July 23, 2012. Monday, 7:00 am.
Bruce is at his home in north London. He’s making breakfast and checking the weather report in Alaska. Has a flight scheduled from Heathrow. Background info about the reason for his sudden change in plans; info about the “Cook Papers” and historical info about Captain James Cook.
Receives a call from Stephen, a student of Professor Hausch’s working at Anchor Point. Stephen tells Bruce that Doug wants him to change his flight. Advises Bruce about the men showing up at the site and telling the UCL researchers that they were taking it over.
Bruce thinks back to the call from Doug just before that happened, how they’d found the fossilized mammoth and the other skeletons. Significance of the findings. Advises Bruce that his work on a book of Russian herbalism could be of use to them, as well as donating his time and rep to photographing the site.
When Stephen tells Bruce that the men at the site were speaking Russian, Bruce thinks to himself that he knows what happened. Doug had mentioned consulting a Russian PhD for advice and Bruce immediately knew that was a mistake.
Bruce had set his alarm back an hour the night before so that he could finish packing and make it to Heathrow on time for his 9:00 flight. Instead of tea this morning, he was brewing a strong cup of coffee. He stood at the stove, adding a slice of tomato to the skillet that already contained two eggs, a slice of bacon, and a piece of buttered toast. Outside the window, the morning mist that covered the north London neighborhood was slowly dispersing as an overcast sky brightened to a light shade of flint.
Unless he was on assignment, Bruce stood here most mornings cooking his breakfast and considering what to shoot that day. There was a time when a rolling fog and thick, sun-obscuring clouds would discourage him from taking his camera out at all. But the digital revolution in the late 90’s replaced the film in his camera with memory cards and photo printers, transforming his darkroom into an office. Suddenly, it became much more cost effective to experiment with various aperture and shutter settings and to use inclement weather to add context to a scene; a hazy foreground could add an element of mystery while a background mist placed a subject sharply into focus.
Though his landscape work required him to travel, spending months on end hiking and camping, most of the time alone, he suddenly found that he was better able to produce artful images close to home. Using the soft ambient light of a cloudy day, he could walk to the park near his home and take close-up photos of the violet jacaranda tree or the flowering dogwood, filling the frame with vivid detail and vibrant, eye-catching color. He crafted these images to have a shallower depth-of-field than his countryside or seascape panoramas, and as demand steadily grew, Bruce realized that what people were really being drawn to was the beauty that existed in the ordinary things that they encountered every day.
He sat down at the table to have his breakfast and to think about his sudden change of plans. He sipped his coffee and opened his laptop to do a quick search for a weather report in Alaska. In mid-July, temperatures are in the 50’s and 60’s with modest rainfall and rarely any storms. He made a mental note to add a sweatshirt and a pair of thermals to the neatly rolled t-shirts and socks already in his backpack. Though he’d never traveled to this region of the United States, he’d hiked and camped through the northern climates of Sweden and parts of Russia, both at similar distances from the Arctic.
After rinsing his dishes in the sink, he cleared the table, snapped the laptop closed, and placed it in the bag that he’d allow to be checked when he got to the airport. His camera equipment, however, he would keep within reach in his carry-on. Besides the Nikon with his go-to lens, the 24-70mm, he packed a telephoto lens that could double as a macro with the aperture settings adjusted. He included a small point-and-shoot along with a wallet filled with blank memory cards that would fit into either camera. Battery grips, a charger, and backup hard drives went into the bag as well. The fold-up tripod could easily be replaced so he’d trust that to the airline. He was meant to be covering the Olympic Games taking place here in London, but instead, he’d agreed to fly to the states where Doug and his team of researchers from the archaeology department at UCL had asked him to document the dig site they were working on. He hadn’t had time to research the “do’s and don’ts” of how to properly document an archaeological site. Though he doubted there were any similarities, the nearest thing he could find on such short notice was a used book store with a copy of a forensic police manual on how to photograph an autopsy. Regardless, he would have plenty of time on the 12-hour flight to read some articles online.
