The Princess of Thebes was wheeled on a gurney into the laboratory.
Peta Raven observed the porters’ careful progression through the doorway and up to the table. No corpse should be, or ever was, treated negligently in this place but custody of the princess invoked an especial duty-of-care on the team. Estimated to be two thousand years old, her desiccated body offered a different challenge from their normal caseload. This project was as far removed as could be imagined from the more common experience of dealing with recently deceased bodies still oozing fluids and, more often than not, a disquieting aura.
‘And about time,’ said a pale, tired and unsmiling Joel Bloom. ‘We’re going to miss the schedule.’
Joel was the most recent recruit to the unit, but she knew him well enough by now to know that he was upset.
‘Did something come up while I was away?’
He took a moment to respond. Peta went through the possibilities which were many. Accident, murder…
‘A child. Six years old.’
She took his refusal to look at her as a comment on the fact she had taken a week’s holiday in Crete and the way the schedule had fallen meant he had been left alone to deal with what everyone dreaded.
‘I found the prints of a size eleven boot on the chest and head and thirty-four separate bone injuries. That’s what came up.’
‘Not known yet.’
Obviously, the team were all highly trained in the routine work but each of them had chosen a speciality. Anita tended the database. Tom specialized in forensics. Joel was the expert on facial reconstruction for both contemporary and historic cases. Peta ran the show.
Over the years, they had, of necessity, got to know each other almost better than their own families and she knew the separate ways each of them gave vent to the turmoil stirred up by the most shocking cases. It was a close-knit unit in the laboratory and all of them hated dealing with a child. Yet, professionals that they were, they had learnt how to give each other room to deal with it, and deal with it they did.
Joel was still an unknown quantity. Peta would have liked to have touched his arm as gesture of comfort as she might have done with Anita or Tom. Don’t grieve. In this work, we can’t afford to grieve or to express anger.
He turned his head away. ‘Enough.’
The princess had been due in at eight-thirty that morning. Transport had taken longer than anticipated which meant over an hour stolen from the timetable which had been tightly negotiated with the Rowe Museum. Sometimes, an hour made a difference. That had been the case with Mary-Jayne Holden whose body had been found in a lay-by off a main road. Cause of death: blunt-force trauma to the back of the skull, possibly caused by something like a carjack. A last-minute adjustment to the time of her death – an hour in fact – had made it possible for the prosecution to pin down the murderer.
Did the princess have any idea of her journey? The question – unprofessionally whimsical – unexpectedly elbowed its way into Peta’s head. Holiday brain. But not so far-fetched. The culture from which the princess came assumed that the spirit, or the essence of an identity, lived on, and would one day be reunited with the body. Hence the grave goods with which she had been found.
Peta stood foursquare in front of him. ‘There is always something to take away, Joel. Even in someone as ancient as this mummy. There will be something.’
She was rewarded by the faintest relaxation of his tense shoulders. His eyes now rested on her face thoughtfully. Do you understand? he was asking.
Yes, I do.
Once or twice in the early days of his employment, she had felt Joel’s gaze on her as she worked, as if he were X-raying the blood and bone of her thoughts and feelings. If it was a little unnerving, she did not mind, for he needed to understand how she worked. Furthermore, she returned the scrutiny. As the head of the unit, she needed to know every twitch of his professional muscle, every smidgen of his professional thoughts.
Such intimacies. Such secrets.
Peta focussed on the princess. Museums were obliged to say something about their trophies and a degree of cautious conjecture was permissible (the Rowe did not have large resources and relied on volunteers). The indications from her funerary arrangements are that she probably came from a well-to-do family close to the priests in the Karnak temple, ran the curatorial notes leaving in their wake a raft of assumptions. No notes were taken at the time.
In this workplace there were no bargains to be made with conjecture. Precision was possible and demanded. A modern temple dedicated to scepticism and investigation, they deployed all the devices in it they could squeeze from budgets which were being continually stretched – and tried the patience of the university’s financial department.
