Last time, Antonios and Medas began their descent by helicopter into the abyss of the Athenian sinkhole. When they arrive at the bottom, they find a hive of activity as the dig team are already excavating the area. Among the initial discoveries are some unexpected acquaintances. And no sooner than they have arrived, tragedy visits the dig site.
The hole was not exactly pitch black – it was too wide to keep the sunlight out – but as the Sun swept around to the west as the day went on, a sullen gloom sank languidly into it, with the flash of the helicopter’s headlamps accentuating the dimness rather than alleviating it. As the incoherent babble from the crowds above ground died away, an eerie calm took over, but it wasn’t until we reached the bottom that the full disgrace of the desolation presented itself to us.
The floor was perhaps half the size of the hole at the surface, making the hole look like an upside-down cone. Even so, it felt despairingly vast, and the majority of that sorry space resembled tragic landfill. Rubble, assorted ruined materials such as iron, steel, timber, piping, concrete, granite, clods of earth and grass, tree trunks splintered into jagged wooden stakes pointing upwards like stakes positioned at the base of a gigantic Roman phalanx. Elsewhere things were familiar only as fragments: some were vaguely humorous, such as the front half of a car pointing out from a small cove of debris as if ready to race; others were melancholy, such as the sign that had once hung above one of my favourite cafés, Christo’s (nothing else visibly remained of that fine establishment); to the downright macabre, such as hands, legs, fingers, and bones, the final signatures of just a fraction of the wretched souls who must have perished in such a horrifying manner. Patches of ground were lit up by recently-erected flood lamps, throwing accusing haloes onto the ugliness.
The debris had already been cleared away into a handful of large mounds at the perimeter, revealing a sight that took my breath away and caused me, much to my embarrassment, to cover my mouth with my hand. A path – no, a road, even – perhaps fifteen metres wide, was clearly visible, running from one side of the sinkhole floor to the other. Even allowing for the remaining debris strewn around, the road was decorated in ancient mosaics. Despite time and the violence of the recent catastrophe having faded the details of those decorations, the images still retained enough detail for them to be clearly identifiable to a couple of old classicists like us: they showed several large, muscular humanoid figures clutching spears and tridents. Some had been punctured by spears and clasped grievously at the wound. Their legs spiralled away into scaled serpents for legs.
“My God,” I said, hoarsely. I looked at Medas and for a moment I felt a mixture of admiration and horror towards her and admonishment towards myself, which was tempered by a large dose of Stoical firmament. Medas had spent almost her whole academic career investigating the mystery of the Giants. Was it really so outlandish that there was some merit to her research and intuitions?
Medas gave me a broad smile. “Sometimes, it is the unorthodox we have to follow.”
I let a little laugh out. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, my dear,” I said.
In the centre a large clearing had been made, towards which we descended, and it became clear that a helipad had been hastily established there. Ours was not the only vehicle to have descended. Two fat, khaki Chinooks sat side by side on the helipad, their rotors drooping lazily over their sides in rest. I nudged Medas with my elbow and nodded to the helicopters.
“No Greek flag on their sides,” I said. “They must belong to your shady benefactor.”
Medas looked away as if I hadn’t said a word.
Upon our landing Sofia the pilot helped us out, and we were immediately greeted by Alexis, wearing a hi-vis jacket over his two-piece suit, grinning and thrusting out his hands out in greeting. Flanking him were two big guys who said nothing but kept their eyes upon us. Acridity hung over the whole place, as though fire and not earth had consumed this section of the city.
“My friends,” he said. “I am so glad you could make it. Please, walk with me this way. Don’t mind Tweedledum and Tweedledee, they are here for security purposes.”
“Security?” I asked, slightly perturbed, as we walked, leaving Sofia by the helipad. “What security risks does this project pose?”
“Oh, none from a personnel level. Everyone here is carefully screened and vetted,” said Alexis, cheerfully.
