THE CHAMBER IN THE HILLSIDE (part one) by Andrew McGuigan

Story by Andrew McGuigan
Illustration by Andy Paciorek

To whom it may concern,

Although it would be easy to dismiss my words as those of a madman, I beg you to read on. My story is based in the region of Cumbria, in the North West of England. The town of Maryport lies on the west coast, overlooking the Solway Firth and North to Scotland.

It is next to Mayport that the Senhouse Roman Fort site is located.
I write to you now having heard that the plans to fully excavate the site will soon be coming to fruition. The indications are that a civil settlement or ‘vicus’ lies under the fields surrounding the fort. There could be other military buildings beneath as well, pre-dating Hadrian’s Wall.

Be aware that things may be found in that chamber in the hillside. Although it may not seem it, that area has been dug before. I know what they will find beneath.
My team was sadly not able to conclude its examinations.
Hear my confession and heed my warning. It all started on the day of the floor cave in.

The team sent from London in 1954 included Dr. Johan Erkko from the University of Helsinki: a broad shouldered historian of military architecture and active middle aged athlete; Tom Braden, a private archaeologist for hire from Boston, expert in Roman conflicts and personal antiquated gain. That just leaves myself. Professor Andreas Steffan, my specialty being ancient languages. I had come to England from Germany in 1936 as a child of eight years; my parents sadly did not survive the war, victims of educational persecution under the Nazis. By 1954 I was an enthusiastic young professor ready for his first organised and funded expedition.
My love of languages had made my own English speaking accent an enigma to many and a small source of revenue for myself in gentlemen's club wagers.

The preliminary excavation of Senhouse Roman Fort would give the three of us the first opportunity to go deep into that site. Other forts along the Solway had already been dug and recorded, and so would be useful comparisons to ours.
We enlisted the help of local labourers who could be trusted to know when to dig fast and when to dig carefully.

We had dug below the top soil, uncovering the usual low walls, timber remnants and pottery shards. The fort structure was deep in the grass land on the hillside above sea level, and far enough back from high tide that there was no additional damage to preservation. We were a few days into standard excavation when we discovered an unusual flooring structure beneath what would have been a guard tower. There were four corner tower areas but the foundation of one was a solid stone slab, rather than the fragmented timbers found elsewhere. It was when we were brushing down the corners of the structure that the accident happened.

Johan vanished from view as the floor beneath him fell away, leaving nothing but a surprised shout and an uprising cloud of dust to mark his previous position.
The stone under base turned out to be the ceiling of a sealed chamber. Dashing over and shining torches into the gloom below we could make out the shape of our colleague some twenty feet below, lying spread eagled and coughing atop a huge mound of ancient debris.
It took close to an hour to prise off the other huge stone slabs that comprised the chamber ceiling, Johan waited below, recovered from his fall and anxious for sufficient light to examine his inadvertent discovery. We secured a rope ladder to the base of our equipment truck and lowered ourselves down, overloaded with lights, charts and sampling kits.

The chamber itself was twenty feet in diameter, close to fifty feet deep and cylindrical in shape. It was clear that this was the first time it had been breached since it was built some years ago, around AD78. There were no doorways either around the inner base or at any height on the curved shaft of the chamber. This coupled with the nature of the piled debris that had cushioned Johan's fall lead us to a simple and definitive conclusion. This was a Roman burial pit of a kind previously unseen by man.

Tom was the first to discern the content of the enormous decayed pile.
It took him nearly a minute to vocalist his realization to the group, at which point even seasoned archaeologists such as ourselves cried out and were stumbled slightly.
The dry decomposition of centuries had reduced the thousands of bodies to mere rags, bones and dust flesh. Some strange items of armour such as thigh guards, wrist bracers and the like were all too corroded to identify.
Whoever these people were, they were clearly soldiers of some sort. The nature of the haphazard mass burial indicated they were certainly enemies to the Roman garrisons located along the coastal forts. We quickly took samples from a cross section of items and fragments, many of which were close to disintegration. As fascinating as the grisly pile was, the real treasure was revealed when we checked around the base of the vast corpse pile. On the floor of the chamber, showing between the rags and bones, our lanterns revealed inscriptions chiselled by Roman hand.

