Prof. Bouillon opened the box with utmost care. The jar nestling in purpose-made packaging was unique. That it had been discovered by a caver who was a friend of the leading archaeologist had been the merest coincidence and the greatest luck.
“Phil… It’s here.”
“Careful now… Careful…” soothed the Prof as he passed the jar. The opaque beige container, sealed with resin, stood about eight inches tall and bore no markings of any kind.
“This jar might tell you anything,” said his eager assistant, placing the jar in the clean area.
“Everything.” The rapture on the Bouillon’s face reflected the awe in his voice.
All that could be learned by external examination had been determined. Masked, gowned and gloved, Bouillon gently cut around the bung and tilted the contents into a wide dish. Reddish brown liquid flowed from the ancient spout. There would be sediment too. It was a delicate operation.
“What the…?” exclaimed Bouillon.
“Looks like Unicode,” said Phil. He contorted his neck to re-configure the symbols. A ‘B’, an ‘R’ backwards, a bow tie, a ‘t’, with an angular bar, Ð– and a line with other lines coming out either side like a fine comb.
“I believe these are letters,” said Bouillon. “Get Cadwallader.”
“Bouillon, dear boy, what is it? I rushed out of my lecture mid-sentence leaving a quandary of would be etymologists lost for words.”
“What do you make of this?” asked Bouillon, pointing at the broth.
Cadwallader scratched his head. “They look like symbols to me.”
“Yes, yes. But do they mean anything to you?”
“With your permission…” Cadwallader separated and probed the characters with a pointed instrument.
“Proto-Sinaitic in origin… perhaps some Futhark and Glagolitic but a few of these are Cyrillic and this,” he pointed to the comb, “has the appearance of Ogham.”
“And that one looks like a capital A, see?” interrupted Phil.
“Speak English, man,” said Bouillon, ignoring his researcher’s ignorance.
“Early alphabets, dear boy,” said Cadwallader, then turning to Phil, “no capital distinctions.”
Bouillon paced with excitement. “It’s a code,” he proclaimed, rubbing his hands together. “Mysteries of the alchemists revealed, Alcuin’s wisdom,” he was already thinking of names for his book, “and all we have to do is translate it.”
Cadwallader nearly swallowed his tongue. “All?” he said. “All? These are disparate graphemes. The most modern ranges from 200 CE to about 1000. They might be ideographs,” here he glanced at Phil, “graphemes, morphemes, phonemes, digraphs, even numbers and we don’t know which language they’re in. I’d get the ecclesiasticals in on this one.”
The symbols were photographed, copied, transferred to microfiche, sent all over the world, studied in the Vatican and by Coptic scholars, put through decryption algorithms; anything that might shed light. The press was ablaze with scientific and religious speculation.
The clerics were much bemused. Why so many different scripts? God works in a mysterious way… The scientists came up with a date that placed the contents around 900 CE, consistent with the alphabetic forms. The numeric values of Glogolitic and Cyrillic were studied by the greatest mathematicians. No expense was spared.
Bouillon looked uneasy at the press conference. On the screen behind him were the symbols now arrayed in deciphered order. Those that had deteriorated or simply been mashed, were represented by dashes. He explained that the sediment had contained animal proteins and fish finings as well as stalks from herbs and sea salt. The liquid had been found to have a high vegetable component and traces of honey. The lettering was Spelt.
He grasped the podium and announced to the waiting world the answer to what the press had been calling, ‘The mysteries of the ancients.’
“The Futhark, Glogolitic and Cyrillic parts of the script,” he was now very familiar with these terms, “read as follows.” Onto the screen slid the words, ‘best before’, no capitals.
There was a stir of incredulity amongst the assembled journalists.
“The numeric values for these Cyrillics,” continued an increasingly nervous professor, “Are one thousand, followed by the letters A and Ð”, not used until the eighth century to denote the modern era.”
The clamour rose.
“And this comb-shaped piece looks like Ogham but that doesn’t fit the location of the find. We think therefore it may be a…”
The word bar-code was drowned out by demands to know how much a single can of medieval alphabet soup had cost the public and they weren’t going to take stock answers.
Oonah V Joslin dedicates this story to all those who ever tried eating their name out of alphabet soup.