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Erin Thompson

We were stirring in our chairs to stand and go when the epigrapher, who had paused at what had appeared to be the end of his presentation, gave a low cough and said, “There is one more item to which we should draw our collective attention—an ostrakon, found by Dr. Pevsner, which as far as I can decipher, is the beginning of a letter in Coptic, reading, ‘To my dearest friend and brother Nicolaus, how glad I am that you have found us…’ After that, the sherd is broken.”

The epigrapher tittered slightly, and the other members of the excavation also laughed, though a few of the younger students needed whispered reminders that the joke rested on the fact that I, who had dug up the letter, was also named Nicolas.

Ostrakon is a Greek word describing a piece of broken pottery on which something has been written. Fired clay, though the shapes into which it is formed can be fragile, is nearly indestructible in itself, and bits of broken pots litter most archeological sites. Ostraka were written on, either in ink or merely by scratching the letters into the surface, to make accounts, or school exercises, or even letters. True, letters on pottery are unusual. But there was always the possibility that someone might choose to write in a humble material—especially the type of person given to addressing his fellows as “brother”…

My thoughts were interrupted by the epigrapher, who, having again waited until his presentation had seemed at an end, created another minor sensation by bringing the ostrakon in question out of one of his pockets and placing it on the table. The ceramicist took it up and began to feel it, turning it between her fingers and giving alternate coos of delight and scholarly diagnoses: “Oh, what a lovely—a refined clay, well-fired, not glazed, though it has been polished to oh! just the loveliest black!” The sherd was of dark clay and was small, just large enough for the few words it contained, which were scratched through the polish into the dull black beneath. The letters were small and neat, but difficult to make out—an odd choice of vehicle, for the writer must have had quantities of lighter pottery to use. Perhaps there was some significance in the choice of this special fragment?

“Why, it’s so fine and thin,” the ceramicist was continuing, “it doesn’t look anything like other pottery from this site, or indeed from Egypt—it’s almost like a piece of Etruscan bucchero—but that would be a half-millennium off, wouldn’t it? See: from how it curves, you can tell that it must originally have been a piece of a large cup. Too bad it’s a letter, and we probably won’t find any more pieces.” She ceased turning the fragment in her hands and held it steady, close to her eyes, examining the polished surface. “Some pots are easy to love,” she said—an opinion that, as I could see from the repressed smile of the assistant ceramicist, she, rather a dreamy woman, must have often expressed before. “I can almost see the writer, as if he were here in this room with us, watching over us, moving silently about us in his long black robe—”

Here the epigrapher interrupted, repossessing the ostrakon and saying, “Miss Peters, we must not allow ourselves to be carried away.” The ceramicist put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes as the rest of the staff and students left to go to dinner.


The excavation was a 4th century AD site in the Daklya Oasis—an isolated yet extensive series of natural springs in the middle of the deserts of southwestern Egypt. The people had cultivated, and still do cultivate, where the water reached, and built their houses on the bordering waste; these mudbrick buildings, soon filled with windblown sand when abandoned, remain much in the same shape until we archeologists empty them again, for the desert preserves them dry and unchanged. Building styles and pottery remains meant that our site was easy to date, and had indeed been discovered and dated by a team of surveyors more than a decade before I applied for the permits for my excavation.

The precise character and use of the settlement was much more difficult to determine than its date. This was because the oasis was, and still is, poor. Everything of value had been taken away by the former inhabitants when they left, and most everything of little or even no worth had been taken by remaining neighbors or wanderers ever since. Our work and study were focused on those very few things that had no interest at all to past scavengers—tiny bits of broken pottery or animal bones or cooking debris, from which we tried to reconstruct the inhabitants’ menu, both in content and preparation. We could also hope to find things of greater interest if they had been lost beyond the finding of looters—small coins accidentally dropped in rubbish heaps, good-luck tokens walled up in house foundations, or, what I in particular was hoping for, undisturbed graves. Ancient peoples tended to carry about them in their graves the tokens of their identity, especially if they believed that this identity would prove a recommendation in whatever further existence to which they thought they were destined.

No graves had yet been found here. This was not surprising, since we were excavating houses. Aside from the burials of newborns—who were popularly considered not to have souls any more than do cabbages, and who could thus be buried, for sentimental reasons but without fear of “haunts,” under house floors—any burials would have been in a separate cemetery, which, without walls to emerge from above the drifted sand and mark its place, remained hidden and impossible for us to find in our limited season. We had been digging for three weeks so far, and had only one more left.

