The dream was always the same.
Although she maintained her innocence throughout the trial, Shanique was convicted of sacrilegious impurity and sentenced to death. The Pontifex Maximus led a procession to the temple, followed by the flamines, the Vestals, and then Shanique herself.
Centuries earlier a room in the House of the Vestals had been set aside specifically for punishment, with a heavy curtain covering the doorway. Two slaves led her there, removed her clothing, shoes and the vestal head coverings, and bound her in readiness for the flogging before leaving the room. The scourging could only be performed by the pontifex himself, and in this case, as in most, the pontifex maximus was also the emperor of Rome.
Shanique often wondered how those emperors ─ so many of them famous for debauchery and sexual perversion ─ could be in any way devout religious leaders, especially when the punishment for a Vestal ─ most of them in their teens or twenties ─ was a lashing when naked. Many emperors likely abused their position for sexual gratification.
How many of those girls were then falsely accused of impurity and buried alive before the emperor's baby started showing? No Vestal ever wrote her memoirs as far as anyone knows, but what stories they could tell if they had.
The pontifex arrived with a rod made from the sacred oak, the same wood that kept the fire of Vesta burning. Shanique trembled as he yanked back the curtain, letting it swish behind him as he entered the room. She could hear female whispers and gasps in the hallway but couldn't tell who was there, for she was bound and tied with her back to the curtain.
The curtain over the door was the only drapery; there was no such thing interposed between her and the pontifex, as that would make scourging nearly impossible. Plutarch and the other men who wrote of the goings-on in the Atrium Vestae and temple of Vesta would never be allowed inside them. How could they possibly know how things were done there?
The pontifex examined his victim from head to toe, as if to memorize what she looked like now, before she was disfigured with stripes. The rod whistled as he raised it in the air and brought it down with a sharp thwack on her buttocks. At first she didn't scream, refusing to give him satisfaction, but as the weapon struck again and again, hitting her spine, her shoulders, her hips, she eventually broke. The first whimper erupted into outright wailing as the swings gained in power and frequency. The sobbing was piteous, but not as heartrending as the crack of wood on flesh.
When he'd purged himself of his rage, the priest tossed the rod on the floor and left the room. The slaves returned to untie her and dress the wounds on her rapidly bruising body, then readied her for the execution ─ combing her hair and dressing her in funeral attire.
Once dressed she was forced into a lectica, bound and gagged so no one could hear her cry. The curtains were drawn and coverings were thrown over the top, tied down with cords, and then the lectica was carried through the forum. The priests led the procession to the Colline Gate at the north end of the Servian Wall, where a mound of dirt hid a burial vault built into the ground. The stone cell, measuring roughly five by three cubits, contained nothing but a couch, a lamp, and a small table bearing a little bread and meager bowls of milk, water and oil. The slaves set down the lectica, untied the coverings and dragged Shanique out.
"You must listen to me! I am innocent!" she wailed when they untied her, but one of the common executioners pushed her toward the ladder leading down into the vault. There was no means of escape, and if she tried, they might kill her in an even more horrible manner. Resigning herself to her fate, she climbed down. The executioner then pulled up the ladder while the Pontifex Maximus uttered prayers and stretched his hands toward the heavens. As the prayers ended, the priests turned their backs on the victim, and the executioners slid the stone over the opening, sealing her in. Down below, Shanique wrung her hands, weeping as she saw her last ray of sun. Once sealed, the vault was buried with dirt until it was indistinguishable from the rest of the embankment, and she was trapped underground. The only warmth came from the small lamp, and she sat on the couch, hugging herself to keep warm in the frigid air.
The alarm clock whined and Shanique hit the button, wiping her eyes. She'd been crying in her sleep. Now she was convinced: there was a reason she had this same nightmare over and over, and there was no way it could feel so real if it hadn't actually happened.
After gathering her clothes she headed for the shower. Maybe her co-workers at the museum thought she was nuts for believing in reincarnation, but she knew now. She was absolutely certain of this: in a past life she'd been buried alive.
She arrived at the museum with time to spare. Coffee in hand, she headed to her office and turned on the computer.
A co-worker popped his head in to say good morning. "Hey, Shanique. Check your mail yet? Bob sent an article. There's some new software for reading damaged scrolls. You might want to reply that you've seen it or he'll never quit bugging everyone."