Bruce – along with the rest of the world – had been watching the progress Doug and his team were making at Anchor Point. He and Doug had met during their sophomore year at London’s University College, and for the past three decades they’d stayed in touch and followed each other’s careers. Bruce wondered how his friend was handling the pressure of the international scrutiny that the dig in Alaska was getting.
The media frenzy had started six months ago, with what they’re now calling “the Cook Papers.” A graduate student at UCL had been researching a thesis in biology about the effects of ocean warming on the coral reefs of Australia. While scanning some manuscript copies about the exploration of the Queensland coast in the 1700’s, she came across some documents that seemed to have been misplaced. When she brought them to Doug’s attention at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, he realized immediately what they were. The writings were copies of the missing pages from a journal about Captain James Cook’s expedition in 1779, documented by Henry Roberts, one of his lieutenants.
On Captain Cook’s third and final journey, two ships, the HMS Resolution and the HMS Discovery set out from England with the hope of mapping a north-west passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific via the Canadian Arctic. They sailed south-east around the continents of Africa and Australia, arriving at the Hawaiian Islands, or according to Captain Cook, the Sandwich Islands, seventeen months later. They continued north through the Bering Sea, mapping for the first time the western coast of what is now Alaska.
Doug and the other scholars he consulted with were surprised that the documents the young researcher found were copies made of the original journal entries when they were still in perfect condition. According to history, those pages had been destroyed long ago. It was rumored that the delicate papers had been carelessly handled and rendered illegible when an oil lantern tipped over on Henry Robert’s desk not long after they were written. However, these copies prove that in fact that never happened. The immediate and most intriguing mystery was that if the original pages survived into the twenty-first century, where were they now and who produced these copies?
When the documents were closely studied by Doug and his colleagues, one particular journal entry captured their attention – and their imaginations. It was dated July 20, 1778, almost 234 years to the day these manuscript copies were found. The phrasing of it seemed purposely vague as Lieutenant Roberts told of a ‘repository of items’ that was buried for safekeeping on the shore of an inlet north-east from St. Augustine. The historians were all in agreement that Roberts was likely referring to the peninsula now known as Anchor Point. The modern-day rumor about Anchor Point is that it was indeed named for Captain Cook’s arrival at the small inlet in 1778, but that his ship, the HMS Resolution, had literally lost an anchor when they were moored there.
The scholars immediately sought funding for a dig, insisting that the writings would be proven authentic and that, according to history, Captain Cook and his men never returned to Anchor Point, Alaska. Farther north, the two ships were stopped by the sea ice and had to turn back, deciding instead to explore the coast of Asia. From there, Captain Cook made the fateful decision to return to Hawaii. Upon his arrival, a dispute with the islanders turned unexpectedly violent, and Captain Cook and four of his men were killed. From that point on, Captain Charles Clerke took control of the expedition, but then he died of tuberculosis on the homeward journey. The ships returned to England in October of 1780, having lost both Captains but with the first complete maps of the western coast of Canada and the eastern coast of Siberia. No mention was ever made of a return venture to the northern Pacific region.
Suddenly, Bruce heard a muffled ringtone. He quickly made his bed and found his phone.
“Is this Bruce?” A young man, sounded either American or Canadian.
“Yes. Who’s this?
“Uh, Stephen? I’m calling from Alaska. I’m a student working the Anchor Point site with Professor Hausch. Or, I was working it. He told me to get in touch with you to make sure that you changed your flight.”
“Changed my flight? Why would I do that.”
“I guess you haven’t seen the news yet? Every national network is here. Yesterday afternoon some guys showed up at the Point and said that we don’t have the right to dig here and that the site is being appropriated. We have no idea who they are. Professor Hausch started arguing with them. They showed him some paperwork but he wouldn’t back down, so then one guy just bashed him in the forehead with something. He got right back up but his head was bleeding pretty bad.”