The expedition, in truth, was a rather motley affair. I had been working for years on obtaining both the necessary permissions from the Egyptian authorities and funding from my university. One can’t get funding without permits, nor permits without funding, and I fear that to solve this paradox I was reduced to taking advantage of a particularly festive departmental cocktail hour to press whiskey sours and requests on my finally relenting chairman. Next morning, signing the papers with an aching head, the chairman had warned me that I would regret the trip, though I am inclined to think that he was merely pondering that eternal problem of the comfort-loving traveler—the low quality of spirituous liquors in Egypt.

Still, the money and the permissions came through, but late enough that my usual colleagues were already engaged to other expeditions. My former ceramicist was rooting about in the new parts of Babylon blown asunder in the recent wars; my habitual bone specialist was digging in the Rockies, trying to discover whether that famous party of snow-bound pioneers had indeed eaten each other or had rested content with their horses, dogs, and shoes; and my constant epigrapher—well, she was also my wife, and was about to acquire the additional qualification of  “mother.” We had decided that giving birth in the middle of the Egyptian deserts would have been to tread too closely in the footsteps of the past, and so she had stayed at home.

Consequently, my current staff was composed of the people not already asked to join other expeditions—the type of scholars who are expert in their fields, but have other qualities that render them not the most desirable company for a month away from all other civilization.

Miss Peters, the ceramicist, was fairly inoffensive, with merely a tendency to talk to her pots and, it was rumored from the women’s bunk-house, a love of running about in the mornings without much in the way of coverings.

The bone and food-remains expert rendered himself difficult to associate with by a constant habit of tasting whatever we discovered in kitchen areas to determine whether, say, the pot we had come across was full of ancient grain or ancient rat-droppings. He was also fond of “artistic” reconstructions of ancient life, and would spend the evenings painting watercolors in which small distinct breeds of animals were equally as detailed as were his envisionings of the probable consequences of the primitive and thus fallible nature of the fastening devices on ancient women’s clothing. Yet this, too, was a harmless occupation, and so it was the epigrapher who was the most distasteful of my colleagues.

Epigraphers are experts in deciphering ancient writings. This one was on the faculty of my university and had never gone into the field before, preferring to dispute previous readings of ancient texts from the comfort of his office rather than producing virginal readings on-site; and his asking to accompany me was even more surprising to the department because he was thought to be very near to retirement.

I had the idea, though, that he had probably been rumored to be on the verge of retirement for decades—he was the small, dry, hooded-eyed type of man that would go on pestering librarians and making female undergraduates cry for a long time yet. His presence in Egypt was disheartening not only for his unpleasant company—I felt his scrutiny at all times—but also for this reiterated proof of his vitality. My wife would be a candidate for his professorship when he left it vacant, and he knew this, and seemed to be consequently suspicious of me. In turn, my patience was strained by him, since an additional salary would, with the baby, be welcome—an additional or perhaps sole salary, since if this excavation did not go well, my own tenuous position at the university would probably not be renewed.

This, then, was the state of affairs at the time—I was waiting for news of my family, and working for an increase in its security.


The day after the epigrapher’s presentation of the letter, there was a sandstorm.  I was working in the same area in which I had found the ostrakon, several days before—in a large room near the center of the building complex we were excavating. I was working near to the floor layer, and was brushing away some final drifts of sand—a careful but mechanical task, and so I had been thinking of other things until I realized that I had been cleaning the same patch of gypsum-plaster flooring for the past ten minutes, with wisps of sand dancing back across it after every sweep of the brush. I stood and could see the body of the storm approaching across the desert, and so called in the workers to shelter. We watched from the dig house as sand came down like rain into all our slow-dug holes. (That is, we all watched from shelter save a few of the undergraduates, who ran about outside declaring, after the storm had passed, that they felt just like “Lawrence of Arabia”—rather ignoring the geographical differences.)

We began to clear the sand, and by the next day all was as it had been—except in my area. I had again removed the sand almost to the floor, which showed below as it had the day before, when with a final sweep I sent something skittering into the waste pile—something that had not been there before the storm. I picked it up; it was a piece of pottery, of polished dark clay. As I wiped off the clinging sand, I could feel the rough edges of scratched letters pull at my fingertips.