"Heh. Okay." Biting into a Danish, Shanique checked her email. Bob was the head of Roman antiquities and harbored a fear that he'd die before the Herculaneum scrolls were deciphered. Shanique wanted to know what they said too, but predicted the technology necessary wouldn't exist in her lifetime. There'd been plenty of false starts through the years; stories in the paper said the scrolls could be read with this program or that, but the reality was the papyri stubbornly refused to reveal their secrets.
So another alchemist promises to turn lead into gold.
Papyrus Scroll May Finally Surrender its Secrets After 2000 Years
April 7, 2019
Let's suppose you were in Pompeii, Herculaneum or any of the neighboring coastal towns when Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE.
Pretty scary. You're in a hurry but you've got a boat, so you pen a few lines saying "be back later" before you head for the harbor. There's a tremor or an explosion, or maybe a spray of ash and rock that spurs you to stuff the note into a sack and make a run for it.
When you arrive at the boat you find you can't leave; you're driven back by gusts and choppy seas generated by Vesuvius, so you embrace your wife until a wave of hot ash and rock pours over the area, burying you, your wife and everything else under meters of tephra for centuries.
This is what Professor Rashad Fakhri of the Stabiae Institute believes may have happened to a young Roman couple uncovered in 2016. While two thirds of Pompeii and one third of Herculaneum have been uncovered, work on Stabiae, Boscoreale, Oplontis and the other small towns buried by Vesuvius has barely begun due to funding issues.
"This is why every new find is a treasure," Fakhri said. "Anything that keeps the story in the news rekindles public interest in the disaster."
And this ancient couple is quite a treasure. Like thousands of similar victims, their bodies were encased in layers of ash that solidified around them. Fakhri's team dug up their remains and discovered they'd died in an embrace. Near the bodies his team found a papyrus scroll, fragments of a leather satchel, a signet ring and a lump of clay that was probably used as sealing wax, but the scroll had never been sealed.
The question is can it be read after all these centuries?
Thousands of papyrus scrolls have been found in Herculaneum and the other communities lying in the shadow of Vesuvius, but until now it's been nearly impossible to read them. Most are little more than charcoal cinder blocks, fragile yet priceless. Others are simply too decayed to unravel. Many have been accidentally destroyed just opening them.
"I have great hope for this one," Fakhri said. "There have been excellent strides in the field of imaging lately. We may be able to view the contents of the scroll without physically opening it. Using new technology, we'll create a virtual version of the scroll and then unravel it digitally."
Will it work? Previous attempts with particle accelerators, multi-spectral imaging, nuclear magnetic resonance and x-ray phase-contrast tomography have failed, but Fakhri's team is experimenting with software never used before. If it works, it could change the course of modern conservation.
That'll be good news to the archaeologists at the Stabiae Institute. The two biggest problems with conservation are the quest for money and the fight against time. If this new technique can unlock the secrets of the scrolls, it could ignite a new fascination with the victims of Vesuvius.
"Here's hoping the software makes as solid an imprint as the signet ring," Fakhri said with a wink.
He gets our seal of approval.
Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle.
Shanique remained skeptical, but if it worked, this software could change everything. At least, everything about her job. She read the article again.
Now why was that imprint so familiar?
There were photos of the scroll, the signet ring and the imprint it made. She'd never met Professor Fakhri and she'd never been to Stabiae, but the design on the ring jogged a memory.
The museum stored the digital records of thousands of ancient imprints, sortable by dozens of criteria. This one, however, she'd seen recently and often. She could find it instantly on her laptop at home.
It's got to be here somewhere. I know I looked at it a few days ago.
Rubbing her eyes, she scrolled through the next set of documents on her archaic desktop monitor.
Heh. Scroll means something completely different these days. Would the ancient Romans approve of phones and laptops, I wonder?
If only it were true that a new discovery would re-ignite interest in the past. The museum might get a grant or donation and replace these obsolete computers. Whatever money they took in now went to upgrading the software, not the hardware, but it was the software that preserved history.
She'd found it ─ a first century missive from a Roman youth known only as Trebius Epistola, the letter writer. Shanique specialized in ancient documents, particularly the papyri, parchment and tablets of the Roman empire, but staring at these damn things all day made them blur together after a while.
Certain puzzles obsessed her, though, and Trebius had stolen her heart long ago. His letter to his father telling of his escape from... what? That was part of the puzzle. This scroll had been sealed, and Shanique clicked on the image of the seal, then enlarged it to fill the screen.
