The Must-See Tomb

Author: Carew Bartley

After the dusty, scorching heat of the Via Flaminia, I looked forward to the cool silence of the tomb I had read so much about before my trip. Originally buried in a Central Italian necropolis, the tomb had been assiduously reconstructed in the basement of Rome’s National Etruscan museum, a trove of ancient art and artifacts housed in a sumptuous Renaissance palace. It was the highlight of the collection, Frommer’s Guidebook to Rome proclaimed: it must not be missed.

When I arrived at the museum, I was enthralled by the rustic yet sophisticated charm of the Etruscans, Rome’s peninsular predecessors. But as I drifted through the soaring galleries, my attention was wrested away by an unusual object amongst the ceramics and coins. It was a grave artifact unlike that of any civilization I had ever encountered: a figurine, hand molded from some pliable metal rather than ceramic or bronze. It resembled a human, but it had six arms ending in barbs rather than hands. Its skull was insect-like, with sharp mandibles and gaping eye holes. And in place of a navel, it bore a rough hewn oval of yellow quartz. I glanced at the plaque that ought to describe its origin, but there was no text, only a ghostly white swirl.

I soon found other alien creations: insect warriors armed with curved knives grinning madly through protruding fangs, insect charioteers palled by straining snakes or birds, insect priests presiding over altars strewn with animal viscera. All were inset with chunks of milky yellow quartz and labeled only with white swirls. Themes emerged: violence, submission, sacrifice; an unknown, otherworldly religion being rendered tangible.

Pulled deeper and deeper into the bowels of the museum by the sinister magnetism of these objects, I reached the entrance to a rough basement that appeared to have been carved out long ago. I hesitated at the top step, wondering for the first time how long I had been here and where the other visitors and employees had gone. But looking down, I saw a white line on the floor leading down the steps into the dim hole. I followed it into the earth.

The tomb was lit by candlelight from each corner. Shimmering streamers of metal like that comprising the figurines hung from the walls. The white line entered from the steps and spiraled like a whirlpool around a stone dais bearing a heavy knife and a large log. I drew inexorably forward, grasped the knife, and set to work. After an unknown time, I knelt before the altar that now bore an insectoid idol hacked and carved from the wood. But it was not done. His blank eyes told me what must lay on His altar. I pulled myself onto the dais in the center of the white swirl and set to work with the knife once more.

The following year’s edition of Frommer’s Guidebook to Rome made no mention of the tomb under the museum.

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