I had found the first ostrakon in the same place, a few inches higher in the now-cleared sand, and so, though it was remarkable to find two fragments of the same letter—if this new piece was part of it—it made sense that they would be close together. And yet, I had been sure nothing remained on the floor before the storm. Perhaps the wind might have blown it there; still, I felt a desire to throw the fragment back into the waste, and only the thought that it might reveal more about the identity of the site’s inhabitants made me note it in my find records and then bring it to the epigrapher, who had finished reading the new finds during the storm and would, I thought, appreciate something more to do.

Traveling alone is difficult for many reasons, one of which is—as I pondered that evening when we gathered to give our reports—that one thinks too much; or rather, that one thinks too uninterruptedly. The long train of thought rarely progresses far; instead, it loops and curls back upon itself, for we convince ourselves more with reiteration than reasoning. The skepticism of others makes us reason, and their questions make us progress in knowledge. That evening I anticipated both skepticism and questioning, but feared that the lack of them beforehand had left my ideas weak, too self-supportably fanatical.  I was supposed to present my interpretation of the site so far, and more than ever wished for my wife or indeed anyone else willing to discuss and work out such ideas in private friendship. But as there was no one on the expedition for me to talk to, I waited through their presentations in turn, until it came time to deliver mine, the last. The epigrapher, when he spoke, had not mentioned my new find.

“As you know,” I began my presentation, “I choose this site because it featured what seemed to be an unusually large building, or rather, an unusually large number of rooms conglomerated together into a building complex. All this was visible in the report produced by the Egyptian team a few decades ago, who surveyed the positions of the then-visible mudbrick walls. I thought, then, that such an arrangement might be home to a community of people, of fellow-livers, since, as you are aware, I have been studying communities of monks, especially those of heretical brands of early Christianity, who lived in remote locations such as this—all this according to the hostile descriptions written by other, more orthodox sects. Such polemics are our only surviving remains of these monks, and I had hoped to find one of their communities, in order to let their own remains speak for themselves.

“Now, as to what we have found. The walls did prove to belong to one large complex. It is common in villages of this period to see homes sharing walls, but each of these homes would have its own entrance and kitchen. In our building, there is only one entrance for the whole, and only one room with fire pits for cooking, and so it does appear that it housed a group of people living in common. It is possible that this complex was a large house, the villa of a wealthy owner, but then we would expect to find other marks of wealth—painted plaster walls, lost coins, fine ceramics—whereas here we have found, with the exception of the letter ostrakon, only the coarsest of plain ware. This would indicate a humbler class of occupants. But as to who these occupants were, even after these signs of who they were not, we still have little idea. We have reached floor level in all the areas that we were able to excavate this season, and we have not found any definite signs of their identity.”

Here I paused. The students were distressed at the prospect of an excavation with equivocal results, since they were assigned by the department to write a paper about their participatory roles, and had all been anticipating a concluding paragraph in which they would claim that their own little corner of the dig had provided the most important evidence for understanding whatever it was that I should have been telling them now was to be understood.

The ceramicist and the bone specialist were resigned, being both so little notable in their fields that most of their work had taken the form of contributions to compilations of data from anonymous, unimportant, scattered sites—a form of publication that our excavation must be divvied up among, if we did not find something to make it more interesting, more worthy of multi-volume reports in folio size with gold letters on the cover and fold-out diagrams of, say, comparative percentages of wild and domestic pig bones found.

The epigrapher alone wore an expression that I could not interpret.

“The rest of our season, a little less than a week,” I resumed, “can take one of two paths. First, we could use the time to finish recording our finds, photograph them, draw them, etc.” The students, to whom fell most of the burden of producing scale drawings of the fragments of uninteresting pottery of the site, groaned at this option. “If we did this, we would have to hope that our remaining questions about the purpose and inhabitants of the site are fascinating enough to raise funds for a second season.” This, I thought, seemed unlikely. Once past the initial promise of virgin territory, donors, like undergraduates, preferred answers over theories.

“Secondly, we could hurry our final finds-processing and devote the rest of our time to a trial excavation beneath the floor of some room. This would at least show us if our complex was an original construction, or if it were built over some earlier structure. At the best, we might come across some clues as to the identity of the inhabitants, in items buried as foundation deposits. Thoughts?”

The students, choosing between work indoors and work outdoors, voted for outdoors. The bone specialist and ceramicist pled neutral, since it was unlikely that we would discover anything of interest to them beneath floors; though the ceramicist did say, with a fluttering sigh, that it was such a pity to break through what had survived whole for so many centuries.

