It all started with a call. A proclamation, "I found something," echoing off the millennia-old stone walls of the dig. Céline had put me in charge of the other archaeology students, while she went to the supermarket, and I wished she'd be back already. This Gallo-Roman staging post was so different from anything I ever excavated. There were stone walls, reassuring in the certainty we'd find them if we dug in the right place, but also deep, endless backfills to empty that required days of heavy labor with pickaxes to get to the occupation levels. Three weeks in, undergrad students with pickaxes in their hands and little to no field experience still stressed me out. There was something counter-intuitive about the process of getting rid of a section of the ground instead of meticulously inspecting it. I was used to prehistoric digs using more sensible instruments like trowels and sieves, not this grueling work of demolition by half-naked people—I'm sorry, bathing suit tops and shorts do not make for a full set of working clothes, even in the South of France in the crest of a summer heatwave. And no, flip flops do not count, Sabine, please put your sneakers on. I know you'll still lose a toe if you land this pickaxe on it, but closed shoes when you are using it, that's the rule, remember?
I might have leaned on the side of caution, asking the six student volunteers to talk to me if they had any doubts about what they were working on. Better safe than sorry. Or so I thought until Julie called me from across the dig, again.
A student next to me was on her knees, scraping the floor with her trowel to uncover the level of occupation we found yesterday. She gave me a perfect illustration of what my back must look like, an enhanced version of a truck driver's tan with the addition of a dark brown half-moon on the lower portion.
"Look, I found another one," she said pointing at a shard of ceramics lying flat on its side. Six pieces so far in this room, each one helping us track the floor this pot had crashed on some two millennia ago.
"Sabrina," Julie called again.
I rolled my eyes. "Coming!"
I stood up and massaged my palms tight with cramps, while checking on Karim in the adjacent storage cellar. He still worked on a pile of crushed jars against the back wall he found this morning, removing the pieces one by one to draw and catalog the jars' profiles later. He hoped their shapes were unique enough to end up in a museum, but they looked like standard Roman amphoras to me. No museum wanted more amphoras. Even back then, you couldn't have enough wine, apparently.
Ten feet away, Julie waved her arms at me from the stables, the strings of her bikini top flapping on her perfect golden skin with every movement of her arms above her head. Bénédicte, her shirt tied in her dark curls in a keffieh type of situation, was showing all her teeth in a grin that was Béné 101. She was going to major in Gallo-Roman studies next year and was overexcited about anything and everything. Weird to think the three of us were about to turn twenty-one, when I was always looking ahead and they seemed to bask in every moment like it was all that mattered.
A stone wall a few blocks high separated their area from where I stood, but I knew they still had a good foot left of backfill to clear before they could expect to find anything worth calling me for.
They looked at each other with starry eyes. Oh boy, what now?
"We found a treasure!" they squealed in unison.
"A treasure. Look!" Béné yelled, pointing at something I couldn't see.
"Shush," I whispered while I was over the wall in a second. Were they insane? A treasure. Like it was a thing. Treasures were for pirates and kids, for people with too much imagination. The last thing we needed were rumors. We would be flooded with nosy neighbors looking for a scoop to tell at the dinner table and wannabe archaeologists scouting the surroundings looking for this treasure, imagining a coffer full of gold, or some other nonsense.
I crouched to look to where they were pointing. The edges of two silver coins peeked through the soil.
A shiver of excitement ran up my spine. I realized I had no idea what qualified as a treasure or if it was a word we should use as archaeologists. Probably not, but it had a nice ring. It made the discovery seem important, valuable. Whatever this was, it was the most exciting thing we found so far. How Julie didn't shove it off with her pickaxe was a mystery.
"We stop everything," I said to the students, who swarmed in after Julie and Béné's loud announcement.
I ran to the shade of the riverbank and reached for my phone in my backpack.
Céline picked up on the third ring. "Which chocolate do you guys like better, the one with the almonds or the weird puff rice thingies? I can't remember," she started. I could hear the ring of the cashier in the background and a supermarket promotion barked on a crackling microphone for a two-for-one toilet paper pack.
"We found silver coins in the stables," I said in a hushed voice, as if the trees behind me could hear.
I wasn't sure she was most surprised by the probability of this discovery in this specific location, or by its timing when she wasn't on the dig, or both—probably both—but her frustration rang loud and clear.