Alexis stopped, the smile gone. “They are our lifelines. We don’t know what we’re going to find down here, Professor, do we Medas?”
Alexis stared squarely at Medas, who frowned at the man, made a scoffing sort of face and looked away. Curiouser and curiouser.
“As I say, they are our lifelines. Better to be safe than sorry, correct? Ex-Greek Army. They’re sympathetic to our cause, and willing to help us any way we can. Come, walk. You have a team to meet.”
“Cause?” I ventured. At my side I could sense Medas rolling her eyes at me for asking such a square question.
“Can you just leave the analysis for a second?” she muttered.
Alexis smiled at Medas. “No, Professor. Please do not stop your analysis. This is, after all, why you’re here. You and our other esteemed classical professor are here to offer opinions, interpretations and ideas apropos a greater understanding of the things we’re finding down here. What could be a greater cause than knowledge?”
It felt as though Alexis was purposely trying to push my buttons. We all knew I was the stick-in-the-mud Stoic who hadn’t even been invited upon this adventure, and it seemed he was determined to expose and humiliate what he presumed to be my clunky orthodoxy. I noticed a slight smile creep away from the corner of Medas’s mouth. She might have been seduced by the promise of Hellenist treasures, but she wasn’t so far entranced that she didn’t expect me to take such bait. “Well, that depends a very great deal upon what you intend to do with that knowledge,” I said, with as much foreboding as I could muster. “Knowledge itself makes not a cause. Knowledge unfettered, not tempered by wisdom, can be irredeemably destructive. Remember Paradise Lost. Satan was the highest and most brilliant of all God’s angels and believed that his own brilliance did not need to be anchored to the wisdom of God. And so he fell. What is Satan but the human intellect? The human intellect is the highest and most brilliant feature of the state of being in the universe, but when it hubristically loosens itself from the anchor of wisdom, there is nothing to be found but atrocity.”
Alexis gave me a nonplussed look. Good, I thought.
“Once again, we agree,” said Medas with a smile. She nodded upwards to the hole in the sky, gesturing to the world we had left behind. “Nothing but atrocity.”
I furrowed my brows. That was not exactly what I had meant but, upon reflection, would have made perfect sense from Medas’s perspective.
“And what have you found so far?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Come, this way,” said Alexis, his impish grin returning.
The mosaic road snaked through the mounds of rubble like a dystopian valley, lined by thick power cables and flood lamps that hummed aggressively. I sensed we were headed south-west, as the road was more or less straight, until we reached another clearing. There, a hive of human activity greeted us, and both Medas’s and my jaws dropped in awe. Men and women in dust masks, goggles, hi-vis jackets and hard hats and boots buzzed about, chatting, carrying things, digging, transporting items, artefacts, directing movement, analysing finds, kneeling, some up ladders, some in small, freshly excavated pits. Yet what awed us into hush was that the entire tapestry of human activity was framed by a vast, wooden double door. Ten metres high it stood, two rectangular doors making a square. The wood was chipped and clawed and pockmarked from millennia of rot and subterranean erosion, and covered in dust save for some gleaming patches that had been brushed off by the team. Yet despite its antiquity, the door seemed to hold firm, as though some magical ward had prevented its complete dilapidation. Either side of the door were two pillars of alabaster, around which coiled a knot of serpents, their mouths open in warning to any who would seek to breach that seal. The dire alarm of the silent snakes had been unheeded by the dig team, as one of the giant doors stood ajar.
“Holy Mother…” I said, the instinctive prayer dying in my mouth.
“Athena,” whispered Medas beside me. “Protect us.”
As we approached I noticed the door was in the shadow of a great, semicircular tympanum, ten metres wide. Every last centimetre of the tympanum was filled with depictions and scenes from the Gigantomachy. Hideous Giants – those distorted, revolting children of the divine – taking the form of huge men with scaled legs, wrestled with Olympians and Titans, while a menagerie of infernal creatures fought amongst themselves, and against men, and against the Gods. Lions, reptiles, whales, wolves, dogs, fish, bears, birds that pecked at the eyes of the warriors; all these creatures were there, and more. The Gods loosed arrows and thunderbolts, and cast wicked snares and hooks upon their quarry.
