Decamot of the month

30 Jun 2021-A Bridge Too Far

Bradley Forest couldn’t tell his mastodon from his mammoth,


but neither, he doubted, could the elegant young palaeontologist the police sent from the University of West Cumbria in response to his telephone call. She looked far too glamorous to spend time on an archaeological dig.

Her newly acquired academic qualifications seemed oddly out of place on such a vivacious young woman. Not only that but she also drove the latest Tesla Model 3, which is about as far removed in terms of technological development as you could get from the Pleistocene epoch.

The route had taken her over the newly installed stainless steel version of Pooley Bridge, the original having been destroyed by Storm Desmond on 6th December 2015. A smooth but silent 30 miles later, she turned down a country road until she reached the entrance drive to Brockets Farmhouse.

Sensing Bradley’s scepticism as he ogled her company car, Prof. Phoebe Fitzroy-James BSc (Hons) calmly remarked, “You’ll never need a screwdriver to work on one of these, Mr Forest, although a degree in advanced cybernetics could come in handy!”

“What did you think of the new bridge?” said Bradley cautiously, not wanting to engage his visitor in techno one-upmanship. It was a game he sensed he might well lose.

“I must say it kind of restores your faith in modern engineering” Phoebe replied. “It would be easy to assume that imaginative civil engineering projects stopped in the Victorian era”.

“My thoughts entirely” replied Bradley. “And modern techniques do have the advantage of being functional and relatively easy to install. I watched as the main span was successfully lifted into place by an enormous 1,200 tonne mobile crane. It was most impressive. I sometimes wonder what the engineers of 1764 who built the original bridge would have made of it all.”

“At least their brick and mortar span lasted 250 years” said Phoebe, bringing the opening exchanges to an honourable conclusion. “But what I’ve come to look at pre dates the original Pooley Bridge by a minimum of 12,000 years!”

Bradley Forest laughed but immediately felt obliged to explain the background to their meeting.

“Quite so” he said “You see, there was an item on the local TV news yesterday about the theft of two star attractions from the Penrith & Eden Museum. They were said to be mastodon molars which were found at Penrith Castle by the Ministry of Works in 1921. An Inspector Elisabeth Warren asked if anyone could help them in their search for the culprits. When they showed a picture of the missing relics on the screen, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I called the number immediately although I’m not sure now if I’ve done the right thing quite honestly. I am completely out of my depth with this branch of science, or any branch of science, come to that!”.

“I think we are all pushing against scientific boundaries here” replied Phoebe. “But take me to the barn where you say you have examples of other similar molars stored,”

“I haven’t been storing anything” protested Bradley. “I only took possession of this property last week”.

As they made their way round a crumbling 16h century manor house in need of expensive restoration, Bradley explained that he was an aspiring property developer. When Brockets Farmhouse came up for auction he thought it was worth putting in a ‘silly bid’ as he called it. He fancied the idea of moving up a grade in property development terms and fully expected to have to increase the bid or withdraw.

To his utter astonishment his joke bid was successful. He found himself the owner of a dilapidated building in need of major refurbishment but standing in 20 acres of woodland with two outbuildings, neither of which he had inspected before putting in his bid.

As they approached the first of these outbuildings he explained his logic. “I had visions of creating a conference centre, or similar, which would take me to the next level of property development. It’s what we entrepreneurs call a rush of blood to the head or arrogant ambition or even blind stupidity, depending on your point of view!”

“We are all capable of that” said Phoebe sympathetically. “My ambition was to be a nuclear scientist until I got diverted into the world of serious archaeology via a degree in palaeontology.”

Phoebe could see that the wooden barn itself was probably 17th century but taller than one might have expected for a structure of that age. Bradley pulled open one of the barn doors slowly whilst Phoebe did likewise with the other. As the light flooded in there was the inevitable sound of wild life making a hurried exit. Phoebe thought she counted two rats, three pigeons and an owl but kept the knowledge to herself.

At the back of the barn there was a hayloft or, to be more accurate, a series of curved wooden struts tied together to form a ledge which might have been used to store hay at one time. It was clear that no human being had used the barn for years but there was something odd about the struts which had Phoebe’s pulse racing. Again, she kept her thoughts to herself as Bradley directed her attention to a crude shelf running down one side of the barn.