"I'll be there in thirty minutes," she said. "Stop everything." I nodded like she could see me, the good little soldier who anticipated everything. "You stay by the findings. I want you there until I arrive."
I fast-walked back to the area, full of a new purpose and guilt at leaving the coins unattended. I should have sent someone to grab my backpack. I was in charge, and I left this treasure alone, with super pumped students who might want to touch it or see it a bit too close. But everything was fine. When I arrived, the two coins were still there, not another inch of soil disturbed around them. Too happy to have an excuse to rest, they circled Bénédicte like a chorus supporting its lead actor as she reenacted her dramatic stop, the ghost of Julie's pickaxe held in the air, and the fateful ray of sunshine that gave away the coins before the damning blow. We were in full Greek tragedy mode. Total anachronism. I would have played it more crossing-of-the-Rubicon style in good Roman manner, showcasing how I changed the fate of the dig with this one decision, but she had good vision, I'd give her that.
I shoved them out of the stables before the encore, and sent them on a break.
I looked closely at the edge of the coins buried in the ground. It was the first time I saw coins on a dig, or any kind of precious metal for that matter. I itched to grab my trowel and reveal what else was there.
A branch snapped somewhere behind. I scanned the forest a few feet away but saw nothing. If this was Béné trying to prank me, I was going to kill her. I looked at the river, but here she was, plucking wild raspberries from the bushes by the edge of the site, and throwing them into Sabine's mouth. Maybe it was a hiker on one of the paths snaking nearby.
Twenty minutes later, Céline parked her dust-covered Peugeot, and Béné and Julie ran to her. I stood guard by the coins while Béné filled her in on Julie's exploits and her role in this discovery. She was so loud. I could hear her from across the field. Céline sent the students back to work. Her floppy hat nodded at the tale, but a finger in front of her mouth shut Béné up. She walked to my area, Julie and Béné in tow.
Without a word to me or the girls, Céline placed the checkered black and white scale next to the coins and snapped a few pictures. Then, she unsheathed her trowel from her belt and loosened the ground around the silver coins. We kneeled around the discovery, mesmerized as the head of one of the coins emerged. The Greek nose, the young face, the laurel wreath crowning him. "Julius Caesar?" I asked.
"It could be. Size-wise it looks like a denarius," she said, identifying the currency denomination. I brushed the edges of the coin to see if there were any inscriptions around the ruler's head, when a spark of gold appeared. My heart bit faster. Were there more coins underneath? Could this be a real treasure?
Céline scraped the ground and I wished we had the proper tools to do this, like on my last Paleolithic dig. Dentist instruments anyone? This looked so precious, so fragile. She grabbed the brush and removed dirt from the metal until we could see the bend of a round object. A ring? She continued her uncovering with incredible meticulousness despite her inadequate tools, until she cleared a small oblong-shaped stone setting on the gold band. The stone was missing, and I let a breath out as she straightened up to stretch her back.
"This is incredible. What is it?" I asked.
"Probably a cache." So, not a treasure, semantically at least.
"What does that mean?" Julie asked and I was glad she did, because I never heard of it in an archaeological context.
"It's what we call a grouping of objects like this that we think was intentional and put there all at once by the same person."
"Like a stash of cash under the mattress?" Béné asked.
"It's not the monetary value that defines it, though it's sometimes the reason that leads to the gathering like here," Céline said, removing a cluster of soil.
"How do you know it's a cache?" Béné asked.
"Money and jewelry all together? In a stable?" Céline said. "I have a hard time believing it dropped from someone's pocket and nobody picked it up. Look here." She pointed at a few shards of red terracotta tiles. "This is a part of the roof that collapsed. Maybe it was hidden in the wooden frame of the roof by someone to keep it safe, or for someone else to find. This was an important stop on the road. Here." She pointed with her trowel before snapping another close-up shot. "I think this is a residue of a thread. These objects were probably gathered in a pouch, closed by a string, and the leather or textile disintegrated with time. We'll take a sample to see if I'm right, and if so, what type of material was used."
I was finally going to have an exciting story to tell! Whenever I talked about the digs I volunteered on, the first question was always about what I found. I couldn't explain one more time that context and how people lived was what we were looking for. Sometimes I tried to fit in the bits that I found impressive. I mentioned the microliths on this one Mesolithic dig, explained how hard they were to find—an inch long at most—and how they were distinguished from any other stone fragments. But witnessing my audience's eyes glaze over was getting to me. I wasn't living up to their fantasy. Now, I would have a treasure and an awesome story about a pouch that disintegrated but found through context. Win-win.
