Jonathan climbed the creaky old stairs of Echard Hall. He loved the sweet smell of centuries-old wood and books. He remembered the Hall fondly from visits to Professor Clitheroe during his undergraduate studies, now ten years past. He had chosen the course on Archaeology of the Ancient Near East to satisfy the requirements for a course in the humanities. Initially, he resented the many hours it took away from his demanding Electrical Engineering curriculum, but Clitheroe made the course so fascinating that Jonathan was tempted to change his major. He knew, though, that there were few jobs in archaeology. A double E degree, by contrast, could guarantee him multiple job offers upon graduation.
He walked down the narrow corridor and stopped briefly at the bulletin board. He was early for his appointment and had a little time to kill. The board had scarcely changed – department news, abundant help-wanted notices for odd jobs on campus or nearby. He remembered when he had run out of money for food and the relief he felt when he had spotted a notice on the board for someone to work Saturday, mixing and dumping apples into the cider press at an orchard “within walking distance of campus” – five miles. The aroma and taste of the freshly-squeezed cider was heavenly, and for just an instant his memory brought back the aroma.
A few more steps down the corridor he found the door to Room 323 open. Next to a window at the back of the room sat a little white-haired man bent over photographs laid out on a huge, old roll-top desk. At first Jon was a bit surprised by the man’s age, but be shouldn’t have been. He had read one of Dr. Petronella’s books which had been printed in 1982. It must be at least thirty years since the photo of the author was taken. Dr. Petronella heard Jonathan enter and stood up.
“Jonathan, how are you?” He motioned to the chair. “Please have a seat. So you have some cuneiform for me to decipher. Show me what you’ve brought.”
“Professor Petronella, I appreciate your taking the time to look at these …”
Jonathan handed him the sheet of paper with the characters he had carefully copied from Ben’s card. Dr. Petronella sat looking at the sheet for a few moments. Jon could see photographs of dozens of clay tablets on his desk which he was obviously transcribing and translating.
The professor looked directly at Jonathan. He was no longer smiling. “Where did you see these characters?”
Jonathan, immediately caught off guard and not wishing to reveal too much about the incredible card he had seen, said “Um … I was looking at this set of trivia cards that my friend has. I don’t know where he got them.” (As he said it he felt it was kind of a lame untruth and wished he’d crafted a better lie.)
“I’m sorry I was so abrupt,” said Petronella. “You see, an absolutely priceless cuneiform tablet was stolen just last week during our excavations in Syria. This particular inscription that you’ve shown me is rare on the tablets and happened to be on the one which was stolen. The characters:
stand for ‘Eb-la ki’, literally translated as the city called White Rock. The ‘ki’ is called a determinative; it’s not pronounced. It merely indicates that ‘white rock,’ is the name of a city. When we spoke on the phone you said you thought that these characters looked like Sumerian cuneiform. The characters are indeed Sumerian, as you surmised, but the language is not Sumerian. It’s an entirely different language called Eblaite which was discovered on clay tablets in the 1970’s. It’s an Old Canaanite language related to Hebrew.”
Thinking of the star field on the card, Jonathan asked “You mean Ebla exists here?”
“What do you mean ‘here’,” asked the professor, a little confused.
“I mean on earth.”
“I’m not sure why you say ‘on earth’. Of course on earth. Ebla indeed exists or at least it did exist.” Petronella said. “More than 17,000 cuneiform tablets and fragments found at Tell Mardikh in northern Syria show that a major city, the center of a great commercial empire, was at that location 4500 years ago. Then suddenly the city of 40,000 was utterly destroyed and burned. But before the destruction all the inhabitants left or were taken away. They disappeared without a trace – no evidence of fighting – not even a charred bone in the rubble.”
“That’s really strange.”
“This tablet I’m referring to was found in what is believed to have been the royal library. When the ruins were excavated by archaeologists from Universita di Roma the tablets were still neatly stacked on charred wooden library shelves that had gently collapsed when the palace was burned. The intense fire baked the tablets, preserving them from damage by water. The tablets were even arranged with summary lines on the outer edges, just as we have titles on the spines of books.”
“Wow… that’s quite advanced! But what’s so special about the stolen tablet? There were so many thousands of others.”
“The stolen tablet is unique. Actually, we suspect it’s only the top half of a larger tablet. It’s really strange. It looks like one half of what’s called an indenture. It’s not broken. It was purposely cut in a special pattern while the clay was still soft. I’ve seen this process used for contracts on vellum since the Middle Ages, but I’ve never before seen such an early example and on a clay tablet. With a vellum indenture two identical copies were inscribed on a single sheet. The sheet was then cut between the copies with a knife in a jagged manner to form teeth, hence the term indenture. If there was a need for comparison in the future, only the authentic halves of the contract would match, because of the irregular teeth.”
“We suspect that the scribe had a very strong reason for making two identical copies of what he was writing. He presumably took the bottom half with him. We found the top half sandwiched between two other tablets, and it looks like it was inserted between these tablets while it was still damp and soft.”
“How could you tell that?”
“This special tablet preserved an impression of the tablets on each side. All the other tablets were sun-dried before being placed on the shelves. It would be unheard of to place a tablet on the shelves without first drying it. Besides, the tablet is out of place. It appears to be an historical document, and it was sandwiched among the economic texts.”
“But why would someone be so sloppy in an obviously well-ordered library?”
“I don’t think it was sloppiness. Haste, maybe, because of fear. We had only begun to transcribe the tablet, but what we deciphered caused a great deal of excitement among the staff. It’s like something out of a science fiction movie. It speaks of enormous glowing dishes coming down from the sky — a city in flames. That’s as far as we got before the tablet was stolen sometime during the night.
From these few words we can infer that something extraordinary was happening. We think that a scribe working in the library was recording the events ‘live’ on clay. He might have feared capture and hurriedly hidden the top half of the tablet among other tablets on the nearest shelf, while retaining the bottom half for himself. We have no idea what happened to the bottom half, but we must recover the stolen tablet – the remaining top half. Archaeologists think it may contain the secret of what happened to the inhabitants of Ebla.”
(to be continued)
© 2011 Eric Lord Bandurski
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