“There they are” he announced in triumph pointing at the shelf, “Sixteen molars in a row for your delectation, Madame Palaeontologist. Can I wrap one or two for you? Or perhaps madam might like all sixteen while stocks last” he said, laughing nervously.

Phoebe reached into her pocket and took out a pair of white gloves as she approached the first of the molars, unable to hide the excitement in her face. She could scarcely believe her eyes as she carefully held the first one in her gloved hands. It had all the features of a mastodon molar with distinctive cone-like cusps whereas the second molar she picked up was flat and ridged. It looked a bit like a washboard.

“Mastodons were wood browsers” she explained to Bradley holding up both for him to see “their molars have pointed cones adapted for eating woody browse. Mammoths were grazers, their molars have flat surfaces like this for eating grass.”

“So these are genuine relics Phoebe?” said Bradley hopefully.

“Only if carbon dating confirms their age” she replied, sounding a note of caution.

“How quickly can you organise that?” asked Bradley, a brand new entrepreneurial vision for Brockets already taking shape in his head.

“With any luck I should be able to give you an answer in about an hour using some special features built in to my company car.” she replied with a beaming smile which grew broader and broader as she patiently explained the science to an increasingly gobsmacked Bradley Forest. “I’ll make us some coffee whilst your setting up” said Bradley in an effort to be useful, “I don’t mind admitting I failed O level physics, but I can brew instant Kenco!”

Phoebe laughed obligingly but was determined to continue Bradley’s education.

“The basic science is very simple” she explained. “All living things absorb carbon from the atmosphere and from food sources around them including some radioactive carbon 14. When the plant or animal dies, the radioactive carbon that they have accumulated prior to death continues to decay. Scientists have been able to work out the rate of decay using a series of mathematical formulae, so it is possible to work backwards to see when the plant or animal died; provided you can measure the amount of carbon 14 still present in the specimen. I could go into much more detail if you like but scientists have worked out that it takes 3730 years for half of the carbon 14 in a sample to decay.”

“I think I can just about grasp the concept,” said Bradley, handing Phoebe a coffee in a paper cup. “But I’m more than happy to leave the detail to you ….. Cheers!”

Phoebe now set about carbon dating the molars with the help of her willing if incredulous assistant.

They began by placing one of the molars on a wooden stool in the centre of the barn. The Tesla Model 3 was then driven round to the front of the barn. Phoebe edged it slowly through the doors until it was about six inches short of the stool.

She invited Bradley to close the barn doors and join her in the passenger seat as she operated the computer screen which was part of the dashboard using what Bradley assumed was a conventional keyboard on her lap.

“I am going to subject the molar to a five minute dosage of electromagnetic radiation created by supercharging the vehicle’s batteries. When I hit the accelerator, there will be a blinding flash of recycled solar light so keep these sun glasses on to protect your eyes. OK?”

Bradley nodded.

“I will explain the science later, but we are only building on the pioneering work of Faraday, Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla who didn’t have the benefit of the internet or modern nuclear physics. Fortunately for me, it was a computer scientist who designed this vehicle not Henry Ford.”

Bradley laughed nervously as he watched the bonnet of the Tesla open slowly from the front. An image of the molar appeared on the dashboard screen. Phoebe waited until a red target was at the centre of the molar before stopping the rise of the bonnet which was about a quarter open.

“OK” she announced, “That should do it! Let’s go for it!”

There was a blinding light which illuminated the whole of the barn. The molar on the screen appeared to be enveloped in a haze of sparks. Phoebe was concentrating on the screen which was delivering all kinds of different data in rows of coloured columns. After five minutes she declared herself happy and took her foot off the accelerator.

They repeated the exercise with another molar and, finally, to Bradley’s surprise, one of the struts which he was instructed to untie from the hayloft. The procedure was identical each time, with Phoebe totally absorbed in watching the screen and Bradley sitting beside her utterly bemused.

Finally, Phoebe pronounced herself satisfied with their efforts and they adjourned to the kitchen of the manor house for another coffee. Bradley waited for Phoebe to explain what they had been doing with a request to keep the science as simple as possible.