The time to stop working came and went. We used up to the last minute of sun to make sure it was an isolated gathering. We didn't find the stone that must have been inlaid in the golden band setting. Lost during the excavation process or before it was even gathered in this pouch by someone two millennia ago for safekeeping, we'd never know. I wondered why the pouch was never retrieved by the person who left it there, or by the one it was intended for. I imagined a story of forbidden love, a young woman taking off a ring offered to her in secret before she visited some relatives.
"Did anybody come checking on the dig while I wasn't there?" Céline asked, putting the two coins she just removed in a plastic box.
"No," I said, but dreaded what else I had to say. "There was some noise on the trail behind, but we didn't see anybody." I hoped this "we" didn't sound too miserable, since I was on watch duty.
"Probably hikers. Leave no trace of where we were excavating today. People go crazy with what they can't see. They always assume there's more."
This sobered me up and refocused me on what was still left to do. Keep the dig safe. "Should we set up a decoy section outside the excavation area?" I asked, grabbing a bobbin of yarn and a box of nails. We couldn't rebury the rooms we found, but we could make them look less interesting; something excavated a long time ago, that already revealed all its mysteries, while another area was under scrutiny. We did it in a Neolithic dig I worked on two years ago. We set up a fake area of study to draw attention there, while removing any indications of where we were actually working. We didn't get a chance to see if it worked, since nobody came messing with the dig, but I always thought it was a cool idea.
"No," Céline said. "This site is more than just one period. This road existed way before the Romans paved it over. We don't know what could be in the layers underneath."
I put down the yarn and nails, feeling stupid I forgot the responsibility to preserve the future excavations that might be done, while conducting our own.
The sun was setting, and it was time to head back to the house. Karim's arm draped around her shoulders, Julie held the box acting all cool, but I had in my hands the soil sample taken by the coins and the ring. I potentially held microscopic traces of leather inside this plastic bag. This was next level badass. I tripped on a rock and Béné grabbed me by the arm. I straightened my back and renewed my grip on the sample bag. It was dirt. Just dirt. You can't damage dirt, I repeated to myself over and over as I nodded a thank you to Béné and stared at my feet for the rest of the walk back.
At the house, I went straight to Céline's room. I lay the sample bag carefully on her study table, when Béné came to me. If she said one thing about saving the sample, I swear…
"We're getting us some wine," she said.
"We have three bottles of muscat already." Julie already had one out, and was filling glasses of the liquorish white wine.
Béné gagged. "I'm sick of muscat. It's too sweet."
I smiled at that, and looped my arm in the crook of hers. "I couldn't agree more."
The neighborhood shop sat across from the municipal building. The mayor put it at our disposal for the summer. The shop was the social component of the village and the only chance anyone would get to see another soul. It was a mismatch of food, wine, and tourist traps. Béné browsed the shelves, considering the olive oils, lavender pouches, and glazed ceramic models of cicadas painted all manners of blue and yellow. I said bonjour to the old lady behind the counter. She answered me with her eyes on Béné's extended finger grazing her goods. I elbowed Béné to let the ceramics be, since she wasn't going to buy any.
Béné turned to me. "You know, Karim doesn't really like Julie, right?"
"Why would I care? They can do whatever they want."
If she thought she was going to rattle me with this, she was in for a ride. "Do you want white or red?" I asked. I had to redirect her to the task at hand: wine.
"Well, you nearly fell when he put his arm around her shoulders, so… I think we're past denial."
"It's a rocky path. I didn't pay attention, that's all." I couldn't tell her I was jealous Julie was the one to find the coins.
She looked at me with a lopsided grin. "Hmmm."
"Béné, white or red?"
"I want to ce-le-brate. We deserve it after today," she sang in my face with a high-pitched voice. She turned to the old lady who moved to rearrange the postcards on its stand to keep an eye on us. I saw her make this move three times already when I came into the shop. I wondered if she considered herself stealthy, because she definitely wasn't. "Do you have any champagne?"
"Crémant only. Lower shelf to your right," the old lady said pointing to the bottles.
Béné went for it.
"This is basically muscat with bubbles. Can we please take something else?" I begged her.
