It was winter, and the ground was cold and hard but whilst that might have posed an issue for us archaeologists, it was no problem at all for a construction crew with heavy machinery. I suppose I should be amazed that they found anything intact… but they did, and what a find it was.
Forty-two bodies. The first had been damaged by the excavator but the rest were in excellent condition. They all lay neatly side by side in their mass grave, nothing but skeletons now. Their age had rendered them fragile but so well preserved that some still bore the remains of the ropes that had bound their wrists behind their backs.
Criminals, we supposed, or unfortunate prisoners.
The council were not happy about the discovery. This was now an archaeological site and that would cause significant delays to the project. My team moved in as soon as possible. We made some vague assurances that we would try and get this all sorted out quickly but, quite frankly, we all knew that it would take as long as it took. The history of the area suggested that they were most likely of Anglo-Saxon origin and, whilst waiting for the results of carbon dating, we began searching the site for evidence to support this.
But there was one distracting element. Forty-one of the bodies looked as we would expect for their age and location: fragile, broken, and old. One of them, however… did not. The body found on the far west of the site, placed a little further from the others, was in a very different condition. Rather than being a skeleton, he (for it was indeed male) was mostly mummified, his taut skin a steely grey, with eyeless sockets and a twisted mouth. His clothing was still intact and the rope around his arms largely still present.
Perhaps he was added to the grave site at a later date? But even if he was a later addition, why had he mummified when the others had decayed naturally? The conditions in the ground were the same across the whole area, and dry and airless they were not.
After a few days of investigation, we had still not discovered any artefacts that would help us to date the site. It seemed that these people had been buried with nothing more than their clothes.
Except for the mummy.
Whilst conducting a careful examination of his body, Lyndsey, one of our team members, suddenly called me over.
‘Helen, look at this,’ she said, pointing to his chest.
To my surprise, I saw that a small piece of parchment had been stitched to his skin. There was a phrase heavily inked on the scrap.
‘How on earth has any of this survived?’ I wondered out loud. I peered closer at the writing. ‘That looks like Old English.’
Lyndsey nodded her agreement. ‘So it is a Saxon site.’
‘I guess so,’ I said. ‘Or he’s Saxon at any rate.’ I looked around at the other remains. ‘But why is he the only one who doesn’t look that old?’
‘There must be something about the ground right here,’ she speculated, although she didn’t sound too sure. I didn’t blame her. It was the same silty-clay as everywhere else.
‘Maybe they put something on his body before he was buried?’ This suggestion came from Peter, standing nearby.
I nodded in a non-committal way. ‘Perhaps. Can you get the phrase translated?’
Peter took his phone out to snap a picture, and then wandered off.
An hour or two after lunch, he reappeared.
‘I have that translation.’
‘That was quick,’ I said, surprised.
‘Oh, this isn’t the proper one,’ he chuckled. ‘I sent it off to the university for that. This is just the best I could do with an internet translation website.’ ‘A Saxon translator? Huh. You really can find anything online these days.’
He nodded. ‘Yeah. So basically, and this is a rough translation you understand, but it says something like “Such crimes you cannot imagine”.’ He paused. ‘Or words to that effect.’
‘So, they were criminals then,’ I said, nodding thoughtfully.
‘Seems so,’ agreed Peter, ‘And I guess he was the worst of them.’
I looked over to where the mummy was lying. He certainly appeared to have been treated differently to the rest of those present. I wondered what he had done to warrant such special attention.
In the end, we decided to get an exhumation licence for the mummy to see if we could determine what the cause of his condition was. The council would clearly have liked us to do the same for all the remains but as the others were decent, well-behaved skeletons, who had decayed in the proper way, they would be permitted to remain in their original graves.
Once he was disinterred, we were able to examine the mummy with considerably better equipment. This led to two discoveries. The first was that at some point there had been a second piece of parchment sewn to his stomach. It was now long gone and we might never have known what it said if Lyndsey had not discovered an imprint of the ink on the inside of his clothes. It was reversed and in terrible condition but I still sent her off with Peter to see if they could get any kind of translation from it.
The second discovery was that the mummy’s lungs were filled with dirt.
Which likely meant that he had been buried alive.
Nightmare fuel right there.
What we did not find, however, was any explanation of why he had mummified. Chemical tests of the surrounding soil and of his skin showed nothing that could explain it. I found myself wondering if we would ever know.
A few days later I got a 4am phone call from the University, where the mummy was temporarily stored. Very temporarily, as it turned out. He was missing.
‘It’s been stolen?’ I repeated, after receiving the news.
Peter, who had arrived before me said, ‘Um, it must have been. The staff assured me that it wasn’t moved, so it couldn’t have been misplaced.’
I pressed the heels of my hands against my eyes for a few moments. ‘Have the police been informed?’
I looked over at the table where, until this morning, our archaeological mystery had been lying. Now there was nothing there but a piece of ancient rope. I walked over to it.
‘Why would they cut his arms free before stealing him? It’s not like it would make him easier to take.’ Peter didn’t have an answer. He looked downcast for a moment and then suddenly said:
‘Oh, by the way, we managed to get the words off the clothing. I don’t suppose it makes much difference now, but I had another go at translating them, if you want to hear?’
I shrugged, defeated. ‘Sure.’
‘It says something like “Do not open”.’
‘”Do not open”?’ I snorted. ‘Seems a bit pointless to put a warning against grave robbing on the body itself. A bit late really.’
Or not, I thought, considering we had just been robbed.
At that moment, Lyndsey came in. She glanced at the table with a frown. Then, catching my eye, she held up a piece of paper. ‘I’ve got the translation of the second phrase, if you want it?’
‘I already gave her that,’ said Peter dejectedly.
‘Yes, well,’ Lyndsey replied a little haughtily, ‘as accurate as “Saxon Translate dot com” might be, I think I’ll still go with the one given to me by the actual Professor of Ancient Languages…’
I waved a hand at her. ‘Yes, yes, go on.’
‘He said it was a little hard to read, and there are words missing, but he believes it says something along the lines of “Dare you not release”.’
‘Well, I can’t say that makes anything much clearer.’ I responded.
I sighed and dropped my head back to stare bleakly at the ceiling, then rolled my eyes over to the window.
The sensation that ran through me was like freezing water on my skin. I felt my breath catch in my throat and my body stiffen in fear.
There was a face at the window.
A steel grey face with taut skin, empty eye sockets and a twisted mouth.
Lyndsey touched my arm, which made me cry out and stare at her in horror.
‘Good lord,’ she said, ‘Are you alright?!’
I sprang over to the window and with my hands pressed against the glass I scanned the street outside, but it was empty.
My heart pounded in my chest and my breath was quick. Behind me, I heard Peter say, ‘Um…’
I shook my head. ‘Sorry…I’m…sorry. It was nothing. I thought I saw…’
What had I seen?
'Nothing. It was nothing.’ I said, looking over at them, and offering a weak smile. ‘It’s been a long day.’
They nodded at that, looking sympathetic.
As we left the room I glanced at the rope that had bound the mummy, now lying useless on the table. I wondered who had removed it. Who had released him?
Such crimes you cannot imagine.