“I have made a few modifications to the car as you could see which enables me to use the superior battery technology built into a Tesla. We have just taken highly sophisticated detailed X-ray pictures of the objects which show the amount of radioactive carbon stored there. There is only one isotope of carbon which is radioactive. The sparks you saw were the neutrons reacting to the electromagnetic radiation.”

“If you say so Phoebe” said Bradley smiling “But what happens next?”

“The data extracted is fed directly into the car’s computer and stored. My next task is to apply the scientific formulae to it using the latest calibration curve which modifies the accepted rate of decay to take into account the very latest readings from tree rings, glacial varves, coral, plant macrofossils, speleothems, and foraminifera. The latest update was as recent as 2020.”

“If you say so Phoebe” said Bradley doing his best to keep up. “It’s not exactly Bluetooth for beginners is it?”

“Not such a bad analogy Bradley” said Phoebe laughing. “But I should be able to complete the calculation in the next half an hour or so. The computer is already programmed to do most of the donkey work as you can imagine.”

“If you say so Phoebe” said Bradley for the third time.

Thirty minutes later, Bradley heard a polite “Whoopee!” as Phoebe emerged from the Tesla punching the air in triumph!

Bradley busied himself by supplying his third Kenco brew as Phoebe recovered her composure. He remembered feeling like Phoebe when he had successfully completed his first Rubik’s cube. It had taken him eight hours, so he decided against even suggesting a comparison with Phoebe’s creative genius. “Well, Bradley” she began. “I will need to repeat the exercise in the laboratory as we didn’t clean the objects thoroughly enough for authentic verification, which could add a variation of up to 50 years either way, but my results do confirm my initial suspicions. These molars are probably 10,850 years old, and the curved strut is actually a tusk from a woolly mammoth of the same age. The challenge now is to figure out how and why your barn is packed with these archaeological treasures”.

Bradley’s entrepreneurial instincts kicked in as his imagination took flight, but it had been an equally emotional roller coaster for Phoebe, so they both agreed to meet again for lunch the following day to discuss their next moves. They also agreed to say nothing to Inspector Elisabeth Warren of the Cumbria Constabulary for the time being.

Both had ulterior motives which neither wanted to admit to the other at this stage.

END OF PART ONE

Bradley booked a table at the Crown Inn overlooking the new Pooley Bridge for 12.30 and was delighted to see Phoebe had already arrived when he parked his modest Daihatsu Materia next to her company car. As he approached the outskirts of the town he had passed an electricity pylon and imagined Phoebe topping up her Tesla with some variation on the device she used for carbon dating. He had laughed out loud at the audacity of her talent, but then, he had always been attracted to tall curvaceous intellectual females.

He had also done some research of his own overnight and was keen to test out a theory which was central to his vision for Brockets.

Prof. Phoebe Fitzroy-James BSc (Hons) stood up as Bradley approached their table and held out her hand in greeting. Bradley performed a theatrical act of bowing and kissing it, Elizabethan style, to acknowledge that he was in the presence of his superior.

She certainly looked stunning in a patch-pocket organic linen-blend jumpsuit although Bradley would not have been able to name the designer. It was by Alexander McQueen.

“Sorry if I’m late” he said, “I thought I had left enough time”.

“You did” she replied, “I’m early so I took the opportunity of ordering a G&T, will you join me?”

The waiter handed them the menu and returned a few minutes later with a G&T for Bradley. “Lets get the ordering out of the way shall we?” suggested Bradley. “Then we can concentrate on the subject in hand, I have quite a few questions for you Phoebe, if you don’t mind?”

“Not a problem” said Phoebe who asked the waiter to bring her the House Caesar salad with cold sliced chicken breast whilst Bradley settled for a BBQ lentil burger. They decided to share a bottle of Pinot Grigio. Once the chinking of G&T glasses had been exchanged Bradley jumped straight in with his first question.

“What can you tell me about Beringia Land Bridge?” he asked.

“Ah!” replied Phoebe smiling, “You’ve been googling the life cycles of Mastodons and Mammoths haven’t you? Beringia is not a bad place to start as it was thought to be a possible route for early humans to walk from Russia to Canada during the last ice age. We were still joined to northern Europe then. Mastodons and mammoths overlapped in Beringia during the early to mid-Pleistocene. Mammoths definitely survived in eastern Beringia until about 13,000 years ago”.

