By Doug Powell
A list of hiding places on a strip of papyrus found inside a mummy mask thrusts Graham Eliot, Ancient Near East scholar, into a hunt for the treasures of the second temple. The list has already cost the life of a colleague, and now he is being pursued as he races to recover what has been lost for almost 2,000 years.
As he literally digs into Jerusalem, he is haunted by the recent deaths of his wife and daughter, which have left him doubting the existence of God. His spiritual and archaeological struggles become more entwined as his life is repeatedly threatened the longer the work continues. When he reaches the final site—the cisterns below the Temple Mount, a network of caves and tunnel no one has entered in 150 years and that no one has ever explored—Graham discovers far greater treasure than he ever imagined.
The old Graham Eliot would have allowed a smile at the irony on display in the conference room of the Dallas convention center: the Ancient Near East Society meeting in the modern Wild West. It wasn’t that the incongruity was lost on him, just that it didn’t amuse him like it would have in years past. He couldn’t remember the last time he had authentically smiled at anything. Every attempt had been smothered by guilt or grief before it could take shape.
He had hoped being surrounded by other scholars—many of them friends and colleagues—would feel safe and bring some measure of comfort. Beginning in grad school, the meeting had been a pilgrimage he looked forward to throughout the year. Although it was held in a different place each time, the three-day-long data-dump of papers and reports on the latest research contributing to the understanding of biblical history was far more interesting to him than exploring whatever the host city was. Not that he had time to spare; his own presentations had made him a popular and respected speaker, and the balance of his time was devoted to networking.
But the familiar rhythm of the convention—an annual pulse—had been broken, and he was making his first appearance after a two-year absence. However, the continuity with the world he had once known and wanted to take refuge in now felt like a facsimile, as if he had entered an imperfect replica of his own life, similar enough to navigate, and yet not quite right. In truth, he knew that he was the stranger, not his environment.
It took all his effort to make a show of interest in research meant to verify the existence of the God he no longer believed in. He felt like a ghost in reverse, physically present but spiritually empty, haunting the sessions, merely existing. It didn’t help that friendly looks of recognition quickly transformed into concern. More than once, he had seen the unasked question in the eyes of friends, wondering if he was wasting away from some disease. The toll of the last two years had left him a remnant of his former self. Stress had carved away forty pounds—almost one for each year of life—sharpening the features of his face almost unrecognizably, like a damaged object revealed in one of his digs.
That was another irony he acknowledged without a smile: He looked like he wore a gaunt mask of himself while he actually wore a mask of faith. And, of course, there was the physical mask, the one on the stage in front of him. It was the reason he was here.
Dr. Andrew Singer had just begun his presentation, a plenary session that had packed the room.
“If I asked you which of these masks was more valuable, which one would you choose?” An image of a gold mummy mask appeared on a large screen behind him, while at the same time he reached below the podium and held up a mask that looked like ornately painted cardboard. “Sure, the gold one is worth a lot of money. And, of course, it is an important historical artifact. But it holds no secrets. You can hear everything it has to say almost immediately.”
Singer lifted the other mummy mask high again and looked at it with appreciation. “But this one holds many secrets. Why? Because of what it is made of: papyri. As many of you already know, the funerary attendants who made these masks used papyri coated in glue in order to make an ancient form of papier-mâché called cartonnage. But stop and think for a minute. Papyri was common, but not so common that new sheets were used for masks. The attendants used only what had been discarded. And what was that? Books, letters, business documents, inventories. It occurred to me that there was a chance that if I could find a mummy mask from the right time period and from the right place, some of the papyri used to make it might be discarded copies of writings of the Church Fathers, or even the books and letters that make up the New Testament.
“Over the past couple of years, I have been experimenting with different ways of deconstructing cartonnage to recover the individual scraps of papyri that made up its structure. Unfortunately, I destroyed several pieces in the process, as well as a couple of my wife’s favorite saucepans.” As Singer paused for laughs, Graham’s left thumb folded into his palm to rub the wedding ring still on his finger. “But now I’ve found a way to remove the majority of the structure while preserving the mask at the same time. And I’ll demonstrate that for you now.”
Graham watched Singer spring from the podium with the same energy they’d had when they were at graduate school together twenty-five years earlier. Singer’s prematurely white hair looked like it sat atop the wrong man, borrowed from his future self. It had been Singer who finally convinced Graham to attend the conference, promising his demonstration would be seen as a significant advance in the field. He even floated the idea of their working together on the projects that might result from it. Seeing his old friend usually evoked memories of Olivia, given that Singer had introduced them and had been a groomsman at their wedding. But Graham was so intrigued by the presentation that for the first time in a year his mind was completely focused on something other than his wife or daughter.