“Yea. Anyway, no one has seen him all afternoon. He told me to call you right away but I didn’t have a chance until now. Things have been so messed up around here.”
Bruce turned on the news but they were reporting from the Olympics here in London. He went online, found the story, and quickly skimmed the information for keywords that caught his attention. There was an image of two men in plain clothes, khaki pants and black shirts, could be military … or not, their backs were to the camera. He didn’t see any weapons but one of them was his height or taller and they looked really fit. Definitely muscle. The article only said that “work on the dig was halted while claims of ownership of the find were being determined.”
“Stephen? About my flight, do you remember if Professor Hausch specifically said cancel or change?”
“Oh, yea. He said to tell you that they didn’t find any gold and to change your flight. And that he’d talk to you soon.”
“Ok, good. Thanks. Is there anything else you could tell me about these guys? Is there just those two?” They seemed to be almost guarding the dig site. “Did Professor Hausch mention contacting the Governor or the Bureau of Land Management in DC?”
“Yeah, I think that’s what they’re doing now. After the guy slammed him in the head, I saw him go into the tent to get a towel and then out the other side with two of the other professors. They stood talking with this guy I didn’t recognize and then they walked away and they were all on their phones. That happened yesterday. This morning, like I said, we didn’t see Dr. Hausch anywhere, but the other professors told us to stay in touch with family and friends to tell them we’re safe and not to worry. That’s it. Now we’re all just laying low and waiting.”
Bruce buckled up his backpack, zipped his carry-on, and placed his passport in his vest pocket. It was too late to change his flight to Anchorage. Bruce knew that Doug’s message about not finding gold really meant that he would meet him in Sacramento instead of at Anchor Point. A few years back, Bruce had won an international photography award and there had been a reception at a gallery on L Street. First place went to a picture he’d taken with his 200-400mm zoom lens set at max aperture of a golden eagle in flight above the snowy hills of Drevja, Norway, with the deep cerulean sky in the background. Bruce decided that he would fly into Anchorage as planned, cancel the hotel and car rental, and then hop on a flight to California.
“Oh, and Bruce? One other thing. They had heavy accents and we could barely understand them. When they talked to each other they might have been speaking Russian, I think? I’m not exactly sure.”
Suddenly, Bruce knew exactly what had happened.
When Doug’s team was in place to begin researching the Anchor Point site four months ago, they’d started by canvassing the peninsula with ground radar, looking for the outline of a box or a wooden barrel or any indication that something had been buried there two-and-a-half centuries ago. They didn’t find anything like that at all. What they did discover, though, was infinitely more valuable from a historical perspective to the array of history, archaeology, and geology students working the dig. The radar showed the outline of what they guessed was a large mammoth, its bones possibly fossilized. When they proceeded with the dig, they in fact uncovered what archaeologists call a “kill site”- a swath of land where prehistoric hunters felled a mammoth and then camped for a time to rest and slaughter the animal.
News of their success instantly hit the internet and made headlines around the world. The professors and students had anticipated finding the remains of a campfire, various knives, stone arrowheads, and other tools such as eating utensils. They did indeed find all of these things, buried within a sediment layer that the geologists estimated to be about 9,000 years old.
Using the radar map to target precisely where to dig, they’d not only unearthed the mammoth, they’d also found the skeletons of three men and a small child. As the team collaborated on the findings, they were in agreement that the hunting party must have included women and children, and that they might have stayed in the region for quite a while. This working theory made sense as the inlet would’ve been good for fishing. Tustumena Lake to the north was a source of fresh water, and the nearby hills were probably dense with small game and wood for their cooking fires.
When Doug talked to Bruce two days ago, he told him that he hadn’t asked him to fly to Alaska just to photograph the site; though they’d had to conserve funding and would appreciate it if he’d lend his time and reputation to the project. Doug explained that they’d uncovered something that they were having a difficult time explaining and that his experience photographing landscape scenery in regions near the Arctic Circle could be useful.