“I wouldn’t presume to make such archeological decisions,” said the epigrapher when I turned to him. “But there is one more piece of information that we should all consider before making our decisions.” He brought out of his pockets two ostraka, one the old and the other the just-discovered. Even without the exclamations of the ceramicist, who took them from his hands, it was clear that the second was indeed of the same material as the first, its letters scratched in the same manner into the slick black of the surface. Murmuring, the ceramicist aligned two sides of the fragments and held them together. They fit perfectly, but she gave a loud “Oh!” and dropped them. They lay unharmed on the table; and the ceramicist said, softly, looking at them, “Yes, most definitely a cup.”

The epigrapher then spoke. “I had not mentioned this new ostrakon during my presentation, since there are a few difficulties in the text; however, it is certain that the text continues across the break, and we seem to have another part of the same letter as before—a circumstance often dearly wished for, but seldom obtained. You remember that the first bit was about how glad the writer had been that his ‘brother,’ whatever relationship that might denote, had found ‘us,’ whomever that might be. The new ostrakon continues, in my translation, ‘Come to us quickly, but secretly. Do not let the evil world know of our place and ways. If you speak…’”

“What is the difficulty in reading it?” I asked.

“The fact that there are no difficulties,” answered the epigrapher. “Usually, private letters scratched on bits of broken pottery are full of grammatical errors and misspellings. This letter, by contrast, has so far been perfect—a textbook example. I am consulting my colleagues to ask if any of them know of another letter of similar scrupulosity. Out of curiosity—am I correct in assuming that the deficiencies of our educational system mean that I am the only one here with any knowledge of Coptic?” No one volunteered any proficiency therein. “Too bad—even our Director?”

“I am an archeologist, not a linguist,” I replied.

“In my day, not even the smallest undergraduate would have been allowed on the field without an understanding of what are now considered the more esoteric languages. In any case, my vote is for behaving archeologically, and digging into those secrets about which the letter writer is so anxious.”

The next morning we began. At the center of the building complex there was a room larger than the others, and without signs of having been used as a kitchen or for any other type of production. It seemed rather like a meeting place of some sort, with niches, long empty, along the walls, and a low raised platform in mudbrick along one short side. This room was my best hope for a church. I had decided to dig down through the corner of the floor, including part of the platform, for an excavation here would have the best chance of finding something buried under the walls or seeded within the platform.

So we began to dig. Or rather, we began to carefully chip away at the mudbrick of the platform, to pick apart and almost peel away its layers. The area designated was small, so only two of us could work at a time, shoulder to shoulder. Those awaiting their turn to dig began to finish the recording and cleaning of our other finds in preparation for our departure. We dug like this for a day, and at its end it was certain that we would reach a few feet below floor level before we left, since the going would be faster once we finished with the platform.

There was nothing found on this first day. On the second, I had the first shift. My partner, one of the undergraduates, was late—hardly surprising, as the night before I had seen the locals selling an enterprising student a bottle of homemade something which had probably not made them drunk but had certainly given them headaches. I began, then, without her, using a miniature pick to loosen the mudbrick, and almost at the first gentle stroke, I turned up, among the pieces of the platform, a fragment of ceramic. I spat on my fingers and wiped off the dust—there again was the black gloss and the scratched letters. When the undergraduate came, I sent her back again with the new ostrakon to the epigrapher, and we continued to dig without finding anything else, though at the end of the day we had gone almost all the way through the platform.

The meeting that evening would normally have begun with the epigrapher’s report, but he sent a message that he was still working and would come when he had finished. We heard first, then, from the conservation expert. This was a man who had come to access the stability of the site and to advise us on the necessary measures for preserving the remains from looting or further disintegration while we were gone, either for a year or forever. Since we had found almost nothing but mudbrick walls, built thick to keep the ancient rooms cool, I thought that he would merely recommend the usual procedure of filling in the holes we had dug with clean sand in order to protect their surfaces from the erosion of the wind—which, in an area with almost no rain, is the main element of destruction.

I had been puzzled by the grave face of this conservation expert as he had made his tour earlier that day, and he soon explained his expression by beginning his presentation (which he opened only after a certain amount of adjusting his hat, shaking dust out of his sandals, and smiling at the more attractive of the undergraduates) with “This site is a disaster!” After a pause to survey the reaction of the students, he continued, “The walls are falling apart as if they’d been exposed for ten years. Haven’t you seen the pieces dropped on the floors?”

I had to reply that I had not thought anything of them, and asked what he thought the matter might be.