Peta had drilled her team in the need for mental preparation which was as an important part of the work as routine interrogation of their methods and their conclusions. But permissible too, at the finish of a case, was the moment of elation at discovery – yes, we have it – to leaven the scientific rigour.
The Rowe Museum had initiated this investigation and negotiations had been prolonged and delicate right up to the signing of a letter of agreement.
- Permission to X-ray and photograph only
- Touching to be restricted to a minimum
- Examination to take place over two days
In the early exchanges, the curator, who was new in post and keen but probably overstretched, had become heated. ‘Our Princess,’ as he insisted on referring to her during the meetings and phone calls. ‘Our Princess of Thebes.’ It was nomenclature which wriggled into the imagination, suggesting a rich woman, cossetted in life, cossetted in death to which she went surrounded by lovingly placed Ptolemaic images. In contrast to Joel’s unknown battered child. Unlike many mummies, her grave had not been desecrated by grave robbers and her grave clothes were thought to be intact.
An initial test on the linen wrappings conducted at the museum had already indicated that the mummy was from the Ptolemaic period which spanned from 332BC when Alexander of Macedon conquered Egypt, to 30BC when the last Cleopatra died.
Peta had done some of her own research on holiday, googling relevant pages as she sat beside the pool.
‘The good relationship of the Thebans with the central power in the North ended when the native Egyptian pharaohs were finally replaced by Greeks, led by Alexander the Great. He visited Thebes during the Opet Festival. Despite welcoming his visit, Thebes became a centre for dissent. Towards the end of the third century BC, Hugronapho, who was possibly of Nubian origin, led a revolt against the Ptolemies in Upper Egypt …’
The princess was still wrapped in her original funerary linen cartonnage and, for the journey, she had been sealed up in a plastic case by the Rowe and placed on a board.
Inch by careful inch, Peta and Joel shifted the board with its burden onto the examination table. The royal body was as light as dust and just as vulnerable.
Transporting anything as rare and as old as the princess would always be fraught. An unexpected jolt and a limb could drop away and disintegrate into matter from which no readings could be taken – and no forgiveness from the museum either.
Joel straightened up. His pallor had been replaced by a faint flush from stooping over the wrapped body. ‘Remind me why we’re doing this.’
Peta picked up her tweezers. ‘The Rowe’s new curator wants more information. The museum’s devising an education programme and they aim to provide more information on certain of their artefacts.’ She thought of her two daughters, now adults. ‘Children like mummies and the museum wants certainties. The irony is of course we have less access to this body than normal and certainties might not be possible.’
At the mention of children, Joel’s frowned ‘I’m going in,’ he said.
Peta’s right-hand glove had wrinkled and she pulled it up to the cuff of her scrubs. With you. Bent over the table, she was assaulted by a smell: dank and sedimental. A river odour? After so long, how was that possible? Had the Nile seeped into the funerary barge as the princess was rowed by the slaves from the city over to the necropolis?
She and Joel began their investigations in silence, each procedure complementing the other’s. At every stage they took photographs. After a while, he stopped to drink a glass of water which he gulped down.
‘We have to bear it,’ she said, pretty sure she knew what he was thinking about. ‘Otherwise those who inflict these horrors win.’
The words were loud in the quiet room.
‘Each time, I ask how human beings can do such things to a child,’ he said. ‘Because I don’t understand.’
Peta teased at a layer of linen under the mummy’s chin. ‘It doesn’t matter if we understand or not. Only that we find the evidence.’ The linen peeled away, revealing a blackened jawbone. ‘Can you pin this piece down, please?’
His eyes were bright with feeling but he did as he was asked.
Meticulous and cautious, they unfolded the linen cartonnage and exposed the head. ‘Jeez,’ said Peta, looking down on a head of closely cropped reddish-brown curly hair. ‘There’s a lot of it.’
‘Possibly the result of burial preparation,’ said Joel. As might be expected, the mummified tissue of the lips had retracted and the mouth gaped. ‘Teeth and evidence of the tongue,’ he said.
