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Dr. Lodz met them at his office early the next morning and looked over the report for several minutes in silence. He was dressed in field khakis, and nodded in approval after he read the results of the radiocarbon testing.
“What we have is a discovery with the potential for extreme historical significance – or the potential to be a complete dead end,” he finally said. “A sealed chamber with the passage blocked by a basalt box which may be an ossuary; at least one echo seeming to indicate a pottery vessel inside the chamber, and an inscription that seems to indicate a link with the earliest years of Christianity. As I see it, there are two possible courses of action: one would be to send to Jerusalem for the larger ground penetrating radar unit, and then do a comprehensive survey of the chamber without opening it. The other would be to simply remove the ossuary and open up the passage into the chamber. I have thought it out and discussed it with the Antiquities Authority’s board of directors. What we have decided to do is go ahead and remove the basalt box from the passageway, then install a plastic shield over the entrance and mechanically ventilate the chamber. I don’t need to remind you of the nasty spores and fungi associated with ancient burials. We will analyze the ossuary, if that is what it is, as well as its contents. Then we will send a remote camera into the chamber and see what it holds. At that point, Father MacDonald, we will decide whether or not to act on your recommendation to fly in the members of the Capri Team.”
MacDonald thought a moment, and nodded. “That sounds like a most logical, practical course of action. We have already removed most of the clay plug from the passageway – judging by the shots we got from the RD1000, there are only a few inches of clay left to remove from around and above the box. How will we get it out of the passageway?” he asked.
“First we will punch through the clay directly above the box – there appears to be about eighteen centimeters of clearance between the lid and the roof of the passage,” he said. “Then we will use a vacuum pump to begin ventilating the chamber – no sense breathing in a lungful of dangerous spores while chiseling away the last of the clay! After giving the vacuum some time to work, we can go back into the tunnel and remove the remainder of the clay from around the ossuary, then we’ll slide a rigid plastic sheet under it, levering it just a few centimeters off the ground. Once that is in place, we can slide a pair of metal rods underneath the sheet and slide the basalt box out without damaging it. As soon as we get it out of the passageway, we will cover the entrance back up and begin the full mechanical ventilation of the chamber. If there are any papyrus documents or other perishables inside, it is very important to keep moisture away from them – not that the Negev abounds in humidity!” The Israeli professor had obviously thought their course of action through very carefully, and Duncan could not find any flaws in his approach.
“Well, when do we begin?” he finally asked.
“I have all the necessary equipment loaded into my jeep,” the Regional Director replied. “I’ve commandeered a grad student to assist with the physical labor, and we’re ready to follow you to the site. So now is as good a time as any!”
The two archeologists looked at one another, grinned, and nodded vigorously.
An hour later they had arrived at the site, and unloaded most of their equipment. MacDonald was equipped with a very small tap hammer and several long, screwdriver-like chisels. The grad student, a gangly youth named Lev Jacobsen, was hauling a vacuum pump with a long, narrow plastic hose attached. There was a sizable battery pack attached to it as well as a power cord. Simeon pulled a small, rolling trailer topped by a large platform padded with blankets and covered with a layer of plastic sheeting. Its tires were large and soft, and each one had independent suspension, so that it pulled across the rocky ground outside the cave with an incredibly smooth motion. It had a hitch up front that could attach it to the four-wheeled ATV they had borrowed from the youth camp.
Once they arrived, MacDonald carefully removed the plastic sheeting with which they had covered the entrance to the passageway, and the three scientists shone their lights on the black basalt box looming like a fossil out of its clay matrix. The odd anchor insignia scratched into the end of the box was outlined in shadows, adding to the aura of mystery about the object.
“Dr. MacDonald, would you like to do the honors?” Lodz asked.
“By all means, let the priest be the one to go to his knees!” the Scot said with a good-natured twinkle in his eye. They mounted a powerful Halogen lamp on a metal tripod shining directly into the passage, plugged into a series of long extension cords stretching to a gas powered generator running outside, about fifty feet from the cave entrance. With the strong light behind him, Duncan took his tap hammer and one of the slender probes in hand, and tucked a small measuring tape in his pocket.