“Your students tell me”—here was an occasion for more winks and nods—“that you had a sandstorm a while back, and that might have made things worse. Here’s the problem: when a mudbrick building is abandoned, sand starts to pile up both against its outer and its inner walls, blown in through the door or ceiling, once the roof collapses. The sand on the inside and the sand on the outside build up at approximately the same rate, and so the pressure on the walls is the same: as if you, Lisa”—this to one of the undergraduates—“were pushed on one side by Erica and on the other side by Rebecca; you wouldn’t fall in either direction. But since the ground level builds up in time everywhere in the area of the walls, when you excavate, you dig out the sand normally only from the interior of buildings, and thus the walls are pressed against by the sand only on one side. But since a mudbrick wall is much sturdier than Lisa here”—the undergraduates indicated again tried to push one another over—“there are usually not so many immediate problems, and it takes years for the wall to weaken. Even a bad sandstorm wouldn’t really have caused so much damage—I really don’t know why your walls are threatening to fall so quickly. It’s as if something more than sand is pushing!” And he attentively helped up Lisa, who had collapsed to the floor. Order restored, he concluded with recommendations to fill up the excavations as soon as possible and to bring materials for bracing the walls, should we return.

An undergraduate sent to fetch the epigrapher soon returned with him. Behind them into the room came a man in a long, dark, coarse cloak, belted around the waist and with a cowl hanging around his face. He seemed to be a monk—there are still some monasteries in the deserts, some very learned, and so I thought that he was one of those correspondents with whom the epigrapher was working on the Coptic ostraka. The epigrapher did not introduce him, nor seem to take any notice of him—a junior colleague, evidently, I thought—but the ceramicist gave a start of recognition and ceased to fuss over the conservation expert. She indeed stared outright at the monk, who remained standing in the doorway for the whole of the epigrapher’s presentation.

I, too, looked at him often, though I had felt from the moment of his entrance a dislike or disgust which made my flesh creep and my stomach twist. It was his face, perhaps, shadowed to grey beneath the cowl, with crudely shaped features and a nose long and flatly sharp, as if carved with one stroke. His eyes were polished black, and glittered out from the shadow.

“A most unusual find,” the epigrapher was saying, “though I speak, of course, only of the unusual in the epigraphical field, and would not dream of intruding upon questions of the archeologically unusual, which must remain Dr. Pevsner’s sphere. Unusual because this ostrakon is the continuation, yet again, of the letter of the previous two ostraka of the same material, since both the contents and the shapes match.” He took the three pieces from various pockets and assembled them on the table, where, knit together, they rose in a curve, part of the circle of a cup. It seemed to me that the black of their surface gave off the same glitter as our visitor’s eyes, and indeed the epigrapher, with a puzzled look, glanced up at the doorway where he stood before continuing.

“The find is even more satisfying in that, as you will see, this last piece contains the end of the letter, which consists of an interesting curse formula. Thus: ‘If you speak, then—just as we, who in our humility and because of our secret love of God cannot speak to the world, and so are always almost dying, because how could new brothers know of us?—just so, you, Nicolaus, in your pride and because of your false love of Fame, will be cursed; your children will be cursed and die; no man shall remember your name, just as no man shall remember ours, which will be known only to God.’” As he finished, a man from the post office in town came through the doorway, from which the monk had disappeared.

I had little time to think about why the monk had departed so abruptly, for the newcomer handed me a telegram and then fell into animated conversation with the ceramicist, who could speak some Arabic and was friendly with some of the townspeople. The telegram was from my wife, and read “Nicholas we have beautiful son STOP but has problem with heart STOP small operation to take place tomorrow STOP do not worry love Caroline STOP.”

My expression must have reflected this news, for the messenger pointed at me and began to speak even faster to the ceramicist. When he finished, she turned to me and said, “Oh, Dr. Pevsner, this fellow keeps insisting that he saw a ghost go out the door as he came in, and now he claims from the look on your face that you must have seen it, too. I’m trying to assure him that any ghosts raised by archeology must be rather harmless, especially since we’re only digging up houses, not mucking around with graves, and what would they care if we remind the world where they lived? But Dr. Pevsner, you do look shocked—is something the matter?”

I read them the first sentence of the telegram, and we had a cheerful toast with a bottle produced by one of the undergraduates—the rest of which bottle they consumed off in the desert with the conservation expert. The rest of my wife’s message I kept to myself.