The most likely enemies of Roman coastal outposts would have been the Celtic Brigantes from the valleys of the Lake District, or rampaging Scotti crossing the Solway or following the coastline south. Both were historically known to contain painted warriors within their ranks, and also extremists who employed decorative flesh piercing and sometimes skull binding to deform the head shape and scare their enemies. This would partly explain the strange elongation of many of the skull remains found in the burial chamber, but so many of them? We had made a discovery that would make historians rethink the balance of indigenous tribes during Roman Britain. There had been nothing like this uncovered at any of the other forts along the Solway.

Tom noticed that the undersides of the slabs ripped from the chamber roof also had markings. These were a might more disconcerting than the symbols on the chamber floor, and were unmistakable in their origin. Claw marks. Hundreds of deep and shallow abrasion scraped into the thick slabs by bare hands and finger nails. Some of the occupants had been very much alive when the heavy chamber roof was finally slammed shut.

We worked furiously, digging deeper and deeper into chamber, hauling out sacks of ancient cadaver via a rope and pulley mechanism braced to the truck. Johan was happy to exercise his arms pulling the rope on the surface, enjoying the wide open coastal panorama after his recent experience of mild necro-claustrophobia.
As a team our appetite for discovery was refreshed with every new symbol uncovered.
As natural light failed above we switched on portable generators, the noisy petrol motors forcing excited communication at a shouting level. Finally at nine o'clock we downed tools. With arms exhausted and eyes stinging we secured the site and drove our small truck into Maryport town, eager to wash the dust from our mouths and discuss the day's events.

We found 'The Laden Net' free-house down on King Street at the North quay, situated near a ship repair gridiron.
Although a little run down, it nicely suited both our purpose and pockets. Jobbing archaeologists of l950's could not afford to be drinking cocktails luxuriously in their hotels, despite the more romantic notions fostered later by Hollywood. Tom was the exception to this rule of course, his own private antique enterprises had given him wealth and connections, which he tried his best to not brag about in a crass manner.
Sadly he was not always successful in this endeavour.

The inside of ‘The Laden Net' was very much like the outside of ‘The Laden Net': dark, quiet and smelling vaguely of rotting fish. It contained several low tables with a mismatch of chairs spread out in front of the dark wood bar.
We four tired workers slumped at our table and let our minds and sleuths run free.
There were perhaps six other locals, fishermen by their look, either sitting in pairs or quietly in solitude. We were undisturbed and had space to excitedly chatter, just as required. The landlord seemed content to keep us regularly served with heavy glass tankards of delicious nut-brown foaming local ale. Time flew as we debated the meaning of our discoveries and the importance they would have in the rewriting of Roman history books.

By eleven or so it was only our table left, smug and excited at the possibility of fame and fortune, and more than a little drunk.
We finally left the pub when professional curiosity for the next day's dig overcame the importance of another drink. Tom staggered off towards his hotel, Johan and I to our modest rented rooms.

Myself and Johan rose and met early the following day, arriving to find the dig site vandalized.
The heavy iron cover we had towed across the chamber opening had been scattered carelessly onto a sand dune some distance away. It must have taken another vehicle like our truck, or at least horses and chains to move the thick sheet iron so easily. We checked the area but it seemed the robbers had realized there was little of instant value to be had. We had stored the bones and corpse remains in our vehicle containers with the small number of other relics and stone carvings found.

It took the two of us little time to bring the site back to order, the only real mess being in the chamber itself, where the small piles of bones had been spilled over. Someone had clearly been inspecting the Roman carvings.

The new day gave me chance to properly examine the floor of the cylinder chamber.
We fully cleared the floor and began the long process of translation.
The carvings took the form of a circular diagram some six feet in diameter, filled with writing, pictorials and symbols.
Although most of the characters were in Latin a number of pictures and symbols belonged to a language I had never seen before, Arcane and clearly ancient, these words or names were mentioned numerous times but were too obscure for me to begin extrapolating order or meaning. Then there were the pictorials. Bizarre illustrations of a many pointed star with a spiral centre. Was this an identification of the tribe buried in the chamber? Could it be alchemical writings, or descriptions of geographical direction? Perhaps a rare Roman cult worshipping local Gods? Sadly even with an extensive background in ancient languages, I could not construct a working vocabulary or lexicon.

