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The Red Sea, present-day
Jack, you're not going to believe what I've found."
The voice came through the intercom from somewhere in the blue void ahead, where a silvery stream of bubbles rose from beyond a rocky ledge to the surface of the sea nearly fifty meters above. Jack Howard took a last look at the coral-encrusted anchor below him, then injected a burst of air into his buoyancy compensator and floated above the thick bed of sea whips bending in the current, like tall grass in the wind. He powered forward with his fins, then spread his arms and legs like a skydiver and dropped over the ledge. The view below was breathtaking. All down the slope he had seen fragments of ancient pottery, Islamic, Nabatean, Egyptian, but this was the motherlode. For years there had been rumors of a ships' graveyard on the windward side of the reef, but it had been just that, hearsay and rumor, until the unusually strong tidal currents in the Red Sea that spring had scoured the plateau and revealed what lay before him. Then there had been the rumor that set Jack's heart racing, the rumor of a Roman shipwreck, perfectly preserved under the sand. Now, as he saw the shapes emerging from the sediment, row upon row of ancient pottery amphoras, their tall handles rising to wide rims, he exhaled hard, dropping faster, and felt the familiar excitement course through him. He silently mouthed the words, as he always did. Lucky Jack.
The voice crackled again. "Fifteen years of diving with you, and I thought I'd seen everything. This one really takes the cake."
Jack turned toward the far edge of the plateau. He could see Costas now, hovering motionless in front of a coral head the size of a small truck, the growths rising several meters higher than him.
Two more heads rose behind the first, forming a row. Beyond them the water was too deep for coral to flourish, and Jack could see the sandy slope dropping off into an abyss. He flicked on his headlamp and swam toward Costas, coming to a halt a few meters before him and panning his light over the seabed. It was an explosion of color, bright red sponges, sea anemones, profusely growing soft corals, with clownfish darting among the nooks and crevices. An eel drooped out of a hole, mouth lolling, eyeing Jack, then withdrew again. Jack looked down through a waving bed of sea fans and saw fragments of amphoras, so thickly encrusted as to be almost unrecognizable. He peered again, saw a high arching handle, a distinctive rim. He turned to Costas, his headlamp lighting up his friend's yellow helmet and the streamlined backpack that held his trimix breathing gas.
"Nice find," he said. "I saw sherds like this coming down the slope. Rhodian wine amphoras, second century BC."
"Switch off your headlamp." Costas seemed riveted by something in front of him. "Take another look. And forget about amphoras."
Jack was itching to swim over to the wreck he had seen in the sand. But he lingered in front of the coral head, stared at the dazzle of color and movement. He remembered the words of Professor Dillen, all those years ago at Cambridge. Archaeology is about detail, but don't let the detail obscure the bigger picture. Jack had already known it, since he had first gone hunting for artifacts as a boy. It had always been his special gift. To see the bigger picture. And to find things. Lucky Jack. He shut his eyes, flicked off his headlamp then opened his eyes again. It was as if he were in a different universe. The profusion of color had been replaced by a monotone blue, shades of dark where there had been vivid purples and reds. It was like looking at an artist's charcoal sketch, all the finish and color stripped away, the eye drawn not to the detail but to the form, to the overall shape. To the bigger picture.
And then he saw it.
He blinked hard, and looked again. There was no mistaking it. Not one, but two, sticking out of the sand, curving upward on either side of the coral head, symmetrical, gleaming white from centuries of burial in the sediment. He remembered where they were. The Red Sea. The eastern extremity of Egypt, the edge of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. Beyond here lay fabled lands, lands of terror and allure, of untold treasure and danger, of races of giants and pygmies and great, lumbering beasts, beasts of the hunt and of war that only the bravest could harness, beasts that could make a man a king.
They were tusks.
"I'm waiting, Jack. Explain your way out of this one."
Jack swallowed hard. His heart was pounding with excitement. He spoke quietly, trying to keep his voice under control. "It's an elephantegos."
"Right. An elephant. A statue of an elephant."
"No. An elephantegos."
"Okay, Jack. What's the difference?"
"There's an amazing papyrus letter, found in the Egyptian desert," Jack said. "Maurice Hiebermeyer emailed it to me on Seaquest II as we were sailing here. I asked him for anything in the papyrus records that might refer to a shipwreck. It's almost as if he had an instinct we'd find something like this."