Béné pouted. I was no fun. She left the awfully sweet fake champagne on its shelf and picked a bottle of red, while I selected the driest white wine I could find.
The next morning, I woke up to a dry mouth and a splitting headache courtesy of the combination of white and red wines I shouldn't have mixed. The sun already filtered through the blinds. I'd have to get up soon. I popped two aspirins into my mouth, downed them with some water, and fell back on my cot ready to snatch a few minutes of sleep, but I was wide awake. I was wired. Yesterday's discovery was special. I was now part of something that would be remembered. Well, at least, some of us would remember. I looked at the rest of the room still asleep, limbs askew, overflowing from half unzipped sleeping bags, one toward the back snoring from too much booze. Karim's cot was empty.
I ran my hands a few times through my curls to tame what could be and stepped outside the bedroom in my pajamas.
Céline emerged from her bedroom first, hair in disarray, face still groggy with sleep and eyes half-shut from too much light or too much alcohol yesterday. She dragged her bare feet across the floor and crumbled on the bench to rest in the long journey from her bed to the fresh pot of coffee I made. I smiled at her. If I got my own dig one day, I hoped I'd be cool like her. Drink my share of wine with the volunteers and look miserable the day after without shame like everyone else.
I grabbed the largest mug, filled it to the rim with black coffee and put it in front of her. It earned me a mumbled sound of consonants that I took for a merci.
"What do you think we're going to find today?" I asked, sitting across from her.
"We have to finish clearing the debris from the roof, where the pouch was. I want to get to the occupation level in the stables now that you guys are done with your sections."
Right. Back to normal. "I still have to finish the main room, but I should be done by lunch," I said, calculating in my head the amount of work remaining. I got distracted yesterday with this treasure business. I had a lot of work to do today to make up for it.
"You do that first, I need to photograph all the synchronous levels today."
Karim came in with a big bag of pastries and the smile of someone who knows he just did a good deed. Céline eyed the bag with an air that tallied how many she could snatch in one go and he put the bag on the table next to her after grabbing one for himself and one for me.
"Where did you get these?" she asked with a smile that opened her eyes. Our village was so small, it didn't even have a bakery. On Sundays, the first one awake took the car to get fresh bread and pastries for everybody, but on a workday? Damn Karim. He was scoring some serious points with this.
"Saint Seriès," he said, pouring himself some coffee.
"They have the best pains au chocolat," Céline said, savoring her first bite eyes closed, "but the lady at the counter, I can't."
"I know," Karim said. "She was all over me this morning."
"She bothered you?" Céline asked, raising her head.
"No, no, not like that. I mean, I got a bag of chouquettes for free," he said, winking at us. Okay, now he was overdoing it. "But you know how she is, always asking what we do on the dig, what we found. I swear she wouldn't let me go this morning."
"Why? Did you say anything?" Céline asked.
"Of course not," he said, offended she would even suggest it. His overreaction triggered me.
I thought about the old lady spying on Béné and me when we bought wine the day before. Could she have been listening in? The pain au chocolat turned mush in my mouth. Was Céline worried someone would try to steal the coins? Our house wasn't exactly high security. If someone rammed the door a few times with a shoulder, it would give. Maybe we should buy an extra padlock. I glanced behind Karim at the director's room, where we put the box with the coins and the ring yesterday, but Céline kept her eyes on him.
"What about you?" she said, her attention turning to me as if she read my mind. I choked on my pain au chocolat, coughing in my elbow. "You went to the shop yesterday, right? You didn't say anything?"
"I didn't." I tried to sound assertive, but I could hear my own doubt peering through. "I mean, we asked for some champagne, but I swear we didn't say why."
"I don't like this," Céline said.
Karim and I waited for her to elaborate, but she finished her pain au chocolat in one mouthful, rose from the bench, and headed to her room, closing the door behind her.
We looked at each other, but didn't dare comment on the implications of what she just said when she could hear us from her room.
She came back a minute later with her hiking shoes and windbreaker in hands, and propped her foot up on the bench to tie her shoelaces.
"Karim," she said, "you stay here. Nobody leaves the house, understood? Tell the others when they wake up." He nodded multiple times. "If a neighbor shows up acting nosy, you say nothing. I don't need or want this official until we document everything. The coins and the ring are still in my room and I want them here when I come back."