I looked to my colleague, and as much as I was awestruck by the sight, Medas was close to raptures by the scene. I heard her mutter the names of Giants under her breath: Mimas, Eurymedon, Lion, Asterius, and more, as a tear rolled down her cheek. I could not reciprocate. My brain scrambled, trying to make sense of the find. A thousand and more images rushed past my mind, trying to remember clues that might have concealed this treasure trove from me and my lifetime of studies. Kassandra, the froth of the Aphroditean oceans, the Phlegra or the Pelline. None of it made any sense in relation to Athens. Was the great Athenian empire built upon the ashes of that great battle after all?
“It’s quite something, isn’t it?” said Alexis. I hoped he didn’t expect us to reply, for I could find nothing sufficiently erudite or meaningful in my throat to say. So I stayed a dumbstruck fool, blinking at the sight before me. Instinctively, I reached for Medas’s hand, and to my surprise, she grasped it and squeezed. What a find this was!
As we stared, another man came shuffling along the worksite to us. A haggard man of advancing years, with a wrinkled smile upon his face and apparently no great pride in his personal appearance, he hove up to us and greeted Alexis with a nod and a rough handshake, which seemed to annoy our guide somewhat.
“Good morning!” he said cheerily in an old-fashioned English accent, and he looked my way. When he pulled off his hard hat and goggles, I gasped.
“Albert!” I exclaimed, taking him by the hand and pulling him in for an embrace, which sent a plume of dust up between us. “My God, man, what a delight to see you! I had no idea you were here.”
“My goodness, Antonios, let go, you’ll crush all my ribs. Yes, I’ve been here for three days now,” said the old Professor, and he proceeded to explain the circumstances of his arrival. “They didn’t tell me you would be here!”
“Well, it comes as something of a surprise to me, also.”
“Well, either way, it’s marvellous to see you, and to see you so well! And you must be Dr Kespas,” he said, smiling and shaking Medas’s hand with both of his own. “I am aware of your fascinating investigations into the missing papyruses of Ibycus, and your recreations of the Gigantomachia. It is wonderful work.”
“Thank you. Please, call me Medas,” she said, blushing. That was a first, but Albert had a strangely old-fashioned gentlemanly charm about him. I always wondered about his countrymen’s ability to act in such an archaic manner and yet manage to make it so endearing.
“Professor Winston came straight from Oxford at the first invitation,” said Alexis, proudly. “It was always our intention to have a world-renowned professor of philology and classical culture here at the dig. And now we have two! Well, as they say, it’s always good to have a second opinion. And wouldn’t you say the findings warrant it?”
“Oh, indeed,” I murmured, and I could not lie, for it was true. All the brains in classical academia would be needed to fathom this.
“Yes,” agreed Medas. “It’s beautiful.”
“Well, I will allow you two to catch up for a short time. Professor Winston, please ensure you’re at Site B in half an hour for the morning debrief. Then you two will have to be inducted and briefed on administrative procedure. It’s rather dull but mandatory, I’m afraid.”
Albert nodded, and Alexis left us.
“My God, my old friend,” I said. “What a pleasure to see you. It must be ten years or so.”
“At the Cancun conference, yes,” he said, with that old devilish twinkle in his eye. “I’m actually semi-retired now, but this seemed like too big an adventure to miss. One last party at the end of the world, eh?”
I half smiled at the joke, perhaps in poor taste, but these Englishmen always had a peculiar fondness for dark humour. “So tell me, Albert, I have to know. What on earth are we looking at?”
“Is it what I think it is?” asked Medas.
Albert looked at her. With dust smothered across his face save for the two clean circles where his goggles had been, he looked like a mad raccoon. “And what do you think it is?”