The next day was the third to last of our planned stay. I had sent the messenger back to his office with a telegram for Caroline and another to the airport, asking if there would be a plane home earlier, but for now there was little to do but supervise the packing up of equipment and the filling of our excavations. The day was grey and hot, with the wind continually blowing stronger. Because of this, and the thus greater danger of collapse of the weakened walls, only one person at a time was assigned to keep digging in the large room. I had the last turn, when it was drawing on to evening and both the platform and the floor had been dug through to expose the sand on which they were built. The space exposed was about three feet long by two across, and I was going to dig out a foot or two of sand in case anything had dropped there during the construction of the floor, though I considered it most unlikely that I should find anything.

I had taken out six inches or so of sand when the next sweep of my brush revealed a nose. A few more passes and I was looking at a face. The features were roughly cut in a black stone, a hard granite, and it looked like no other style of statuary that I could recall.

I kept digging, revealing shoulders and a chest, thinking that here at last was a find beyond question. The epigrapher suspected the ostraka, and indeed I myself would have been suspicious if someone else had found them as I did—always alone, and with texts always providing confirmation of my proposed identification of the site. Nothing would have been easier than to bring along a few pieces of pottery and compose messages in a language that I claimed not to know, for there are few means of dating scratches. But I could not be suspected of having secretly made, transported, and buried beneath sand and mudbrick this statue, which promised to be life-sized and would thus weigh far, far more than a single man could move or conceal.

I pushed more sand away from the head, using my hands so that I could feel if any materials remained of perished decorations—a necklace or garland of long-faded flowers, for example. There was only sand, and as I removed it I could see that folds of cloth had been sculpted around the head. If the large room were indeed a church, and the raised platform the place of the altar, this statue could be the cenotaph of a martyr or even the founder of the cult, shown wearing his cowl.

I hoped to reach his hands, thinking they must hold some attribute, some marker of his identity. Even if they did not, such a large statue was the sign of a community of some sort, and was besides an object impressively strange enough to attract donors who would allow me to return and excavate again. And if I found more, I would have a career, and be able to raise my son—whose name, it just then occurred to me, I did not yet know.

The Egyptian twilight is long, but the sun was now fading and the sand blown by the wind obscured the light even more. I began to brush away the sand from the chest of the statue, for it was no use fetching the others, since night would fall before they could see my find. I blew off the final grains of clinging sand and there, crossed on his breast, were his hands.

His left hand held a cross, carved out of polished black granite. His right hand, pressed over his heart, held a cup of the same glossy black. Its rim was broken, and into my mind came the memory of the three ostraka, balanced together on the table. The shape they made would have perfectly fit into the break.

As I saw this, from the rim of the cup came welling some thick, dark liquid, which dropped from the broken edge and ran into the surrounding sand, forming the shapes of letters. Another memory of the night before rose in my mind, and I looked again at the face of the statue. Its rough features, its sharp-cut nose, its eyes, which were polished and glittering in the last of the light—all were the same as those of the monk who had appeared in the doorway. I dropped my tools and scrambled away, first on my hands and knees and only at a distance managing to regain my feet.

I do not know if it was I who had knocked against a wall in my haste, or if it was the wind—which had begun to howl among the dunes—or some other power; but as I stood, the walls of that corner fell. The sand pent behind them poured into the room, burying the platform and all I had found beneath it, while more sand, blown in by what was now a sandstorm, began to fill the whole room up to the level at which we had begun.


It would have been simple enough to dig through the sand again the next day, but instead, I told no one what I had found. It meant abandoning the excavation and all hopes for its continuation, but as soon as I had given the orders to make our final preparations to leave, another telegram came from my wife, saying that the operation had been successful.

The task of archeology is to enrich the present with knowledge of the past, but there are some things which belong to the past entirely, and which it jealously guards. I leave this record, disguising names and places, for my son and, if she survives me, my wife, to explain why we had to endure the difficult period after my return, when even after I moved to another university, the gossiped accusations of the epigrapher followed me—that I had forged the ostraka, and even that I had obtained the help of my wife to do so, for she knows Coptic very well. I once, many years later, drew the letters I remembered formed from the liquid on the sand, and asked Caroline what they were, without telling her where they were from; she said that they were a bit of the Coptic version of the New Testament, and read, “My only begotten Son….”

We are happier now. I have found another career, and deal much more in the present than in the past. My wife succeeded to the position of the epigrapher, who died suddenly, a year or two after our return, from a heart attack. Among his papers was found a letter from a learned journal, accepting his proposed contribution of an article on a Coptic letter found on three ostraka; but as his notes for the piece were still indecipherably cryptic when he died, and the ostraka themselves were never again seen, the article remained unpublished. Some things are better left hidden under the sands.