"Wouldn't be the first time," Costas said. "He's an oddball, but I've got to hand it to him."
Jack's mind was racing. He reached out and touched the tip of the nearest tusk. It was silky-smooth, but powdery, like chalk. "The letter mentions a shipwreck. It's one of very few ancient documents to mention a shipwreck in the Red Sea. Maurice knew we were planning to dive here, on our way up to his excavation at Berenike."
"I'm listening, Jack."
"It tells how a ship dispatched from the port at Berenike had sunk. The letter was meant to reach a place called Ptolemais Theron, Ptolemais of the Hunts. That was an outpost somewhere to the south of here on the coast of Eritrea. It was where the Egyptians procured their wild animals. Because of the shipwreck, the men in the outpost hadn't received their grain. The letter assures them that another elephantegos was under construction at Berenike, and would soon be on its way with all the supplies they needed."
"Elephantegos," Costas murmured. "You mean . . . "
"Elephant transporter. Elephant-ship."
"Jack, I'm getting that funny feeling again. The one I always get when I dive with you. It's called disbelief."
"Have you looked beyond? There are two more coral heads. Exactly the same size. Three of them, in a row. Just the number you'd expect. Chained and roped down just as they would have been in a hull."
"You're telling me this thing in front of me is an elephant. A real elephant. Not a statue."
"We know ivory can survive burial underwater, right? We've found tusks and hippo teeth in the Mediterranean. And the coral around here grows pretty fast, quicker than it would take for an elephant skeleton to crumble. There may be no bones left inside there now, but the coral preserves the shape."
"I need a moment, Jack. Remember, I'm just an engineer. I need to stare this thing in the face. This could be the one archaeological discovery that finally does it for me, Jack. I think I might cry."
"You can handle it." Jack floated back and stared at the ghostly apparition that loomed in front of them, one of the most amazing things he had ever seen underwater. He switched on his headlamp again. "Those tusks aren't going to survive long. We need to get them reburied. But before that we need a film team down here, pronto. This is headline stuff."
"Leave it to me, Jack. I've got a channel open to Seaquest II."
Jack glanced at his wrist computer. "Seven minutes left. I want to have a look at those amphoras in the sand. I'll be within visual range."
"I think I've had enough excitement for one dive."
"I'll meet you halfway for the ascent."
Jack drifted back toward the sandy plateau, letting the current take him. It had picked up slightly during their dive, raising a pall of fine silt that hung a meter or so over the seabed, briefly obscuring the amphoras from view. Ahead of him a school of glassfish hung in the water like a diaphanous veil, parting to reveal a reef shark swimming languidly along the slope. He heard the muffled roar of the Zodiac boat on the surface gunning its outboards, circling to keep position. A banging from the boat marked their five minute warning. He glanced back at Costas, now some twenty meters away, then dropped down into the suspended sediment. Costas might not be able to see him, but Jack's exhaust bubbles would be clearly visible. He stared ahead, concentrating on his objective, his arms held out in front of him with his hands together, his legs slowly kicking a frog stroke. He was in perfect control of his buoyancy. Suddenly he saw them, a row of four amphoras, intact and leaning in the sand, another row poking up beyond. He exhaled hard, emptying his lungs, knowing his life depended on his equipment delivering that next breath, the edge of danger that made diving his passion. He dropped down, then inhaled just above the seafloor, regaining neutral buoyancy. The amphoras were covered with fine sediment, sparkling with the sunlight that streamed through the water from the surface forty-five meters overhead.
He saw more rows of amphoras, then a scour channel with darkened timbers protruding below. He drew in his breath. "Well I'll be damned."
"Got something?" Costas' voice crackled through.
"Just another ancient wreck."
"Couldn't beat an elephantegos," Costas retorted. "My elephantegos."
"Just some old pots," Jack said.
"It's never just old pots with you. I've seen you empty the gold inside to get at the pot. Typical archaeologist."
"The pots are where the history lies," Jack said.
"So you keep telling me. Personally, I'll take a sack of doubloons over a pot any day. So what have you got?"
"Wine amphoras, about two centuries later than the Rhodian ones with the elephantegos. These date from the time of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. They come all the way from Italy."
