Previous: Chapter Four
Ethne snuggled into her insulated down jacket and listened to the reassuring purr of the twin propellers. She had the plane to herself, aside from the two pilots squeezed into the cockpit. ReSource had provided everything she needed for her visit to the ice sheet. There was no door between the cockpit and cabin so the pilots had studiously ignored her while she got changed. She was now wearing more layers than a black forest gateau.
The charter flight to Reykjavik had been uneventful and she had slept, but since clambering aboard the Twin Otter she had been too excited, despite herself. She glanced out of the window to be greeted by her own eager face peering back. The only signs of life had come when they had passed Ittoqqortoormitt, the nearest town to the wilderness into which they were heading. According to the pilot, they were now over the Stauning Alps and flying deeper into the polar night. It would be many hours before twilight and even then the sun would scarcely graze the horizon. Ethne dug through the layers and located her watch: six o’clock.
A flurry of green luminescence rippled through the darkness beyond the wingtip. Ethne watched with a curious mix of delight and dread. She told herself, firmly, that the storms were finished. This was normal, bog-standard aurora. The plane wasn’t about to be struck by lightning, or turned into an electromagnetic oven reducing the occupants to quivering cancer-riven wrecks. All things considered, she wasn’t surprised most of the airlines had gone bust.
The floodlights of the ReSource base camp appeared on the skyline, and over the sound of the engine came the whirr and clunk of the ski hydraulics locking into position. She grinned at herself in the dark reflection of the window: they were going to land on the glacier. She wanted to jump and shout with the thrill of it, but stayed in her seat and composed herself. She didn’t want Will thinking her enthusiasm was directed at him.
The plane rumbled to a standstill and Ethne jumped down and gave the pilots a grateful wave. The polar wind stiffened against her skin, ice biting her ears and fingers. She fumbled with her gloves and yanked her fur lined arctic hat down as far as it would go. At least it hid the gnarly bruise rising on the side of her forehead.
Up ahead was a sheer black wall of jagged rock, runnels of ice marking its crevices and crags. As the plane taxied away, Ethne gazed across the ice sheet, astonished by its unnatural vivid blueness. It looked as if someone had spilled an industrial amount of toilet cleaner onto the ice.
On the edge of the ice sheet, the floodlights blazed over a cluster of tents and snowmobiles, and a knot of people checking equipment. One of the men left the group and approached.
It was Will. He walked towards her, boots crunching on the shimmering blue ice. He looked inordinately pleased to see her.
‘Howdy, stranger.’ He beamed beneath his hood. Ice particles clung to several days of ginger stubble on his chin. ‘Did I get the right clothes size?’
She nodded grudgingly. ‘Flying me out in the company jet? Plying me with expensive togs? All this special treatment feels like an inducement, but it won’t work.’
‘Is that right?’ He led her across the ice to the cave opening. ‘Not ready to prostitute yourself to the Corporate God, your Lord and Master?’
‘No, but I will be keeping this rather lovely hat.’
‘It’s good to see you too,’ said Will, grinning at her over his shoulder.
‘So, what’s down there?’ said Ethne, barely able to hide her curiosity. ‘I still don’t get why I’m here.’
‘All in good time.’ He held out a tangle of rope and metal hooks. ‘Your carriage awaits.’
Ethne rolled her eyes and snatched the harness from his hands. She had been rock climbing and abseiling with Will a hundred times. Dragging her up and down mountains was his idea of a romantic date, but he invariably got distracted by petrology and would subject her to fascinating soliloquies, though she hated to admit it, on how the rock from which they were dangling had come to be.
Ethne got herself strapped in and double-checked the belay. ‘What are you plundering anyway?’
‘The usual. Rare earth elements, minerals, cool rocks. Y’know.’ He grinned.
‘Oil is always on the agenda,’ said Will. ‘If I find oil the company will love me forever and have my babies, but it’s unlikely. Most of the hydrocarbons are offshore.’
‘How do they feel about you working outside your brief?’
‘We had to send pictures to calm them down,’ he said. ‘The directors got quite excited once they’d seen them, but the lawyer was something else. It’s the archaeological find of the century, and he wanted us to ignore it. Concentrate on making us money, he said. Even ordered us to cease and desist. Can you believe that?’
‘No curiosity these lawyers,’ she said, and jumped into the abyss.
Ethne rappelled into the cave, carefully feeding the rope through her gloved hands. More floodlights were rigged around the cavern below, and she cautiously lowered herself into their glare. She emerged from the narrow entrance and got her first glimpse of what lay beneath.