“The Gateway to the Halls of the Giants,” she said confidently. “In fact, that is only what I believe it to be called. Ibycus, in Stanza 420 of the Gigantomachia, used the word tharros, but in the sense of ‘safeguard’, as did Homer in the Iliad… so meaning safeguarding the Giants. And in the same stanza the former also wrote káto apó ti Gi… afxíthike sto aíma… Gigantes.”
“Beneath the Earth, risen in blood… Giants,” I murmured, translating.
“Hmm,” said Albert, nodding. “It’s certainly a big enough door for a giant, isn’t it?”
I wrinkled my brows. “Albert, you don’t seriously think that…” I didn’t finish the sentence, not wanting to give credence to the ludicrous notion. “Let us not conflate wonder with hokum. And don’t you think this whole endeavour ought to consider primarily those who have lost their lives recently? We are passing by the communal graves of the recently deceased.”
“Yes, yes,” he sniffed. “How I pity those poor souls.”
“What is there to pity?” said Medas. “They are gone. I hope they rest in peace, but they have been spared the ongoing misery of the world. It’s those who remain who truly suffer.”
I couldn’t help a shake of my head, but I kept my mouth closed; I had no appetite for further argument on this subject.
“Exactly, my dear,” said Albert. “Best to concentrate efforts on helping the living.”
“Not to mention the fact that this venture will generate a fortune in sales, proceeds and who knows what else our benefactor has in mind,” I said, making no effort to disguise my sarcastic cynicism.
Medas scoffed slightly. “There are things down here whose value is beyond money. Money is just a measurement device of mankind’s creation. But there some things you cannot calibrate. There are wonders here.”
Albert cast me a sideways glance, perhaps silently asking for some advice on how to take Medas’s cryptic remark. I simply patted down the air, telling him to let it lie.
“Well then,” said Albert, dusting off his hands, “let us then consider what lies ahead, not what lays beside. We are only a short way into the dig, but we’re making tremendous progress!” He clapped a dusty hand upon my sleeve, leaving a smudgy handprint there. “There’s enough material already for a lifetime of study. More than I have to give, but perhaps a gift to the next generation of brilliant minds,” he said, giving an affectionate look to Medas.
“What have you found?” she asked, evidently taken with the scruffy old coot.
“Many materials, many old artefacts, fragments of art, pottery, tablets even. Look at this,” he said, whipping a tablet computer from an inside pocket and showing us a tableau of photographs of items recently unearthed. He stopped at a tablet bearing a scuffed inscription.
“Let their hubris be buried beneath the mounds of Ge,” I said, reading and translating the ancient text.
“Behind that door lies a huge, unlit tunnel, that drives directly below the Acropolis itself,” whispered Albert with a wicked grin, as if we’d stumbled across some conspiracy. “We found this tablet above an alcove in the tunnel, and inset into the rock was a type of tabernacle, but too big for human use, and set six feet above the ground.”
“Apollodorus and Ibycus said that the giants were an embodiment of ‘hybris’,” said Medas. “They were punished for their excesses and struck down by the Gods.”
“Excesses is right. The Giants were perversions of nature,” I said.
“The Homeric term for ‘Perversion’ in the Iliad was also used in the context of ‘grown’,” said Medas. “The Giants grew, yes, as do all children, but they had ideas above their station. They did not honour their antecedents, and were struck down for that.”
“The Giants were made of the same stuff as the Gods. The blood of Uranus begat them after he was castrated by the Titan Cronus. Technically it was an act of infanticide to slay the giants, even if they were perversions.”
“Did not the Christian God ask Abraham to slay his own son, Isaac? And did He not create his children to Fall?” asked Albert. “It was Adam and Eve’s destiny to awaken into consciousness. If one takes God as the omnipotent abstraction that personifies the creative logos of the universe – and, what other sane interpretation can one have of God? – then surely it must have been within the folds of His design that Adam and Eve should forsake His wishes and become sinners? And did he not threaten His own children, created by His own hand, with damnation? As the kids say, free will is a bitch.”