The basalt box came within seventeen centimeters of the roof of the passage, which was slightly arched. It cleared the sides of the passage by a lesser distance on each side. MacDonald placed his probe, which was about the size of a long-barreled screwdriver, just below the roof of the passageway and held it parallel with the ground. He figured the clay plug would be thinnest at the very top. Drawing a deep breath and uttering a silent prayer, he struck the handle of the probe gently with the tap hammer.
The probe punched through the clay effortlessly – the plug had dried out since they uncovered the box, and it was only a few centimeters thick next to the top of the passage, as MacDonald had expected. He backed out quickly, not wanting to get a lungful of the air from the long-sealed chamber. Once he was in the main cave, he took a deep breath and asked for the hose.
Holding his breath again, he ran the hose from the vacuum through the hole he’d punched in the clay till it was more than a foot inside the blocked passage, and then signaled Lodz to turn it on. The whirring of the motor filled the air as the atmosphere of the long-sealed chamber was sucked out into the hot Negev wind and dispersed across the ridge.
They waited for about forty-five minutes as the worst of the stagnant air from the ancient chamber was cycled out, then they re-entered the cave and removed the hose from the small opening MacDonald had created. He and bin Yosef took turns crawling into the passage and removing the last of the clay. Now that the plug had been broken through, all they had to do was enlarge MacDonald’s original opening until there was no clay between the roof of the chamber and the lid of the box. Then they could reach in and pull the remaining clay on either side of the box out in large chunks, which were bagged up and kept intact for later study. It took about an hour to remove the all the clay from around the box. They shone the halogen lamp down the narrow opening created on either side of the box, but all it revealed was a small section of the sealed chamber’s back wall, which appeared to be raw, unmodified stone. The opening they had created by removing the clay was simply too narrow to allow them to get much of a view of what lay beyond.
They carried out all the remaining chunks of clay, packed them into sterile plastic boxes, and then returned to the cave so that they could finally move the basalt box from its resting place. Once more MacDonald, as the discoverer of the hidden passageway, was allowed to take the lead. The thin, rigid sheet he carried was made of an opaque, highly rigid plexiglass, and the leading edge had been filed down to bladelike thinness. He carefully inserted that edge underneath the bottom edge of the ancient box, not unlike sliding the bottom edge of a furniture dolly underneath a heavy appliance. It took a bit of pushing and wiggling to finally lever the box up enough for the sheet to begin sliding under it, but once it started, MacDonald was able to steadily work it back. He coughed through his dust mask as the air filled with fine particles disturbed by the box’s movement from the floor of the passage. After ten minutes, he had the sheet shoved back more than three quarters of the way underneath the box. That would do, he thought, and then he backed out to catch his breath.
The two Israeli scholars looked at his work and nodded.
“Well done, Duncan!” Lodz exclaimed. “Now it will be a simple enough matter to insert those bars underneath the plastic and begin pulling the box out. Maybe then we can take a quick look into that chamber before we seal it off and begin properly ventilating it!”
Working together as much as the tight space would permit, they used two long, slender steel bars to lever the near end of the box off the floor of the passageway, then Duncan held the heavy basalt off the ground as they slowly slid the rods underneath the stone box until they neared the end of the plastic sheet. By now the entire box was off the ground, resting flat on the plastic with the two rods supporting it from beneath. The two Israelis began slowly pulling on their end of the rods, gradually dragging the box towards the light, with MacDonald crawling backwards and keeping a hand on top of the basalt artifact to steady it. In moments the end of the box was protruding slightly from the passage where it had rested for so long.
Now came the most delicate part of the whole operation: they had to transfer the box onto the cradle prepared for it on the trailer. They called Jacobsen in to help with the transfer, and then MacDonald and bin Yosef got their hands underneath the plastic sheet supporting the box. Once they had a solid grip, they slid the plastic and the box forward about a foot, allowing Lodz and the grad student to get their hands underneath the back side of the box.