In the centre of the cavern was a collection of six standing stones around another that had fallen. They weren’t arranged in the traditional circle, but she couldn’t discern the pattern. Around the stones were more scientists uploading and logging data, huddled over crates packed with high-tech equipment.
All caution gone, Ethne doubled her speed. Her feet touched rock and she unhooked the carabiner. Will landed in a flurry of rope and dust, and smirked at her dumbfounded expression.
‘Try not to get yourself fired this time,’ he said.
She ignored him and wandered towards the stones, transfixed. They were six to seven feet in height and covered in carved symbols. Finally, she understood why she was here.
Ethne had become a linguist so she could track the earliest languages. She wanted to find the roots of civilisation. It was an obsession driven by a dream. From the age of thirteen she had been haunted by hieroglyphs and couldn’t sleep without dreaming of an ankh: a cross with a loop at the top. It was the Egyptian symbol of eternal life, and for a reason she couldn’t fathom, it was following her around. She had even bought herself an ankh pendant and wore it every day in an attempt to break the spell. It hadn’t worked.
Will stood back and watched as she walked around the stones, marvelling at the writing. It didn’t look like any known language.
Each stone had a different rough-hewn shape, reminding Ethne of Callanish in the Outer Hebrides. One side of each stone was sculpted and polished to a flat surface. These smooth faces all pointed inwards and the symbols were carved into the polished surfaces.
In the centre was a different type of stone, conical and smooth, like a narrow inverted egg. It lay at an angle, having slipped from its trench at some point over the years. Ethne crouched beside it and carefully brushed some of the dust from its polished face. It looked like black glass.
‘Obsidian,’ said Will, answering her unasked question. ‘Volcanic glass. Traditionally used for daggers and mirrors, that kind of thing. Rare to find such a large piece and remarkable it’s still intact. See those layers of colour?’
Swirls of red and green reflected in the glow of the floodlights, reminding Ethne of rainbows shimmering in diesel and oil.
‘That tells us it’s fire obsidian,’ he continued. ‘Extremely rare. Nanometric crystals of magnetite give it that beautiful reflective quality. It’s only found in one place on the planet and it’s not local.’
Ethne looked up. ‘Iceland?’
He shook his head. ‘Glass Buttes, Oregon. Three thousand miles away. Kind of unbelievable, if you ask me.’
Ethne stood. ‘What are the others?’
‘The menhirs are red granite,’ he said. ‘Igneous, so volcanic in origin again, but these could be locally sourced. They have high levels of quartz and are rich in iron, which is what gives them this wonderful deep rust colour.’ He ran a gloved hand over the stone. ‘Have you spotted the configuration?’
She shook her head. No doubt it would be obvious as soon as Will pointed it out. He picked up his laptop from a nearby crate and flipped it open. She joined him and watched as images of the stones plotted onto a graph appeared on the screen.
‘It’s a spiral,’ he said. ‘Taking the obsidian as the centre, using a polar graph we can plot the positions of the six menhirs and it gives us the phi ratio.’
‘The Golden Section,’ said Ethne, in recognition.
The Golden Section was found everywhere in nature: the spirals in seashells and galaxies, the dimensions of the human face and body, and in the structure of the most important molecule on the planet: DNA. Phi was fundamental to life, and now here it was in a collection of impossible stone megaliths.
Will was scrutinising the data on his computer, looking up periodically to frown at the obsidian block on the cave floor.
‘I think there’s a stone missing,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to lift the obsidian to be sure. There should be another hole hidden beneath it.’
‘So it’s unfinished?’
‘Looks like it,’ he said. ‘We’ll get some ropes around it and haul it up. But in the meantime, Ethne, can you translate the text?’
She slipped off one glove and ran her hand over the nearest stone. Her fingers slid into the indentations that formed the letters, feeling the serrated edges where ancient chisels had worked the stone. Some of the shapes were familiar now she could see them up close: circles, crosses, wavy lines. It looked like a combination of Neolithic rock art with its spirals and stick men, and a proto-cuneiform similar to early Sumerian. Here and there were shapes that made her heart jump with shock: symbols that could have been lifted straight from an Egyptian tomb.
She stopped at a five-pointed star and gazed at it for an age before pulling back the layers of her sleeve to reveal the tattoo on her left wrist. It was the same symbol, etched into her skin with blood and ink: an Akhu star, the mark of the Shining Ones.
Will cleared his throat. ‘Well?’
‘You’re assuming it is a text,’ she said. ‘We’ve got no context, no cultural markers. It could say anything. Or nothing. Where would I start?’
Will rubbed a hand over his beard. ‘The earliest Greenlandic culture was Neolithic. The Saqqaq. Hunter-gatherers, Palaeo-Eskimo. They came across the Arctic from Siberia around three thousand five hundred BCE, but there’s no evidence they built megalithic structures or had a written language.’
