Inns of Court
They finished their tour and
returned to the square. There was a
pedestrian passage that led to the busy thoroughfare of Holborn,
where there was a single unobtrusive sign announcing the museum to motorists,
who could not possibly have reached it from that direction. From there they made their way to Russel Square and on to the British Museum.
They had lunch across the
street before going in.
John Soan’s Museum is intimate and obscure the British Museum is as famous and imposing. It was arranged at the time when England was a super power, the time when exploration and
adventure were things of the greatest interest, a time when the heroic cadences
of “Rule Britannia” rolled through every Englishman’s heart, while in the
distance there was the sound of guns slowly shredding some hapless Galleon. This had been the nineteenth century, when
the world became as one. And to this
place were brought the trophies and artifacts that united the world’s treasures
beneath a single vast roof. The
enthusiasm of the explorers was so intense that curators are still returning
things that might just have well been left in place. But that was a different world. National integrity in the twenty-first
century was a far greater concern than it was in the nineteenth.
They found Dr.
Mortimer in his large office surrounded by stacks of broken
clay pots carefully laid out on tables and tabulated. Glass fronted shelves lined the room. All of the ancient artifacts seemed to be
made of clay and there was a sense of dust everywhere.
“Come in, come in,” said Mortimer cheerily. Mr.
George said you would be coming. He says you are interested in the first
“Whatever you can tell us,”
“Well I have recently proven
a theory. It has been right beneath our nostrils
for many years. Please be kind enough to
be discreet about this. My paper should
be published in a few weeks, and I should like it to be a surprise.”
“Our lips are sealed,” said Jon.
“Good,” said Mortimer. “Let me show
you one. First look at this.” He opened a cabinet and lifted out a tiny
figurine of a sheep done in terra cotta.
“You know what that is?”
“A toy,” said Tracy.
We thought so for many years. We
dig them up in some of the earliest ruins of Mesopotamia, thousands of years before Christ.
They look like toys, but we found too many of them. There were enough to choke every child in the
“So that’s what happened to
them,” said Ivan.
Mortimer laughed. “Then
we found these.” He took out a small
ball of clay a little over an inch across and what looked like piece of
photographic paper. “We found a lot of
balls like this. Here is an x-ray of
this one.” Evidently the ball was hollow
and contained a jumble of small objects.
“It is a handful of these little figures wrapped up in a layer of clay
“Retail packaging,” said Hapgood archly.
“Of course, but what we used
to think before you explained it is that these were bills of lading. Someone who needed to ship something, say
three jars of oil, would take three little models of a
jar of oil and seal them in clay. Then
he would give the jars and this little clay ball to the man who was doing the
shipping. When he delivered them, he and
the receiving clerk or the equivalent would break the ball and make sure the
number of jars matched what was inside the ball.
“Now here,” he took down
another clay ball, “You see these marks on the surface? They tell you what is inside the ball. This one should hold models for five measures
of barley, two measures of wheat and a pig.
On the x-ray you can just about make them out. But we have broken and counted enough of them
“So the marks on the outside
tell you what is inside,” said Jon.
“Right in one,” said Mortimer. “It was no
secret from the man who was running the barge or wagon just what he was
supposed to deliver. And he probably had
a number of consignments that he would be carrying at once. When he got to one of his depots, he would
count out the right number of animals, jars and so forth.”
“That’s handy,” said Jon. Having it written down he
didn’t even actually need there to be anything in the clay ball itself.”
“Exactly,” said Mortimer. “In fact we
think that this is the first example of writing anywhere. But they kept using the balls even though the
writing was all they needed. People
change slowly. Imagine what
happens. The barge arrives, the bargie and the receiving clerk look at the marks and agree
on what they mean, and they count out the goods. Then,” he paused for effect, “They break the
“Until they break the ball,
either of them can decide that it is the wrong shipment, or that the payment
has not been lined up, or it is the wrong dock or
whatever. But once they break the ball,
there is no going back. We talk about
‘sealing’ a contract with it is made final and ‘breaking the contract’ when the
contract is no longer valid. But here
the contract is made final when it is broken; sealing it happens earlier.”
“All right,” said Jon. “So this is your first
contract. It does seem very elaborate,
as Mr. George said it should be.”
“Before now,” said Mortimer. “What I told
you was a theory. All we knew was that
these clay balls existed with their contents and markings. But I have now found proof.
“Look at these,” said Mortimer, going over to a table. “What do these look like to you?”