Doug told him that a few meters away from the fossilized remains, they’d found another skeleton, this one of a woman, seemingly placed apart from the others but buried within the same grave site at the same time. What the team immediately observed was that her bones had a much different appearance than the men buried nearby. For one thing, despite being found in a 9,000-year-old grave, her remains weren’t even partially fossilized as the others’ were. In fact, if the geologists hadn’t been able to confirm beyond doubt that the surrounding strata of rock and soil hadn’t been disturbed in all that time, they might have concluded that she’d been buried there much more recently.
The woman’s bones were lighter in color and solid rather than porous. With approximate measurements of the woman’s pelvis, the length of her femur, and by noting the presence of suture lines on the skull, a forensic archaeologist on site was able to conclude with reasonable certainty that the woman had been childless, approximately six feet tall, and that her age could be estimated at 70 to 85 years old – all three factors being an incredible rarity among women living in this part of the world at that time in history. Most significantly, the skeleton seemed to be lacking the usual wear-and-tear damage that you’d expect to see, such as arthritic joints, compressed vertebrae, or worn-down molars. And if this woman had been healthy at the time of her death – so healthy, in fact, that her bones were decomposing at an inexplicably slow rate – then how did she die?
Doug knew that a professional photographer couldn’t be of much help with inconsistencies in the biological evidence. What Doug thought might interest Bruce – and what they needed his help with – was what they’d found in the grip of the woman’s bony hands. When they’d completely unearthed the skeleton, they’d been stunned to find a flat piece of rock secured in her grasp, a slate covered with ancient carvings of what looked like a map – with plants, leaves, arrows, and symbols from an ancient language drawn in the margins. The team painstakingly moved her remains from the grave site into a makeshift lab in a nearby tent. There, each bone was being carefully examined and they were hoping to determine a cause of death.
Bruce thought back to his conversation with Doug, which must have been just hours before the dig was taken over. Doug was telling him about the slate, about their initial assessment of the carvings and that they’d appreciate his input. Bruce knew that his friend’s effectiveness as both an educator and an administrator was the way he continually welcomed input from other professionals.
“There’s a chance that you might be able to help us with this. If not, well it’d be real good to see you anyway. This is information that for the time being, we aren’t releasing to the media,” Doug said.
“Ok. What’ve you got?
“Carvings on one side appear to be a map with the outlines of a river. Possibly the Ganges or the Nile. We don’t know the scale of the drawing so it could even be the Red Sea. We’re pretty sure it’s Europe or Asia but going back 10,000 years,” he paused, “so this is just a working theory. We scanned and uploaded the other images to the Linguistic Science guys at UCL and they have some real interesting ideas. Seven of the symbols, possibly more, are almost identical to ones found in the United States, in the Sloan Canyons of southern Nevada. Those finds are known to be anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 years old. Problem is, the Bureau of Land Management restricted public access to the canyons due to vandalism, so we only have access to about a third of what was found there.”
“I read about that,” Bruce said, “Something about its proximity to Las Vegas and a land dispute with contractors wanting to expand subdivision housing. The area is closed off to campers but, if I’m not mistaken, they’re approving some permits for hiking and horseback riding. With my credentials I’m sure I could get in there. We’re talking a span of a couple weeks, though, before I’d be able to get a complete set of images to you.”
“Actually, that’s not a priority right now. Thing is, here’s the kicker. And the reason you might consider it worth the trip. The other carved figures are similar to ones found by platinum miners in a cave in Krasnoyarsk, that’s in south-central Russia. I immediately thought of you and your expedition through the Urals.”
Bruce replied, “That is something. What’s the mileage from Krasnoyarsk to Las Vegas?”
“Precisely. If we could interpret the meaning of the symbols, and if we confirm that they’re connected to these regions on both continents, then what we have here is evidence, inarguable proof of prehistoric humans migrating from Russia to the United States.”
“Or possibly in the other direction?” Bruce asked.