By lunchtime Tom had still not turned up. Johann and I ate heartily of mouth watering local produce kindly provided by our landlady. Fresh crusty bread served with cold Cumberland sausage and honey roast ham. An assortment of cheese, pickles and fruit washed down with sweet cider. Our spirits were high and we mocked the American's weak constitution compared to our robust European drinking abilities.
Our concerns regarding Tom only began when the sun fell.

A visit to a local village phone box proved worryingly unrewarding.
There was no answer at all from Tom's room.
The journey back to town was fast and silent, both of us lost in thought. I personally did not want to voice my suspicions to Dr. Johan. It would not be prudent as group leader for me to undermine a colleague without being sure of all of the facts.

Tom was staying at ‘The Golden Lion' on Senhouse Street. He had smugly informed us that previous occupants had included such luminary figures as Charles Dickens and George Stephenson. I'm quite sure Tom felt he was finally staying among peers of his level.
The on duty receptionist was a strange looking man who I thought more suited to back of house work rather than dealing with customers. He was quite hunched over for someone of apparent middle years, with disconcerting bulging eyes and bad skin.
Perhaps it was actually preferable that he was in the reception rather than in the kitchen handling food. He smelled like an unwashed fish gutter. When I informed him that I was unable to contact my missing colleague, he replied coldly that Tom had checked out late the previous night, leaving no forwarding information or explanation!

By the time I left the hotel I was seething with anger. I knew Tom's reputation as a mercenary collector, but he was being paid well by the university for his loyalty to the expedition. The thought that he was out there somewhere making exclusive publication deals felt like a major betrayal.

Johan and I sat miserably in the ‘Laden Net.’ Betrayed by the American and faced with Roman carvings that seemed to amount to no more than insane, superstitious graffiti, we were at a low. We drank a little, and occasionally muttered a half baked idea to salvage some credibility with the university. Tom would take the credit for the mass grave discovery, using his reliable media contacts to downplay our involvement and gain his own team.

As the drink took hold my mood was soon as bitter as the beer. I asked the barmen if he had seen our friend from the other night and he claimed that he couldn't remember anyone but Johan and I being present! The absence of the previous night's frivolity allowed me to notice new details in our host, throwing a dark and untrustworthy aspect on him in my eyes.

I noticed then that he was another like the hotel clerk.
Those large unblinking eyes, the bad skin and the shifty disposition.

Had he been paid for silence by Tom? What did he know about the site vandalism? Were we now some sort of local laughing stock? Within an hour I was asked to leave the pub, my incessant questions and raised voice drawing cold attention from the other drinkers.
We left, but still maintained the air of slurring indignation displayed by most drunkards facing forced exile.

Out in the black misty streets we trudged towards rented lodgings, our footsteps echoing into the night on slippery cobbles. I had not feared retribution for my embarrassing outbursts in the public house but as we heard the quickening footsteps in the mist behind us, we increased our pace. For all my bluster, I had no wish to receive a bruising from an angry dock worker. The hammer of steps behind us grew louder; there was now a small group in pursuit. We were so busy looking behind us as we turned the corner that we barely avoided bowling over the large man standing there.
He hissed at us for quiet and barged us roughly into an adjacent doorway. The door was closed quickly behind us and he held hands to our chests to keep us still.

Our followers outside passed by the house. Some of the steps seemed strangely out of stride with the rest, denoting a weird rhythm I did not identify until much later.
If I had known on day one what I then discovered later perhaps I may have dropped my books and ran from the site. What would you have chosen in my position dear reader? Would you prefer to know of an impending doom that you cannot hope to stop? Or is it better to live your remaining days in blissful ignorance? My letter is in your hands of course so you still have that option at any time should the truth prove too uncomfortable.

When we were sure those outside had gone we pushed the man’s hands away.
For all our protesting, Johan and I were stunned into silence by the old man's hurried explanation.

He told us that he knew where our Yank friend had been taken.

At present I can write no more, I fear my location has been compromised, and they will be upon me soon. Share my story with others you trust. It is vital the truth is heard and understood.
Look for my next correspondence at the turn of December.
Prof. Andreas Steffen


  1. this sounds very interesting, must we delay until January for the next issue.


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