‘Have you dated the stones?’ said Ethne. ‘If we can work out who made them, that might give me something to go on.’
Will looked at his feet. ‘Well…’
‘Spit it out.’
‘You know we can’t date rocks, right?’ he said. ‘You can only tell how old they are from the depth at which they’re found. Stone circles are usually dated using artefacts found on site, like pottery, burials, food remains. There is evidence of a fire in one of the alcoves near the entrance. It would’ve taken them a wee while to get these stones in place and no doubt they stopped for a spot of lunch at some point. Then again, that fire could’ve been set many years before the stones.’
‘Or many years after,’ said Ethne.
‘Precisely,’ agreed Will. ‘There is something else though. OHD. Obsidian hydration dating. Obsidian absorbs water when exposed to air, so in theory, if you can determine the level of hydration, or how much water has been absorbed by the stone, you can determine the date the obsidian was extracted.’
‘Temperature effects the hydration process, and although we know the temperature of this cave, we can’t be sure where the obsidian was sourced. We would have to control for the geochemical signature-’
‘Spare me the hardcore science, Will. How old d’you think these stones are?’
He took a deep breath. There was a mischievous light dancing in his eyes that told her he was enjoying this, drawing her in, making her wait.
‘If we take Glass Buttes as the source of the obsidian,’ he said, ‘although I have no idea how they transported it this far, and if it wasn’t sitting in front of me I’d tell you it was impossible – that gives us a preliminary date which is also confirmed by what we know of the ice floes and climatic changes on Greenland over the last several thousand years.’
He stopped and gave Ethne another drum roll accompanied look. This was the worst foreplay ever. ‘Get to the damn point,’ she said.
‘The carbon dating on the fire also confirms the dates, but as I say, we can’t be sure-’
‘For the love of Thoth,’ said Ethne.
‘Okay,’ he grinned. ‘The OHD and the ice records give us a date of between eleven thousand and nine thousand BCE.’
Ethne suddenly felt light-headed. She reached for the nearest stone and steadied herself against it.
‘Whichever way you look at it,’ continued Will, ‘nobody could’ve got into this cave before or since then. At the end of the Ice Age the climate was going wild, temperatures going up and down, ice melting then refreezing. There was one window of opportunity to get in here, and that was ten thousand BCE. Give or take.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me this on the phone?’
‘It’s better this way,’ he said. ‘I get to watch.’
Ethne leaned heavily against the stone. Her journey backwards through time via the languages of the ancient world had come to a frustrating impasse. Last year she had got a place on the spring dig at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey so she could see the Neolithic temples for herself. The hunter-gatherers who had built them, around ten thousand BCE, didn’t even use pottery, never mind the written word. Instead, the stones were carved with a multitude of ancient creatures: foxes and boars rubbed shoulders with serpents, lions and birds.
After two thousand years of continuous use, the temples had been buried and abandoned. Nobody knew why.
Ethne had wanted to see if she could find a pattern or some clue that would tell her more about the people who had built them and how they related to the earliest civilisations. But her enthusiasm had backfired.
Security had been tight and she wasn’t allowed near the stones during the day. So one night, she had sneaked into the site armed with a torch and a notebook to stand before one of the colossal T-shaped pillars. Its head tilted down as if to gaze into her eyes, and she ran her fingers over the stone, wishing it could speak and share its secrets. She had been caught by a guard and thrown out, escorted to the airport and sent home.
As far as anyone knew, the oldest known languages were Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform, but they were only six thousand years old. There were older Neolithic scripts and even older Palaeolithic symbols, but none had been successfully translated.
All Ethne had were the myths. Every civilisation on every continent had stories about beings called Shining Ones who had shared their wisdom with mankind. They were the gods and angels who had taught the locals how to build megaliths and follow the stars, how to grow crops, and how to write.
Ethne knew there was no such thing as a god or an angel. The Shining Ones were flesh and blood men and women who were ahead of the curve. Every culture had its leaders, and the Shining Ones came from a lost culture that existed during the Ice Age. It was wiped out in the floods when the ice melted, leaving a trail of clues scattered through the megaliths and myths of the ancient world.
If Ethne wanted to find the roots of civilisation, she needed to get into the heads of the Shining Ones, and to do that she needed words. She ran her fingers over the characters etched into the granite. Was this the voice of the lost culture speaking to her across time? The marks were so fresh they could have been made last week. She could be looking at the oldest language ever discovered. A language and a culture hidden for thousands of years under the ice.
Next: Chapter Six
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