“Not as likely,” Doug replied, “The Beringia land-bridge that connected Siberia to Alaska was submerged under glacial ice melt anywhere from 9,000-12,000 years ago. The mammoth population began thinning out about 10,000 years ago and there’s no evidence of any surviving in North America after 3,500 BC. We’re thinking that the first humans to populate the north-western United States were traveling across Beringia around 10,000 years ago, either on foot or by canoe, hunting down the last of the mammoths and then moving farther east to a warmer climate. We also think that they weren’t in much of a hurry. There’s been a lot of focus on this in just the past few years and even some DNA evidence, believe it or not. A 14,000-year-old molar found at a dig site on the Mongolian border contained enough dental pulp for a DNA sequence. Turned out it was of a man with genetic similarities connecting him to modern-day Native Americans.”
“Incredible what they’re able to tell these days.” Bruce said, “The petroglyphs in the platinum mine in Krasnoyarsk? You’d know better than I would about the history of that region.” On his trek through the Urals he’d been focused on specific species of plants and herbs for a book he was helping to edit. He still couldn’t see how he could contribute any insight into what they’d found.
“No, I know. The students and the guys back at UCL are working on the symbols. Also, we have a call in to Dr. Misha Petrova at St. Petersburg University. We forwarded to her scanned copies of the symbols and a summary of our theory about their possible connection to prehistoric Russians.”
Bruce’s stomach dropped. “Really? Are you sure that was a good idea?” He knew that Doug was used to collaborating with professors at various universities around the world, but Bruce knew that, especially in Russia, news travels dangerously fast and the government maintains strict controls.
“Huh? Sure, of course. Anyway, what I’d like you to take a look at are the carvings of flowers, leaves, and roots, with arrows that seem to point to specific locations on the map. We have a copy of the book about Russian herbal remedies that you provided the illustrations for in ’97 and we’re looking for similarities. We found some possibilities but we could really use your eyes on this.”
“You’re thinking the woman might’ve been a homoeopath of some sort? That plant-based compounds could somehow explain the unusual appearance of her remains?”
“I know, sounds a bit obvious. Thing is, the post-mortem condition of her skeleton isn’t the only thing unusual about this. This woman was easily five or six inches taller than the men buried nearby. She didn’t have children of her own and the chance of her being biologically related to any them is pretty slim. When we’re able to analyze the DNA from each of these skeletons, we’re betting there isn’t a genetic connection at all.”
“That doesn’t sound too far-fetched. A medicine woman traveling with the hunting party searching for what? Maybe the plants and herbs she was using in Russia were going extinct, like so many other species, and she was hoping to find them elsewhere.”
“Yea,” Doug agreed, “unsuccessfully if she ended up dying on the journey … of natural causes, anyway. That’s what the team is trying to determine now.”
“And you need my help with the possibility that she carved some kind of a recipe onto the slate when she suddenly realized her days were numbered.” Bruce was still bothered by the fact that Doug had contacted a Russian PhD for advice, but he kept his thoughts about it to himself.
Now, though, Bruce knew what Doug was getting at. Fifteen years ago, he’d collaborated on a book about Russian folk traditions and their use of medicinal herbs. He and two scientists had hiked through the Russian countryside for almost a year photographing thousands of species of trees, flowers, and herbs growing wild throughout the Urals, in and around Lake Baikal, and at the delta of the Lena River in the far north-east. One of the men had told Bruce that his Grandmother was an herbalist, famous in the small village where he had grown up, and that the book was a side project that he wanted to complete in her memory. After a time, however, Bruce began to suspect that this was just a cover story, that the men were interested in studying various types of natural compounds in order to determine their potential use in modern-day medicine.
Regardless of who they were really working for, Bruce had learned quite a bit from both of the men about natural healing practices in general while photographing some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Of course, he thought, it was anyone’s guess how connected the Russian folklore traditions were to the prehistoric hunters at Anchor Point. One thing Bruce remembered, though, was the men’s quiet respect whenever they were talking to the locals about their age-old herbal preparations. And the secretive caution when they were on a call that they claimed was to their editor back in Moscow.