New Scotland Street Chapter 56: Cryptological anthropology

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On putting down the telephone receiver, Angus took a deep breath.Through no fault of his own he had stumbled into a Kafkaesque situationin which he had a dead cat on his hands and no idea of how to dispose of it legally, and, importantly for him, decently.

Now, surveying the corpse on the table, he felt as if he were a character from one of Patricia Highsmith’s chilling novels – landed with a body and needing to dispose of it before Nemesis struck. Winged Nemesis, armed with her dagger, was constantly on the look-out for people with bodies on their hands, her radar being finely tuned, perhaps, to the waves of anxiety emanating from such people – and remorseless was she in her stalking of them once alerted to their presence.

It was Domenica who had suggested to him that he should telephone officialdom for advice. He had tried that, and now he went through to her study to report to her that he had failed. When he entered her room, a book-lined retreat in which Domenica conducted her anthropological research, he found her sitting at her desk, reading an article from the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

She looked up as Angus came in. “This is fascinating,” she said, gesturing to the journal in front of her. “Cryptological anthropology. What do you think that entails?”

“Decrypting things,” said Angus.

“Well, yes. But what precisely?”

Angus shrugged. “The things that people do.”

Domenica shook her head. “That’s the task of anthropology as a whole. This is a specialised branch of it.” She paused. “Language. It’s the decrypting of language with the intention of finding out about the people who spoke it.”

“I see,” said Angus.

“Quite fascinating,” Domenica continued. “It’s a relatively new discipline.”

Angus glanced over her shoulder at the journal cover. Ideographic signs in Linear B, he read. A new conjecture as to social relation categorization terms.

“Linear B? Wasn’t that very early Greek?”

Domenica nodded. “It was. Tremendously early.”

“So not something one hears today in the tavernas of Kos?”

Domenica laughed. “Certainly not. You would definitely not be understood should you attempt to order your retsina in Linear B. They would look blank, I imagine.” She paused. “Just as the Greeks at first looked blank when British officers addressed them in classical Greek in the War. Patrick Leigh Fermor and the like. They were classicists.”

“Brave men,” said Angus.

“Oh, they were,” said Domenica. “And some of them were Scots. I met one of them. Ian Ross. A great man. He hid up in the mountains and blew up bridges with the Greek resistance. He was very courageous – if the Germans had caught him, they would have shot him out of hand.”

Angus ran an eye down the journal’s list of contents. One of the articles stood out. Rongorongo Decoded at Last. He looked quizzically at Domenica. “Rongorongo?”

Domenica raised an eyebrow. “That,” she said, “is debatable.”

“Not everyone agrees?”

“I hae ma doots,” she said. “I could be wrong, but …”

“But what’s Rongorongo?” asked Angus.

Domenica explained that it was the script found on artefacts removed from Easter Island. “It consists of glyphs,” she said. “Most of them are etched on wooden items.”

“And nobody can work out what they say?”

She nodded. “The glyphs are written according to a system of reverse boustrophedon – that is, each line goes in the opposite direction from the one above it, and alternate lines are back-to-front. That’s a boustrophedon for you, Angus.” She paused, and then added, “Rather like a contemporary novel.”

“And the glyphs themselves?”

“Funny little figures – rather wriggly in appearance. Some people, some animals. Very funny to look at – but not funny when translated – according to …”

She picked up the copy of the journal and read out the name of the author, and the degrees he held: MA (St Andrews), PhD (Edinburgh), DLitt (Oxford).

“He sounds, how shall I put it?” said Angus. “Erudite?”

“Oh yes,” said Domenica. “He can walk the walk, but … Well, I’m not sure that he should have published this – even if he’s right, which he may well be.”

Angus pressed her to explain.

“Well, he claims to have deciphered the surviving passages.”

“And?”

“And he says that the inscriptions are, in fact, a recipe book. People used to suggest they were genealogical, but he says no – it’s recipes – an early recipe book.”

“Predating Epicius?”

“Apicius,” Domenica corrected him. “There’s Apicius and then there’s Epicurus. Don’t confuse them.”

“Predating him?” asked Angus again.

“No, much later. The thirteenth century, perhaps. Round about then.”

Angus glanced at the journal. There were tables of glyphs, with suggested meanings.

“The embarrassing thing, though,” said Domenica, lowering her voice, as if to prevent being overheard. “The embarrassing thing is this: the collection of inscriptions in question is said to be a recipe book for cannibals.”

Angus’s eyes widened. “You mean the Easter Islanders were cannibals?”

Domenica closed her eyes briefly. “It’s not so simple, Angus. And, as you might expect, these things are sensitive. Western scholars shouldn’t go around accusing others of being cannibals. Every society has had its cannibals – including Scotland.”

Angus frowned. He had heard of Sawney Bean, of course, but were there others?

“Yes,” answered Domenica. “There were some cannibals in the Highlands, Angus. There were Campbells, for instance …”

Angus drew in his breath. “You mean the Campbells were cannibals?”

“Well known for it,” said Domenica, in a matter-of-fact way. “But can we say it out aloud? We can’t. Censorship. Nobody wants to offend anybody these days. Facts are suppressed if they don’t fit the orthodoxy du jour.”

“Well, those early Campbells weren’t always popular.”

“But in itself that doesn’t necessarily make them cannibals,” said Domenica. “Yet they were, I’m afraid. There was a very strong tradition of cannibalism in those people. Back in the fifteenth century those very early earls of Argyll, echt Campbells, of course, the precursors of the Dukes of Argyll, were probably cannibals. Very distinguished ones, of course …”

“Surely not,” said Angus. And then, more forcefully, “No!”

“Well, perhaps not,” Domenica conceded. “I jest. And we mustn’t be unfair to Campbells. They probably weren’t cannibals at all, and even if they were …” She waved an arm. “Even if they were, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.”

Angus had enjoyed the joke. “What I love about you, Domenica,” said Angus. “Is your sense of humour – and your liberality of mind. Your generosity to others, even Campbells.”

Domenica acknowledged the compliment gracefully. “Thank you,” she said. “One would hope to err on the liberal side, Angus, while at the same time not being naïve when it came to the failings, or shall I say, in this context, the appetites of others.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Angus. “The weaker brethren …”

He sighed. He had not told her about his fruitless conversation with the local authorities. He would do so now, and see if she was wanted to come to the small, cat-sized grave that he had planned to dig in Drummond Place Garden. So what if the committee got to hear of this? He paid his share of the garden’s maintenance expenses, and was entitled to use the garden for reasonable purposes. Burying a cat, he decided, was once such purpose.