“On three, now, lads, let’s lift her out of there!” Duncan said. “One, two, three!”
The box was heavy, but not burdensome, and it swung clear of the passage with ease and was gently transferred to the wagon, where the plastic sheet was slid out from under it and it settled gently into the padded cradle prepared for it. Once it was in place, all of them gave a sigh of relief.
Bin Yosef grabbed the halogen lamp. “Let’s take a very quick peek back into that chamber before we begin ventilating it!” he said. He and MacDonald pulled their dust masks back into place and crawled through the ancient passageway until their heads were just past where the far end of the basalt box had rested, and only a foot or two from where the passage widened into the chamber. It was a very tight fit for both of them, but once they were as close as they dared get, Bin Yosef shone the lamp into the chamber.
The floor of the chamber was perhaps two feet below the level of the passage, and the near side of it was still shrouded in shadow. Resting against the far wall was a single pottery jar, fairly tall, with its lid still sealed in place. On the floor next to it were the partially articulated remains of a human skeleton, its eye sockets facing straight towards them. One arm was flung out towards the jar, the bones of the hand actually touching its base. The two men looked quickly at each other and backed out.
“We have a burial!” said MacDonald.
“And a sealed clay jar!” bin Yosef said.
Lodz grinned. “Fascinating! I believe there is an inscription on the side of this box as well, although we’ll have to remove some of the clay residue before we can read it,” he said.
MacDonald cleared his throat. “Sir, I recognize that style of jar,” he said.
Bin Yosef’s eyes widened. “So do I! My God, I didn’t realize it until you said it!” he exclaimed.
Lodz looked at them both. “Well, are you going to enlighten me?” he finally said.
“It’s the same kind of jar that was used at Qumran for storing scrolls!” said bin Yosef.
“And it is still sealed!” MacDonald added.
The Antiquities Authority Director let out a long, low sigh. “Excellent!” he said. “We have indeed made a discovery of some significance here. Help me set up the vacuum pump and then seal off the mouth of the chamber. We need to recycle that stale air, but we don’t want to get any modern pollens or contaminants in there.”
They covered the chamber’s entrance with heavy plastic sheeting that was secured to the wall of the cave with adhesive hooks, and then ran two hoses through separate openings. One would suck the old, stale air out of the chamber, while the other would blow in fresh, filtered air from the outside. It was largely a precaution, but over the years, several archeologists had sickened or died from fungal infections contracted in long-sealed tombs and caves, so the Israelis had learned to be careful.
After they finished getting the vacuum pump set up and going, they rolled the trailer out of the cave and hooked it up to a small four wheeler, then slowly drove it across the site to their mobile lab. MacDonald walked alongside, steadying the basalt box with one hand. He needn’t have troubled – the trailer’s unique suspension and the ATV’s low speed rolled it along with hardly a jostle – but one could never be too careful. Once they reached the trailer, the box was lifted again, this time onto a proper lab table, and the plastic and foam they had swaddled it in were removed. MacDonald could see the writing on one side, still partially caked with a thin layer of clay.
“First order of business is to remove that dirt and see what it says beneath,” Lodz said.
MacDonald chose a pair of brushes, one with fairly stiff bristles and the other more soft, and then began carefully brushing and whisking at the side of the black stone box. The clay let go, stubbornly at first and then more quickly, until the letters became clearly visible. The inscription was in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament.
מתיו לוי הסופר אהוב של אדונו
“Mother of God!” MacDonald crossed himself, unable to contain his emotions.
The two Israelis looked at each other in disbelief. The only sound in the lab was the steady whir of the air conditioner. Lodz finally broke the silence.
“Duncan, are you reading that the same way I am?” he asked.
“I think so, sir,” said the priest. “It says ‘Matthew Levi, Beloved Scribe of His Lord.’”
The Regional Director of the Antiquities Authority swallowed hard.
“I think,” he said, “that you might ought to call the Capri Team and invite them to Israel.”