"You," she said pointing at me, and I froze, "Get dressed. We're going to the site."
I stood up from the bench and elbowed my mug. It crashed to the floor.
"For fuck's sake," Céline shouted. "You okay?"
I looked at my hands. No cuts, but they shook slightly. A few stains splattered my pajamas and Céline's shoes, the rest was on the floor, five large pieces and small shards drowning in hot coffee.
I went to the sink to grab a towel and patted Céline's shoes.
She raised a hand at me. "Don't."
I crouched to clean the mess, but it was hot. I didn't know how to go about any of this.
"You go. I take care of this," Karim said, picking up a roll of paper towels.
Céline nodded and I ran to the bedroom. Béné and Sabine were sitting in their bed, woken up by the noise. "It's nothing," I mumbled. "Go back to sleep." Béné looked at me unsure, but I nodded and she collapsed back on her cot. I slipped into yesterday's work clothes, grabbed my sneakers, and tip-toed outside.
When I came back, Karim had swept the mixture of coffee and small shards and was picking up the big pieces from the mug. We wouldn't be gluing back this one, that was for sure.
We took the main road that cut through the village, and left the paved road at the exit for the dirt path. I walked in silence behind her through the dried vegetation pearled with morning dew. We saw the forest, then heard the river, and approached the clearing opening up to the site.
Stains of unripe fruit littered the trail. Céline stopped. Someone had stepped on the wild raspberry bushes. I leaned to the side to see past her and scratched my leg on the bushes' thorns. The sting barely registered.
Two holes disemboweled the site. Piles of dirt next to them. One in the stables, where the coins had been, one in the staging post. In my room.
My head pounded. I had a vague sensation of my fists tightening.
Céline picked a scrap of metal at her feet. Her eyes were wild, computing what was left to do, what could still be saved, what she'd have to explain, what it meant for her research. "Fucking metal detectors. All of this," she swept the desecrated dig with her hand, "for this." She brandished the piece of metal as if she had her culprit, and it explained everything. "I hate coins!"
I stared at the piles of dirt next to the holes. Traces of lives we'd never get to reveal, study, make sense of. Knowledge gone forever, because someone wanted to find a treasure that wasn't there. There were smaller holes pockmarking the site too. Two people probably did this, or one who started small and got drunk on the feeling of treasure hunting.
"Every time there's metal on a site, every time I worry about this. I should have warned you, I should have…" She didn't have words anymore, but guilt didn't need words. It burrowed deep into my guts.
"They went for the exact spot we were working on," I said. They probably spied on us and came back at night. They couldn't have heard it from the shop, or they wouldn't have known where to look. A knot in my stomach loosened, but my neck stiffened. Or that's just where most of the metal scraps were. The backfills were full of them. They didn't need to know where to look. They just dug wherever the metal detectors beeped. Nothing to do with the value. I grinded my teeth. It didn't matter how they heard about it. I was in charge when this cache was discovered. I should have kept the dig quieter, looked into the forest to see who was there. Because there was someone there, I could swear it now. "Should we call the police?" I asked. There had to be something we could do. Anything.
Céline laughed and it gave me chills. "Sure. I'll do that. I have to, but it's gone," she said showing the site. "It's all fucking gone." And I knew what she meant. Objects might be recovered, but their context was lost. We weren't even sure they found anything but scrapes of metal. The real loss was the site. It was ravaged. It hurt looking at its gaping wounds. After all the care we took to make sure we didn't miss anything, didn't remove anything before mapping, documenting, sampling. I could see in my head the future maps of the site with large white shapes marking these holes in dotted lines, these erasures of what was, now forever gone.
Céline walked to the deepest hole in the stables. I let her go on her own. I had my own damages to mourn. I went to the staging post. To my room. My level of occupation, my unfinished work, never to be completed, because I had been so fascinated by this discovery, this treasure. My throat closed up at the depth and width of the hole. The ceramics shards indicating our occupation level, left on top of the floor to show our careful work, were gone. Only one remained, thrown to the side like a discarded object with no value. Did they find something? How much did I miss losing focus about what mattered?
I kneeled in my room and grazed the side of the hole with my hand. The fine grain of the topsoil slid under my palm, exposing the ancient layers below, hollowed out. One thing was for sure, the next time I'd be at a party, I'd have a story to tell, just not one about a treasure.
Title image "Uncovered" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2023.