“Broken pieces of clay pots
with markings on them,” said Ivan.
“Right again,” said Mortimer. “But why pieces of pots?
Why not just make flat clay tablets to write on?”
Jon said, “The curve of the clay pot would give it more
strength for its weight than a flat tablet.
A flat tablet would stack nicely, but if you were going to travel with
it, the shard of a pot would be tougher.”
“Exactly,” said Mortimer. “And we have
found so many potsherds with writing on them that it seems clear that most pots
at the time were made simply in order to be broken for this purpose. A single family will not go through many pots
in a year, but it will receive any number of shipment or parts of shipments.”
“What has this to do with
contracts?” asked Hapgood.
“What I have been doing,”
said Mortimer, “Is I have been scanning these shards
into a computer data base. Then I use a
pattern recognition program to see what matches. And just a few weeks ago I found two shards
that are from the same pot, where the break is between them. Here they are.” He pointed at them through the glass of a
closed cabinet. I don’t handle them, but
trust me if you put those two together they fit exactly. Here is a micrograph of where they
join.” The magnified picture made it
clear that the two sides matched perfectly.
“That must have taken a lot
of computer time,” said Jon.
“Yes, but I knew what I was
looking for. You see almost all of these
potsherds contain lists of goods. There
are two kinds of lists. Some of them are
things like barley and beer, things that would have come from the countryside. Some are things like cloth and metal objects
that would have come from a city. That
shard there is agricultural products; the other is manufactured products.”
“So,” said Jon. “They would write the
contract, the bill of sale, out on the shard and then break it in half to
indicate that deal was on.”
“You do the same thing
today,” said Mortimer. “You write a
check for the electricity you used in January.
The check indicates the amount of payment, and there is a place, if you
care to take the trouble, to write what the check is for. We don’t tear the check in half nowadays, but
the check is canceled when payment is made by the bank.
“It looks convincing to me,”
“And in fairly recent times they did cut the paper in half when they
made a contract.”
“Yes, an indenture. Exactly.”
“You must be very proud,”
While the conference in the British Museum was going on, Ali Kamali was standing in the court in front of Saint
Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican City in Rome.
He was looking at Cleopatra’s
Needle. It was an ancient obelisk that
had been shipped in from Egypt during the Italian renaissance. The task of standing the huge stone upright
had been an acknowledged challenge. An
army of men had been assembled, lifting towers set and an enormous collection
of blocks and tackle. In order to be
assured his teams would be able to hear their orders,
the engineer had secured passage of a law that onlookers should remain silent
on pain of death.
At the appointed hour, the
teams lined up, slack was taken in and the lift began. The silent crowd watched as miles of rope ran
through the blocks, the blocks began to smoke with the heat and the ropes
stretched. Part way up progress halted
as some lines were taken in and some played out to keep the vast weight
distributed. The obelisk stalled, and
the blocks grew ever hotter. Then an old
sailor stepped out of the crowd and shouted, “Water on the ropes.” The tackle was wet down, the stone erected
and the old man hailed as a hero.
There was a story that the
stone celebrated the Immaculate Conception, the birth of the Virgin Mary
without sin. Ali smiled at how the Western mind, with its preoccupation for phallic
imagery, thought of that. The
proclamation of the Immaculate Conception had been the only time that the Pope
had exercised his power of infallibility.
In order to be infallible, a statement had to be made “ex
cathedra.” It had to be a formal
official statement. “Cathedra” meant a
chair. So the statement had, if one read
it literally, been made out of the Pope’s seat.
Ali Kamili wondered how these infidels could rest from laughing
Inside he visited the
splendid collection of statuary and great maps on display. He made his way to the Sistine Chapel, built
to the proportions of the ancient Temple at Jerusalem and so famously decorated with the stupendous
frescoes by Michelangelo. It was a galaxy
of Saints and sinners, and ancient sibyls including Delphi
and Cumae, but on the ceiling it was God, represented as an old
man with a beard, who was the hero, grappling with the primordial chaos,
stewing the stars across the universe and approaching Adam with the touch of life. In one
image, God’s bottom was on conspicuous display.
Ali quietly shook his head in wonder.
He visited the Circus Maximus that had once staged great chariot races, and in
later ages had been a pasture for sheep.
He toured the forum and Palatine Hill . He saw the wonderful Fountain of the Trevi. If there was
sin in the making of naturalistic form, these unbelievers had taken it to their
When he visited the Pantheon,
the sun was shining although there was a light rain shower. The Pantheon had been built in honor of all
the gods but had not been a pagan temple.