She turned to dictate into the machine. ‘Full head of hair. Teeth present.’
Measure and log dimensions.
‘She looks cared for.’
Unlike a murdered child… Small and battered and requiring justice.
She hastened to fill the silence. ‘Maybe, we’ll find an amulet in the wrappings. Or a scarab.’
‘A bracelet. A ring?’
Those would be nice, and the Museum would appreciate being given back something concrete to fill their glass cases. On their part, Peta’s team would settle for less tangible benefits such as additional evidence of mummification techniques to add to their database. Or, signs of a disease which they could match and cross match.
‘Adult size,’ said Joel, after a moment. He looked up at a Peta and a bleak smile flickered.
‘Adult, approximately five foot six.’
The notes were more detailed. Like many Egyptian artefacts, the mummy had been plundered by a rich Victorian industrialist on his travels in the east and bought home to his brick pile in the Midlands which he had built to accommodate the unhealthy stack of foreign plunder. By the 1950s, his family had dwindled to one debt-ridden bachelor. The brick pile had been sold to be a care home for the elderly and the artefacts dispersed.
Joel examined the teeth. ‘Dental wear on the incisive or occlusal surfaces of anterior and the visible posterior teeth.’
This fitted a pattern. Egyptians were enthusiastic eaters of bread which contained a lot of gritty contaminants. Their teeth tended to be heavily worn as a result.
By now, Joel had to be well used to the demands of the various agencies with whom they worked. Police. Institutions. Research organizations. Without fail, all demanded hard data and conclusions fast. Even so, he raised an eyebrow. ‘Two days after two thousand years is going at it,’ he murmured. ‘Do I detect an imbalance?’
Together they moved around the table photographing the mummy from every angle.
‘Adult sized,’ Joel recorded.
‘Full head of hair.’ Peta repeated for the record. ‘Curly. Reddish brown.’ She circled around the head. ‘Cut in the Greek style.’
‘Unusual for a woman,’ said Joel. ‘Perhaps she died of fever or illness and her hair had been cropped.’
Because it was a small team it was important that they trusted each other. As a rule they had done and did. Occasionally, Peta wondered if their closeness posed a danger. Colluding too intimately in another’s ongoing forensic narrative could result in mistakes, and she had established a rule that each of them scrutinized the other’s cases in order that they remained sufficiently detached to be able to question assumptions and conclusions.
‘Tongue almost entirely present,’ said Joel.
For some reason, Peta touched her own lips with the back of her wrist. Since she was still wearing gloves, the taste was rubberized and de-humanized. Investigating the princess would be a slightly tricky exercise and she wanted it to work out in order to keep the financial department on side.
The photography was done. Peta reached for the masks and handed one over to Joel. Looping hers over her ears, she pulled it into position. Then she set the X-ray to the standard setting for fully tissued individuals as opposed to a skeleton. ‘Good to go?’
They began with the head.
She gave a tiny intake of breath. What she was about to do was not to be done lightly. The machine was adjusted to a precise angle, the switch was activated and a portal into the skull was opened. Both were at liberty to peer into a human kingdom once inhabited by emotion, by will power, neural pathways and an army of unconscious responses. Who? Why?
‘No brain,’ said Joel. His voice was slightly muffled.
In traditional mummification, the brain was removed by inserting an iron hook into the nostril and moving it around to scoop out the grey matter.
The machine continued its passage down the body.
The chest. Joel held up a hand. ‘That’s curious. The liver and intestines are still present.’ Even as late as the Ptolemaic period, removal of most organs was the norm.
Maybe not so much care had been lavished on the princess after all?
‘Stop,’ said Joel. ‘Look at all the breaks in the ribs.’ He began the count which took them to seventeen. ‘No smoothing or rounding of the breaks so peri-mortem. Most of the breaks are close to the vertebral end of the ribs.’
Peta frowned. ‘Would you say the chest had been crushed?’