Hokey smoke, this is it. The imprints match.
Presumably a signet ring in those days was one of a kind, or at least singular to a family. A seal was a signature even if the imprint contained no words. Trebius sealed his letters with the image of a snake wrapped around a silphium fruit.
"Hokey smoke. Looks like it's time to cash in my sick days and take a little vacation in Stabiae." She shut down the computer, grabbed her phone and called Bob.
There was a gorgeous hotel on the beach in Castellammare di Stabia. Shanique checked in, rented a car and headed for the Stabiae Institute a few kilometers away. The brooding humps of Vesuvius loomed in the distance as she pulled into the parking lot.
In those days there was only one cone.
How many people lived under Vesuvius today? She guessed three or four million, probably a hundred times more than in 79 AD. How did those people plan to escape when it erupted again? Or were they counting on plenty of lead time? They'd need at least a week's notice. The ancient Romans only had four days’ warning.
All of those people will be buried under meters of tephra for a future generation of archaeologists.
"May I help you?" the receptionist asked in Italian, and Shanique gave her own Italian a workout until the receptionist interrupted in English.
"Um, buon giorno. I'm Shanique Mosley from Chicago, here to see Dr. Fakhri about a scroll. He should be expecting me, as I phoned from─"
"Ah! Yes, I'll contact him." The receptionist buzzed Fakhri, and a moment later a student met Shanique in the lobby.
"This way," the student said, and led her to his office.
The institute looked well-funded but not wasteful, and newer than its American counterpart. Nearly everyone she encountered in the hallways was a volunteer student intern. The student escorting her knocked on Fakhri's door, and he welcomed them inside.
"Ah, Miss Shanique, I'm Professor Fakhri, but please call me Rashad. Come in, come in. You arrived at a good time. Chiara here scanned the scroll several hours ago and we're awaiting the results. The analysis is almost complete. Watch; I think you'll find this interesting."
Chiara wore shorts and a tee as she sat behind some kind of machinery. Like all the students around here, she looked about twenty and seemed to love her work. She and Dr. Fakhri stared at an overhead flat panel monitor, which projected three dimensional images of the scroll revolving and the layers separating. A sidebar on the screen logged thousands of computations, displayed as flashing numbers and Latin letters in a rapid-fire sequence. The papyrus itself sat in a tray on a separate tabletop.
"The scroll must remain absolutely still during scanning," Fakhri said, "so we don't even breathe while the machine runs. No worries, though. It's through scanning."
Shanique watched the screen, wondering what all the figures meant. "I'm kind of surprised you're here, Dr. Fakhri. I mean, why aren't you studying the treasures of Egypt?"
"Heh. In the same vein, why are you here, Miss Shanique? You could be studying the documents of Colonial America."
"Touché. I've not much interest in that, but I've always been fascinated by the ancient Romans. So much of our modern life is based on their civilization, yet they were so brutal and savage. Ironically, they saw themselves as cultured and civilized, and viewed those they conquered as barbaric even when the truth otherwise stared them in the face. They're kind of a paradox, and frighteningly like ourselves."
"Agreed. I myself am fascinated by the common people. We hear a great deal about the military and politicians of ancient Rome, but what about the ordinary merchants and priests and barbers? What about the fullers, millers and bath attendants? What of the sculptors and writers and painters? We rarely hear about the ordinary people who kept society running, as they don't make for interesting Hollywood epics, unlike the gladiators and emperors."
"Heh. So true. I suppose that's why I've always had a soft spot for Trebius Epistola."
"That's what we call him at the museum, and I believe you may have found him. His actual body, even. It's quite an odd feeling for me, as if the corpse of a long lost missing child had been found years after a kidnapping. I don't know how else to describe it. The letter we have at the museum came to light in the 1950s and bears the same insignia as the signet ring of your embracing couple. I suspect your scroll is another letter from the same writer, and may perhaps enlighten us as to what his first letter meant."
"If it is, you'll find out in a moment," Chiara interrupted. "The scan analysis is complete."
She pointed to the overhead screen and they gazed up. Had the letter been a long one, some of it might have been lost forever, as part of the papyrus was damaged beyond salvation. As it was, the writer had jotted a short, hurried note on his way out the door and the Latin words were exposed in their full glory, not a single character missing. Shanique read the letter the intended recipient never got to see, and wept.
"Oh, Treb. Poor Trebius."
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