498.72 meters down in Olkiluoto, off the southwest coast of Finland, the digging stopped abruptly. That’s when they called me.
Why officials at the Onkalo Repository intended to deep-store spent nuclear reactor rods would call me was, at first, more peculiar than troubling. They said they had unearthed an artifact and needed my expertise before they could resume excavating.
My expertise. Strange. Very strange. Because I’m a philologist.
What did these roughnecks at one of the most ambitious and contentious construction projects in Scandinavia need from someone who teaches and studies the history of languages? Had they unearthed some kind of Nordic Rosetta Stone?
The situation became muddier when I was briefed at the Onkalo site, and my liaison, Herv, nervously confided that the first expert they’d contacted, a paleontologist, had quit on them.
A paleontologist? I was taking the place of a paleontologist? That sat funny with me, scary funny, so as we descended the central shaft with Herv blitzing me about safety protocols, I asked, “Why did the paleontologist bail?”
“She thought we were pranking her?”
Fitfully, the elevator jangled downward. I waited.
“We showed her the artifact we’d unearthed, and she said it was impossible, preposterous. Complete tomfoolery.”
A philologist can appreciate a word like ‘tomfoolery.’ Like this shaft, its roots were deep: from King Lear to the jester of Muncaster Castle. The promise of tomfoolery almost 500 meters down in what was to be a nuclear waste storage site seemed more the province of Loki than a small university philologist still struggling to get tenure. But who wouldn’t be drawn to that dare?
Our elevator cage juddered to a stop, and Herv waved me along a side tunnel explaining, “As part of our safety array, we excavate parallel passages from the central shaft to the escape shaft at intervals of fifty meters. This passage is where we found the artifact.”
Up ahead I could see that the passage widened into a large semi-circular chamber lit very brightly. No one else appeared to be there.
“Just us?” I asked.
Herv hesitated. “And the artifact.”
I nodded because what else do you do with that kind of foreshadowing? You’re committed in a way that only skydivers really understand. I entered the bright lights of the chamber and was immediately struck by the immense size of the artifact, then hit with an uncomfortable familiarity, and then slapped with a clarity as to why they’d first contacted a paleontologist.
A colossal skeleton stretched deep into the chamber. More a cavern than an excavated space, it appeared natural, in a very unnatural way. It was not only the enormous bones spooking me, but across these cavern walls were clear, sharp regular markings. Even an untrained brain would only think of them as symbols, as lettering. As ancient intention.
To his credit, Herv let me disbelieve for some minutes before he led me along the hulking creature and wall markings to the end of the cavern where it terminated in what? A door? A vault? A billboard?
There before me embedded in rock was a massive circular, metallic panel, engraved with two large, deep marks surrounded by radiating lines. Bold, striking and clearly a message. To me a forbidding one.
At the foot of the panel, nested the great skull of the creature. A skull of monstrous simplicity. Above a sawtooth jaw a single empty socket opened into a capacious cranium.
Tomfoolery. Oh, I wished it so.
But, no, Herv’s eyes directed me to what the creature grasped. In its thick, hooked finger bones were a collection of metallic discs with markings like on the door? vault? billboard? Though much smaller and hinged. Bound together. Like a book.
A book it did not take me long to suss, though I didn’t know the language, didn’t know the culture. It was the same message, the same warning. Here five hundred meters down, where we were endeavoring to store our nuclear tomfoolery which would lay waste to the green and blue earth above, a much much earlier monstrous race had done the same.
So like us.
The monsters from before.