“I don’t think any kids say that,” said Medas with a wince.
“But it is still free,” I said. “Abraham held the blade to Isaac but God stayed his hand at the last. The lesson is that once you are prepared to lose that which is dearest to you, can you reap the reward of that sacrifice.”
“Perhaps we are all fated to sin,” said Medas. “But with faith, we can be reborn.”
“Exactly!” said Albert with a flourish.
I coughed theatrically. “Tell me more about the dates of these items.”
“Why, they’re roughly eight thousand years old.”
“My God,” I said.
“Gods, you mean. Come, come, let’s not stay here,” he said, leading Medas by the arm way to the site. I followed a step behind them.
As we approached the hive of activity, I noticed some of the men and women by the foot of the left-hand door were becoming increasingly animated, and a commotion began to spread about the group. I looked in vain at my colleagues for some clue as to what was going on. One of the diggers, a local chap covered in black dust ran to us, yammering about help. Albert grabbed his arm, and in Greek asked what had happened. The man replied that a lady had been crushed in the tunnel by falling debris, and he was going to alert the pilots to ready themselves for an airlift.
We ran to the group. Dozens of people gathered by the door, and we could not see beyond the crack to the tunnel beyond. To our left a lady then clambered on top of a rickety looking foreman’s platform that oversaw the digging and archaeological activity at the foot of the doorway. She was handsome, with a face full of life and experience, though now its features had darkened with the news. She was handed a bullhorn by another worker, fiddled with it, and spoke.
“There has been an accident inside the tunnel,” she said, her voice harsh through the bullhorn. “One of the team has been severely injured. Everyone must gather here for a roll-call.”
“What has happened?” cried someone.
“Who has died?” called someone else.
“We can’t verify details yet,” came the response, but this seemed to me to be a smallish team. I could see sixty or so people. Even if they had been working with each for only a matter of days and for the first time, most of them would have become familiar with their colleagues. I could not imagine that murmurs and rumours would not abound.
I heard the name Maria on the lips of some of those nearby. Maria, they said. It is Maria who has died. Then came the swearing and the shaking of heads, and the disillusioned mutterings throughout the ranks. Alexis stood up next to the lady and snatched the bullhorn with some irritation.
“Whatever happened, we will look into it. Remember why you are here. Have you suffered any greater or worse fate than the thousands upon thousands of poor people buried in those great mounds just yards from our excavation site? We do not know that somebody has died yet. And you all knew the risks when you took this job. You are being compensated for these risks. Your families are being compensated for these risks. Remember the bigger goal here.”
When the crowd’s disquiet dissipated, Alexis’s irritation was quelled somewhat. After he told the teams to return to their jobs, I waited with Albert and Medas.
“That’s Helena Papidou,” said Albert, pointing to the woman on the platform who was now in conversation with Alexis, who did not look happy. “She’s the Lead Archaeologist for the dig. I worked with her years ago in Croatia.”
“You mean the Hvar site? Where the ancient Zadar warrior artefacts were discovered?”
“The very same, old chap. This dig team was assembled by her people.”
“Remarkable!” I looked upon her now with glowing admiration, for that had been a marvellous discovery.
Alexis walked to us with Helena in tow. “Professor Costas; Doctor Kespas. This is Dr Helena Papidou.”
She rather distractedly extended her hand, which I took, and gave a weak smile with her greeting. I sensed awkwardness, but losing a team member must have shocked her. I simply offered a short greeting, pronounced my sorrow at the loss, and shook her hand humbly. Indeed, a handsome woman, tanned and lined by many years working under the Sun, no doubt, and with many a tale to tell.
When the introductions were done, Alexis left us once more without a word of information on the accident.
“What on earth is going on here?” I asked nobody in particular.
“To be honest,” Helena said with a heavy sigh. “It’s something of a mystery to me also. But perhaps you three fine people can help.”