There was a silence. The co-incidence of the child and the princess both having crushed chests was a sharp one. ‘Yes,’ he said, at last. ‘I would say that is so.’
‘Definitely peri-mortem, not post-mortem?’
His figure was hunched defensively over the princess. ‘It’s possible that grave looters did the damage.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘We’re not thinking. The cartonnage is still intact.’
‘Duh. Of course.’
They spent a careful hour documenting the breakages. Size? Site of? The X-ray machine was moved on.
‘Uh oh.’ Peta hissed. She raised her head and encountered Joel’s eyes over his mask.
‘Yup.’ There was an amused glint in response. ‘The Rowe will have to get rewriting.’
‘They sure will.’
The machine had exposed a male pelvis. Peta ticked off the points. ‘Small pelvic inlet, a narrow sciatic note, acute subpubic angle.’
‘No girl he.’
‘Well, I never.’ She was enjoying the surprise.
‘And…’ He pointed to the shadow arms, the left of which had a slash mark on the humerus. ‘Sword wound?’
As was typical for males, except in cases of royalty, the hands were placed together over the pubic region.
‘No prince either.’
A boy? A man? The sacrum was only partially fused to the coccyx which indicated he must have been under thirty. Plus, there was no appreciable osteoarthritis in the body which would suggest a greater age.
‘I would put him at around twenty-six,’ said Joel.
‘Cause of death,’ Peta dictated. ‘Eighty percent probability a crushing blow to the chest region. Incomplete mummification process. Of possible high status but, all indications suggest, he was not royalty.’
Abruptly, Joel turned away. ‘Crushing blow to chest.’ His voice broke.
‘He could have been a warrior and died fighting. Or, he had an accident riding a chariot. He could have been …’ she ran through possibilities… ‘away from home and his body had to be taken back and, by the time he got there, decay had set in. So everything had to be done in a rush.’ She checked over the notes. ‘It’s a good story to consider, Joel. Different.’
‘I’m all right,’ he said. ‘Really.’
She analysed the hunch of his shoulders. Anger for the child? Probably. But also a private grief?
‘Listen to me, Joel. Because of us…and in this case you…there’s more than a chance that the murdered child will have justice. In some form. In the records. In court. In our memories. In the deepening of the logic and deductive skills that you used to work out what happened. These you will go on to use for the next case. And the next. Each time gaining more. More skill.’
‘I understand that. But I also see that child doesn’t have its life.’
‘We have no jurisdiction over that. Only over the death.’
He turned back to Peta and she read his rage and distress at a child’s terrible fate. ‘I know. I have to accept that’s what I trained for.’
She reached over to touch his shoulder with her gloved hand. He flinched and her hand dropped back to her side.
‘Sorry,’ he said, visibly gathering his forces. ‘It’s hard to accept how helpless I am.’
Peta turned off the machine. ‘Accepting one’s limitations is part of the job. But only part.’ She glanced down at the mummy. ‘Today, we have sorted something out.’
There was a silence. Eventually, he gave a sigh and gestured with gloved hands. ‘You’re right. He was a warrior who probably died in battle.’
‘But she has to be a she,’ said the excitable curator when Peta phoned and broke the news. ‘It can’t be a he.’
‘He can and he is.’
She could hear the clatter of discarded assumptions dropping like pebbles onto stone. ‘We will have to rewrite everything.’
He signed off the call without a thank you.
Later, she and Joel drank coffee in the canteen at a table littered with polystyrene cups.
‘Are you feeling better?’ she asked.
He stirred his coffee. ‘I’m sorry you felt a lesson was in order.’
‘It’s not just you,’ she said. ‘I have to relearn it, over and over.’
To her surprise, he stretched out his arm across the table and turned it over, exposing the soft side of his wrist and its pulse point. ‘What remains is life,’ he said. ‘Even in the midst of death.’
Elizabeth Buchan’s previous novels include the prizewinning Consider the Lily, and the New York Times bestseller Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. Her most recent book, Two Women in Rome, set in 1970s Italy, is out now.
Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.