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Silver Bullet -- The Lost Tomb

The world is full of lost treasures. But none are so desired as the tomb of Alexander the Great....

As we move closer to Silver Bullet's publication, I thought I'd share a bit from it with Jerry as Jerry makes an archaeological discovery that begins to pull together all the streams of story. Readers of Stealing Fire and Hand of Isis will particularly like this bit!

In his windowless office in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum, Dr. Jerry Ballard adjusted his glasses and picked up his fountain pen, beginning a new entry neatly. "Item 124 of the Rosenthal Collection," he said aloud. "Medallion purportedly dating to the reign of Ptolemy Auletes. That's Ptolemy XII to modern scholars." He put down the pen and lifted up the medallion, examining it under the green hooded desk lamp.

It was made of heavy bronze, a good size for a paperweight, a circle about four inches across. There indeed was good old Ptolemy himself, double chin and big nose, wearing a leopard skin to present himself as Neos Dionysos, his throne name. The bronze was a bit worn, but overall it was in good shape. A nice piece, Jerry thought, if nothing particularly extraordinary.

For one thing, it was rather late. Compared to some of the sixth and seventh century material in the collection, not to mention that perfectly lovely ushabti of Tia Sitre, it was practically new, only dating from the first century BC. Secondly, there were hundreds of examples of this sort of medallion from the late Ptolemaic period. The Met already had about ten. It was not rare in any sense, though it was nicely preserved and a good likeness of Ptolemy Auletes if a museum were trying to fill out a collection with all the Ptolemies in order. Thirdly, it had come through the hands of several collectors before it reached Lothar Rosenthal, and its provenance was in doubt.

Jerry noted his thoughts neatly. "Condition: very good. Value: $2,000-$3,000." A nice piece, but hardly invaluable. Maybe the Met would buy it and maybe not. He supposed it depended on how much they wanted to spend and if someone wanted Auletes particularly.

He turned it over, checking the obverse. Again, quite ordinary. The back of the medallion was a stylized cityscape of Alexandria, lighthouse in the foreground, as ubiquitous as the modern Souvenir of New York ashtrays that displayed the sights of the Big Apple together, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and the brand-new Empire State Building. Maybe this had been just like that at the time -- Souvenir of Alexandria, ready for the Ptolemaic tourist to take away. The thought made him smile. Someday a future archaeologist would dig up his ashtray and consider how many dozens of likenesses of the Statue of Liberty there were -- clearly a major focus of worship in ancient New York, but not particularly valuable because of its ubiquity.

Jerry picked up his magnifying glass. Oh yes, the lighthouse in nice detail! What else? That was the familiar shape of the Serapeum, and the Isis pylon. The Isis pylon wasn't shown as often, and it was squeezed in there just in front of a dome. Odd placement. There was plenty of room on the medallion, and yet it was squeezed in oddly in front of the dome of the Soma, the lost Tomb of Alexander the Great that appeared enticingly on all this ancient material and yet had never been found. The lighthouse had most of the right side, and here on the left the pylon was squeezed in between some unidentified buildings and the Soma, the Serapeum center and crossing the midpoint. Did it actually disappear behind the top tier of the lighthouse?

A frisson ran through Jerry. "Wait," he said aloud. "Wait."

Most medallions and coins showed the skyline stylized, all the famous buildings of Alexandria lined up, just like the Souvenir of New York ashtrays and tea towels with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building lined up next to the Statue of Liberty as though they were all the same size and stood in a row. But this was different. This was a photorealistic drawing, as though someone had stood on a ship and sketched the harbor, the lighthouse in the foreground large and taking up a whole side, partially obscuring buildings further away. The dome of the Soma rose above the buildings before it, a magnificent curve in the background, while the pylon of Isis appeared truncated and squeezed in, crowded between the Soma and the buildings along the harbor.

"Oh my God," Jerry breathed.

It was like looking at a photograph of ancient Alexandria, one that showed the location of the Soma. The tomb of Alexander the Great had been lost since antiquity. It was one of archaeology's holy grails, as famous as Schliemann's Troy, potentially as rich as Carter's tomb of Tutankhamun. For a hundred years everyone had tried to find it without success. Everyone knew it was somewhere beneath Alexandria, but aside from the difficulty of digging up a modern city, no one knew where. There were hundreds of acres that had been part of the old city, miles and miles of catacombs and cisterns and waterworks beneath it, city built on city back to the days of the first Ptolemy. Digging it all up was literally impossible, even if it had been feasible to conduct that kind of operation in a city with a current population of more than a million.

But if you had a map…. If you knew where to dig…. Three points allow you to locate a fourth. The Lighthouse. The Serapeum. The pylon of Isis. Everyone knew where the first two were. The Lighthouse had stood until the fifteenth century, and a modern fort had been built on the site. The Serapeum was marked today by the tourist attraction known as Pompey's Pillar, for all that it had nothing to do with Pompey and had been raised by Diocletian. The pylon of Isis…. There were several promising sites. And if any of them more or less matched the location on the medallion….

Jerry put it down because his hands were shaking. If they knew where the pylon of Isis was, they had a map to the Soma. They had a map to the lost tomb of Alexander the Great. They could triangulate from the other three points.

Or someone could. The Met could fund an expedition. They could hire people. They could get the best. And assuredly that wouldn't be a one-legged archaeologist who hadn't been in the field in twenty years. Whoever eventually got to go after the Soma, it wouldn't be Dr. Jerry Ballard.

Or could it be? Jerry ran his hands over the medallion reverently. Expeditions took time to organize and to fund. The Metropolitan Museum of Art didn't do anything quickly. There would be committees and meetings, grants and permits. It would be years before anyone got in the field, maybe even half a decade. They would need the permission of the British colonial government, and that itself could take a year. The Met's digs in Egypt were all carefully approved and controlled, all officially sanctioned and done right. The Met wasn't shady.

But they'd have to be a little shady now. Saying they were going after the Soma would be the fastest way to get their permits denied. One whiff about the Soma and the British Museum would have dibs. No, Jerry thought, caressing the medallion, they'd have to say they were looking for the pylon of Isis. That was the first step anyway, and it was a lesser known site, a building certainly of interest but hardly a great treasure. After all, it was basically a big carved block erected by Queen Arsinoe, daughter of Ptolemy I Soter and his queen Berenice. It was of enduring interest, but not something the British Museum would stick their nose into.

Which meant nobody outside the Met could see this medallion. It needed to be photographed and purchased, catalogued and kept very carefully for conservation outside of the public eye. And why should it go on display? It was, after all, one more late Ptolemaic medallion. The Met needed to keep this under their collective hats -- a map to the Soma, a map to the greatest lost tomb of the ancient world!

Jerry's hands were sweating. And in the three to five years it would take to mount an expedition, he had to figure out how to be part of it.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 30th, 2013 01:21 pm (UTC)
My hands are sweating too! Anything about Alexander's tomb will have me for a reader. Am looking forward to it.
May. 1st, 2013 06:29 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, Jerry's not the only one on the trail of Alexander's tomb....
May. 1st, 2013 01:01 am (UTC)
May. 1st, 2013 06:30 pm (UTC)
Yay! I'm glad it sounds interesting!
May. 1st, 2013 07:41 am (UTC)
Oh yes! Can't wait!
May. 1st, 2013 06:30 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, Jerry's not the only one on the trail of Alexander's tomb. And the competition isn't simply professional rivalry....
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )