously, to chew a fingernail. “What should I do? What about the rest of the team? They might have breathed some in.”
“Firstly, don’t panic, and don’t chew your nails, you’ve been holding the specimen,” Sarah said, amazed at the transformation of this professor, from a self-assured academic to jibbering bag of nerves in a matter of seconds. “We can give you some broad spectrum antibiotics, I’m sure that will sort anything you might have inhaled. Anyway, there’s no saying the spores are even active. I’ll have to run some tests.”
“I don’t think you understand, Sarah.” The professor was trying to compose herself once more. “The condition of the bodies makes me worried. Have you heard of mediaeval corpses across Europe discovered with stakes through their hearts, heads severed and objects placed in their mouths before being laid to rest?” Sarah nodded. “Well, these people seem to have suffered some form of similar ritual desecration of their bodies, in particular their heads. It was like they were beaten by a mob as they were killed. The fact that they were not placed in their final resting place with any dignity suggests they were simply disposed of, no respect for the departed at all. And that is strange for a Roman civilization.”
“So what are you saying?” Sarah asked, intrigued.
“It suggests that these people may have had some sort of infection the locals were in fear of, and the destruction of the individual required the ruination of the head. EVERY head was broken and the brain must have been destroyed by the action.”
They sat in silence contemplating Brenda’s conclusions.
“Have you seen anything like it before?” Sarah asked.
“No, the closest similar ritual I’m aware of was those bodies with the stakes in their hearts.”
“Alright, then. You go and see Doctor Morgan, he’s in the office adjacent to the lab. Tell him what we’ve seen and that I’ve recommended a course of wide spectrum antibiotics for you and your colleagues. For God’s sake, don’t mention the head thing, rituals, or mass clubbings. He’s a bit of a cynic and would put you through the ringer before writing a scrip.”
“He could try,” the Professor replied. Her backbone had returned.
Copyright © 2013 David Kingsley Roberts