As Singer disappeared behind the stage, the image on the screen cut to a stainless-steel industrial sink shot from a camera mounted directly above it. The electronic tick of a microphone turning on came from the speakers mounted in the room’s ceiling, followed by several taps on the microphone, and then Singer’s voice.
“We’ve set up a camera over the sink in the pantry so you can see the work in real time. I’ve developed a solution that I will immerse the mask in, which will dissolve the adhesive that holds the mask together.” The white top of Singer’s head saddled with a headset microphone appeared as he reached across the sink to turn on the water. He then emptied an unidentified liquid from a glass jar. “Also, I have applied a fixative to the front of the mask that will protect it from the solution. If all goes well, the mask will hold its shape even though I’m removing most of its structure from the back.”
Bubbles began to form as the water rose in the sink, as if Singer were about to wash dishes.
“Before I get started, I’d like to remind everyone that no photography is allowed. Please put all phones away.”
The mummy mask appeared faceup in Singer’s hands. He held it in place for a moment, creating a dramatic pause as the audience took a final look.
“This mask was found in northeastern Egypt, and is probably from the late first or early second century AD. And now, let’s see what secrets it literally took to the grave.”
Singer lowered the mask slowly into the sink. He kept it submerged as his hands gently massaged the backside of the mask, working the surface pieces loose. The audience stared at the veil of bubbles obscuring the work for nearly a minute in growing anticipation before Singer extracted his hand. He held a tiny fragment about the size of a fingernail under the camera as he gave it a cursory look.
“It’s so small, it’s hard to tell, but it looks like Greek letters…possibly Coptic.”
He placed it in an aluminum specimen tray lined with a paper towel to let it dry, then continued working the mask. Within a minute he had pulled out several more pieces, some so black that no letters could be seen on them.
“Ah, here’s an interesting one.” Singer lifted up one of the largest fragments, about three inches wide and four inches tall. “Greek characters, another Coptic writing. Appears to be a letter of some kind, maybe an official report. Not sure what century just by glancing.”
He set it aside and picked through the other two with characters on them.
“Yes, we might find something really interesting here once we get a chance to dig into these. After they dry, I’ll run these black pieces under ultraviolet light to see if anything can be recovered.”
His hands disappeared again into the sink.
“Oh, my goodness. Feels like the back is melting away. Several pieces have come off.”
He lifted the mask out of the water, revealing that the face had stayed intact.
“Excellent. Looks like the fixative on the front surface is working. I’m going to set this to the side, so it doesn’t completely disintegrate. A number of pieces are loose in the sink.”
Again his hands slipped into the bubbles, but this time they emerged holding a long strip of papyrus supported by both hands.
“This is amazing! I’ve never found a piece this large before. Looks like it’s about eight inches tall by four inches wide. Greek characters. I can make out some words…”
Singer’s voice drifted off as he became distracted by the content, lost in thought as he studied it.
“Can’t be right,” he mumbled to himself. “I don’t believe it.”
Carefully, he flipped the fragment over, revealing more writing on the other side. He leaned over the find, apparently forgetting about the camera, inadvertently eclipsing most of the view. A low murmur broke the silence as the scholars stared at the back of Singer’s head, wondering what he was seeing.
The screen suddenly went black, leaving only the audio feed.
“I apologize.” Singer’s voice was suddenly urgent, running words together. “We’ll have to continue this at another session. I’ll report my findings then.”
The sound of the headset being wrested loose scratched from the speakers along with Singer’s final words, punctuated with a pop as the PA system cut off.
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A gap of silence eroded into a murmur of confusion and speculation. Graham continued to stare at the screen, wondering if Singer had made a mistake during the presentation and cut the audio/video feed to avoid embarrassment.
“Looks like the mummy’s curse is alive and well, eh?”
Graham turned toward the familiar English accent and found Nigel Horne sitting behind him. Although they had never worked together, he and Horne had become friendly through various conferences. Horne always asked about Graham’s latest research with an intensity that would have been off-putting except for the genuine enthusiasm he had for the work. Singer had shared the same observation and added that the most interesting thing about Horne’s work was that it wasn’t interesting at all. It was workman-like scholarship, but derivative, corroborating the research of others without furthering the field in any substantial way.
“Nigel. Good to see you.” Graham twisted around to shake Horne’s hand, surprised by how much he meant the words.
Horne’s round face was stamped with a permanent smile. Graham thought it looked vaguely frog-like, an effect enhanced by his moist eyes and stocky build as he hunched forward.
