Monday, May 9, 2011

wherein I find a Lost Tomb

It did not help that I was already irritated with our guide.  I do not know where my companion had found him, or what his supposed qualifications, but I had done my homework on the area and he apparently had not, as one marvelous implausibility was piled upon another in his running account of the place.  Compounding these implausibilities was his excitement when we stumbled upon the Lost Tomb.
    The place is littered with tombs.  An old archæologist had told me that the area had been surveyed out only for five kilometers from the temple complex, but the area of tombs surely extended another ten.  He had in fact cautioned me to watch my step when I was out in the bush, that I not fall into one.
    The tomb looked exactly as the photos I had seen in my books: a squarish hole in the ground and at the bottom a low stone lintel over the entrance to a side passage leading to a chamber.  These were not royal tombs, but modest crypts where a moderately prosperous family would inter their kin.  They were almost invariably looted long ago, first for their few pieces of gold and later for pots and curios to sell to tourists.  The dead are not much good at holding on to their property when surrounded by poor neighbors who are yet alive.  When I shown my flashlight into the darkness I was not surprised by the absence of treasure.
    The sides of the hole that we had descended into had partially collapsed and a dirt and gravel scree blocked the bottom of the tomb entrance and spread across the floor of the empty chamber, itself much weathered and plainly long exposed to the elements.  It was the sort of scene that would encourage a tomb-raider to consider accounting or commercial real estate.
    Our guide was of course beside himself at the wonder his poor efforts had enabled us to discover.  It seemed ungracious to remark on the absence of any actual treasure.  Or actually anything at all: save for the dirt and gravel littering the floor, the chamber was completely bare.
    But, irritated as I might have been, I realized he was just working for his tip, and anyway there might be some broken fragment of something under the debris, so I poked the gravel with my stick and discovered only more gravel.  Our guide, however, was luckier, and with an amazing economy of effort he discovered in some recently deposited debris a small statuette.  As this was our expedition he of course insisted that it was rightfully ours.  (That all such finds were legally the property of the State never seemed to enter his mind, or perhaps he assumed that as rich foreigners we would take care of the necessary bribes.)
    The piece was a small figure with an elaborate headdress.  They are fairly common and had been mass produced, both in antiquity and today, and can be bought cheaply.  They were produced from molds even in ancient times, and it is very hard to tell an old one from one made yesterday for the tourist trade.  Being tomb offerings, they would need show no tell-tale wear or weathering.
    The discovery was, I had no doubt, a piece of theater.
    I suspected that he had the piece  --  whether authentic or not  --  in his pocket and pretended to find it in the deserted tomb to give us an exciting experience and insure that we would tip him handsomely for our adventure.  For one thing, after having found that one piece he didn't bother to look for any more.  Not only had I come to doubt his expertise in our short time together, but it didn’t help that I had heard of the trick, which apparently even children will play on tourists if given a chance.
    When we later got home I did tip him well, though perhaps not as much as might have been expected from someone who had just found a treasure in a lost tomb.
    The curious part of it to me was that my companion, who lived there and knew the locals and their ways, was quite enthralled by our “discovery”.  I insisted that she keep it.

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