Jack finned toward the row of amphoras. His excitement mounted. "These are outward-bound, no doubt about it. They've still got the mortar seals over the lids, with the stamp of the Italian estates that made them. This is Falernian wine, vintage stuff. Costas, I think we've just hit pay dirt." He looked back. Costas had swum up from the coral head and was hanging in the water at the halfway point, already rising a few meters above the seafloor. "Time to go, Jack. Two minutes to our no-stop limit."
"Roger that." Jack's eyes were darting around, taking in everything possible in the remaining moments before the alarm bell sounded. "Each of these wine amphoras was worth a slave. There are hundreds of them. This was a high value cargo. A Roman East Indiaman."
"You mean actually going to India?" Costas flicked on his headlamp, bringing out the colors in the seabed around Jack. "Doesn't that mean bullion? Treasure?"
Jack touched one of the amphoras. He felt the thrill that coursed through him every time he touched an artifact that had lain beyond human hands since ancient times. And shipwrecks were the most exciting finds of all. Not the accumulated garbage of a civilization, castoffs and rubbish, but living organisms, lost in a moment of catastrophe, on the cusp of great adventure. Adventure that always came with risk, and this time the dice had fallen the wrong way. This had been a ship heading out into a perilous monsoon, for a voyage of thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean. Jack knew the draw of the east from his own ancestors who had sailed there in the time of the East India Company. They had called it The Enterprise of the Indies, the greatest adventure of all. Untold treasure. Untold danger. And for the ancients, the stakes were even higher. Somewhere out there lay the fiery edge of the world. Yet along its rim, as far as you could go, were to be found riches that would humble even a mighty emperor, and bring him face-to-face with the greatest secrets imaginable, with sacred elixirs, with alchemy, with immortality.
The alarm sounded, a harsh, insistent clanging that seemed to come from everywhere. Jack took a deep breath and rose a few meters above the amphoras, then began to fin toward Costas. They would excavate. So much of archaeology was below the radar of recorded history, about the mundane residue of day-to-day life, but here perhaps they had found something momentous. It was a shipwreck that might have been a turning point in history, that might have determined whether Rome would ever rule beyond the Indian Ocean. He looked at Costas, who was staring down into the pool of color in his headlight, reflecting off the sand. Jack checked his dive computer, then saw Costas still staring, transfixed. He followed his gaze, and looked down again.
Then he saw it. Yellow, glinting. Sand, but not just sand. A fantastic mirage. He blinked hard, then exhaled and sank down again until his knees were resting on the seabed. He could scarcely believe what he was seeing. Then he remembered. A Roman emperor's lament, two thousand years ago. All our money drained off to the east, for the sake of spice and baubles.
He looked up at Costas. He looked down again.
The seabed was carpeted with gold.
He picked up a glittering piece, held it close. It was a gold coin, an aureus, mint, uncirculated. The head of a young man, strong, confident, a man who believed that Rome could rule the world. The emperor Augustus.
"Holy cow," Costas said. "Tell me this is true."
"I think," Jack said, his voice sounding hoarse, "you've got your treasure."
"We need to put this site in lockdown," Costas replied, flicking a switch on the side of his helmet. "All outside radio communication off. We don't want anyone else picking up what we say. There's enough gold here to fund a small jihad."
"Roger that." Jack flipped off his switch. He savored the moment, holding the gold coin, looking at the glittering spectacle in front of him, the rows of amphoras in the background. Costas was right. Jack was an archaeologist, not a treasure hunter, but in truth he had scoured the world for a discovery like this, good, old fashioned treasure, an emperor's ransom in gold. And it was Roman.
He looked up, saw the Zodiac far above, sensed the darker shadow of Seaquest II a few hundred meters offshore. He flashed an okay signal to Costas, and jerked his thumb upward. The two men began to ascend, side by side. Jack glanced back at the receding seafloor, the details now lost in the sand, the amphoras indistinguishable from rock and coral. He had dreamed of this for years, of finding a wreck that would take him back to the greatest adventure the ancient world had ever known, a quest for treasures of unimaginable value, treasures that were still beckoning explorers to this day. His whole spirit was suffused with excitement. This had been the dive of his life. They had found the first ever treasure wreck dating from ancient Roman times. He saw Costas looking at him through his face mask, his eyes creased in a smile. He whispered the words again. Lucky Jack.