“I confess I wasn’t quite sure if it was you or not.” Horne seemed to catch himself, realizing how insensitive he might sound, and glanced away awkwardly before stammering an attempt to rescue himself. “I—mmm—must say, you’ve started to favor Peter O’Toole somewhat. Anyway—quite something, don’t you think?” Horne said, changing the subject abruptly, motioning toward the blank screen. “I hear Singer may have found a fragment inside one of these masks from one of the Gospels that he dated to the first century.”
“I heard the same thing,” Graham said, cautiously lowering the emotional armor that went on alert reflexively after Horne’s tactless small talk. He threw himself into the topic, distancing the awkward moment with words. “That would be an amazing discovery. But I worry about what it will do to the market. Some of these collectors ask outrageous prices once they realize what they have. And if they get what they ask for, then it makes every new find that much more expensive. If we’re not careful with how we acquire new finds, we may not have enough resources to get these pieces into the hands of people who can properly conserve them.”
Horne turned his palms up in a futile gesture. “Yes, it’s not like the old days when Egypt and Palestine were practically giving this stuff away and happy to see it go.” He paused as he put a palm across his heart, looking compassionate. “I am truly sorry to hear about your wife and daughter. Olivia was a lovely woman, so kind when I met her. I’m sure your Alyson was the same.”
Graham’s defenses had gone back up before Horne even said the words, but the sound of the names still stung, almost angering him. How dare you be so casual with what was so precious. He struggled to restrain himself, an effort Horne apparently interpreted as Graham still coming to terms with tragedy.
“We don’t know why these things happen,” Horne said, shaking his head. “But God is good, and he is sovereign. And you are a man of faith. Without that, there would be no way to make sense of it. Of anything, really.”
Suppressed rage strained Graham’s self-control to its limit, making him appear more calm. Even your words of comfort have no originality. I don’t need platitudes, and I definitely don’t need you to—
“Remember the words of Paul,” Horne said with a nod. “‘All things work together for good for those who love God.’”
Graham tried to disguise his wince with a quick nod and a sad smile before staring blindly at the floor, making them both uncomfortable. The last thing he could find comfort in was quick-fix Bible quotes from people who had no clue how he felt. The apostle Paul never lost a wife and daughter.
Horne patted Graham’s shoulder. “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you, my friend. Any way I can help.”
The sincerity in Horne’s eyes instantly convicted Graham, muting his bitterness. “Thank you, Nigel. I appreciate that. I really do.” He turned and glanced at the empty screen. “I’m going to go see what happened with Andrew. Talk to you later.”
Graham tried to shed the conversation—the exact thing he had been hoping to avoid—as he picked through the crowd that remained. He walked around the side of the partition holding the screen and spotted the president of the Ancient Near East Society emerge from a service door, his face a mixture of confusion and concern. The man recognized Graham and motioned back to the room he had just exited.
“Gone?” Graham brushed past without waiting for a response.
The door opened into a pantry used to hold meals for guests when the conference room hosted a banquet. A video camera was suspended above an industrial-sized stainless-steel sink, and a microphone headset lay on a countertop dotted with several small pools of water. He walked to the spot where Singer had stood a few minutes before and saw bubbles still floating on the surface of the solution in the sink. But Singer was gone, along with the mask and fragments.
An open door yawned from the wall on the far side of the pantry, leading to the network of corridors that made up the service area of the conference center. Graham stepped across the threshold to the corridor on the other side and looked both directions down the generic service hall but saw no evidence of Singer.
“I did the same thing,” the president said as Graham came back into the pantry. “He’s vanished.”
“I’m sure there’s a good explanation. Family emergency or something.” Graham hoped his words were more convincing than they sounded to himself. “I’ll see if I can get ahold of him.”
Graham was still staring at the scene in the pantry, unaware the president had left until he heard his voice come over the PA system announcing that the demonstration was postponed. A renewed buzz of speculation rose in the main room, then slowly diffused into the halls as the scholars spread into the hotel.
He pulled out his phone and dialed Singer, but was sent straight to voicemail, which then announced that the mailbox was full. He quickly composed a text, trying not to sound worried. “Hey, Houdini, nice lecture. Need to work on your ending, though. Send a message from the other side.” He confirmed the text had been delivered, then drifted to his room, exhausted from the effort of being social when he felt like a stranger to the world and to himself.
The dregs of the conversation with Horne nagged him at first, and he turned his phone off to isolate himself. What little energy he had left was spent wondering what happened to Singer. Hours earlier, he would have welcomed the blackness that enveloped the room. Now he lay on his back staring into it, wondering what he wasn’t seeing.
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