No altars with cooking meat had ever stood before its doors. It was now a Christian Church.
The daring design consisted
of a classical box-like base with columns and steps in the front and a high
almost hemispheric dome covering almost all the floor plan. The Romans knew that an arch could be built,
with a keystone at top center that finished the structure and locked the other
stones in place. A vault could be built
by simply placing many arches, the one against the next. And vaults could be made to intersect.
But making a hemispheric dome
presented special difficulties. Most of
the way up, it was much like building an arch, but close to the top the stones
were trying to drop vertically and almost perpendicular to the fabric. It was hard to give them enough purchase on
each other so that one rank of stone would be secure on the rank below. And placing the keystone presented particular
difficulties, because there was no place to stand in order to lift it into
Near Eastern architects built
mosques with domed tops by reversing the curve as the structure came close to
being critical. The dome ended in a
point, giving the familiar onion shape to the top of a minaret.
Another stratagem had been
employed building the capitol in Washington D. C. As the dangerous topmost part of the curve
was reached, vertical walls were placed and a smaller dome was set on top of
Ali reflected that the cylindrical vertical segment was
not necessary. It would have sufficed
simply to place the smaller dome on top of the larger to cover the hole. But the result would have been a little dome
on a big dome. It would have looked so
much like a woman’s breast with a nipple that no architect in Ali’s experience had ever dared build that way.
In his mind, he likened the
shape of the Pantheon roof to the path he was traveling. The correspondence was not exact, but the
curve of the roof suggested the great circle from Mecca to Mexico City as seen from a point above the equator. As he remembered, adding the smaller top
curve would have place the northernmost part just about in Iceland, the home of Vikings, and of the last and most active
volcanoes on the route – excluding those at Mexico City herself. Iceland was also the location of the genealogy that might
answer the question. It seemed odd that
the others had flown right past it. For
that matter, they had gone right past Newtonabbey in Northern Ireland, which was on the line.
Inside the Pantheon, the dome
echoed with its own set of auditory harmonics.
The Western ear, accustomed as it was to the regularity of the
well-tempered scale of Bach, would have heard only noise. But Ali, with an ear accustomed to the more varied Middle Eastern harmonic
tones, heard a harmony within it that would have been lost on a Western ear.
The great space of the room
echoed with a tone that bespoke the presence of deity. The hems of the garments of gods had swept
the floor of this space since pagan times.
The rain came down, straight from the circular opening to the sky. Drops splashed in a circle in the center of
the gently arched floor.
At the same time, the
sunlight came down at a moderate obliquity, casting a circle of light centered
on a different place on the stone floor.
In the lens shaped space where the two circles overlapped, the raindrops
falling splashed and danced in refulgent beauty. Ali gazed long
before he took his leave.
He saw the Coliseum. He visited the vault of the altars made from
the bones of Capuchin monks and ended his tour at the church of San Peitro in Vinculi.
The church of “Saint
Peter in Chains” was home to another masterpiece by
Michelangelo. It was a statue of the
prophet Moses. He was
seated, but it seemed he had just come down from Mount Sinai. At his elbow he had the Ten
Commandments, written by the fiery finger of God on two tablets of stone. He seemed to be listening, as if he was just
beginning to hear the sounds of the Children of Israel as they worshiped the
Golden Calf. He was just about to go
into his famous monumental rage in which he would smash the tablets, burn the
Golden Calf, strew its ashes on water and force the children of Israel to drink it all.
Moses then went back up the mountain and got a second
copy. This time the first commandment
was that the children of Israel should not make any images of God. It seemed plausible to Ali that the extant version was a revision. Perhaps the original version had not placed
such emphasis on the image idea. A
change had been made because of immediate events. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the story of the worship of the calf
had been added to explain the position of the first commandment. Or perhaps it was all true or none of it was
true. Christians had a problem in that
their holy scripture was the work of many hands. The Koran at least spoke with a single
There was an oddity about the
statue. Moses was represented as having enormous horns. Scholars had explained that as a difficulty
in translation, but the scripture said that as he came down from the mountain
Moses’ face shown with a light so brilliant that none could bear to look upon
it. Ali could see the horns as the
spikes in the crown of Apollo, the spikes on the crown of a king, the thorns in
the crown of Christ and the spikes radiating from the head of the Statue of
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