“So it would have been possible for early humans, mastodons, and mammoths to have occupied Cumbria 10,850 years ago?” suggested Bradley, finding it hard to supress a note of triumph creeping into his voice.

“Not really, Bradley” replied Phoebe. “Mastodons thrived in the warmer interglacial periods and mammoths favoured the colder glacial epochs.”

“But our samples have the same date, so it must have been possible” asserted Bradley, his vision for Brockets beginning to acquire a fuzzy edge.

“You can never ever say never to any hypothesis “continued Phoebe, “Recent developments in DNA research alone can cause scientists to overturn conventional thinking, but I can offer you a more plausible explanation for the dates matching.”

Bradley looked a little deflated but invited Phoebe to explain her theory with his usual proviso to keep the science simple.

“There’s very little science involved in this scenario Bradley” she continued, “although knowledge of how we traded with the USA in the 17th century might come in handy.”

As ever, Bradley wondered what the dickens was coming next.

“Put simply, I believe someone purchased a supply of molars and tusks but couldn’t sell them when they were delivered so they ended up in Brockets Farm at some point in the dim and distant past. Our Elizabethan forebears didn’t offer money back guarantees, let alone invite you to return the goods within 30 days if not fully satisfied!”

“Oh very funny Phoebe but you can go off people you know!” he said, smiling. “But, admit it, my version has much more potential. We could turn Brockets into the Pleistocene Theme Park – Come and see where the mastodons and the mammoths fought their last battles with early humans!!! You could lead guided tours and give expensive lectures … the possibilities are endless. We have enough genuine relics in that barn to stock a supermarket.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of their food, giving each the opportunity of some quiet contemplation; a chance to reflect on their competing arguments.

Inevitably, it was Bradley who opened up the subject again with another question. He was still hoping that he could persuade Phoebe of the merits of his dream scenario.

“Out of interest Phoebe, what is the evidence that your thesis is correct? After all, the dinosaur at the Natural History Museum in London - which attracts millions every year - is in reality a plastic model. At least we know our molars are the real deal.”

Phoebe poured herself another glass of wine as she sensed a moment of truth approaching. She took an ancient looking parchment wrapped in cellophane from her hand bag and placed it on the table between them.

“Let’s start with my surname” she announced to Bradley’s total surprise. “Fitzroy is a reference to one of my ancestors who was the illegitimate son of King James 11 and his mistress Arabella Churchill. He became the Duke of Berwick which is not a million miles from this part of the world. I recently inherited this document from one of my aunts who knew I was interested in palaeontology.”

Bradley took the document in his hand and tried to read it, but it was almost impossible to decipher as it was written in formal legalistic language of the 17th century, but it appeared to contain a long list of objects, a bit like a supermarket bill.

“What exactly is this?” he said.

“It’s a bill of lading issued by the Virginia Joint Stock company in 1650.” Said Phoebe “It lists 50 items of ivory in the name of a John Rolfe who was a businessman of that era. They were part of an assignment aboard Sea Venture, a ship with associations to Sir Walter Raleigh who had been granted a royal charter to establish Virginia as a colony. Raleigh was on 20% of all revenues he generated”.

“Nice work if you can get it” suggested Bradley. “But the plan went wrong?”

“Well, this is only one single consignment” said Phoebe, “But my guess is that they were used by native Americans to trade. Virginia was dominated by three tribes, the Powhatan, the Monacan, and Cherokees who all placed a high value on ivory in exchange for rifles but my ancestor, who was one of the financiers of the expedition in the first place, couldn’t find a market for them back in England. As an entrepreneur yourself Bradley …….”

“You win some, you lose some!” they said together laughing as the waiter arrived with two coffees and the bill.

“This is on me” said Bradley, “Especially if you can tell me who you think stole the molars from the museum. After all, you will need to report something back to Inspector Elisabeth Warren won’t you?”

“That’s an easy one, Bradley. It was me!”

END OF PART TWO

Pleistocene Park, Cumbria, was officially opened by HRH the Prince of Wales two years to the day following Bradley and Phoebe’s Crown Inn luncheon.

It provoked a blizzard of controversial international publicity which turned Brockets Farmhouse into an instant must see tourist attraction. The Park’s Director, Prof. Phoebe Fitzroy-James BSc Hons, went on national TV to challenge academia to debate the merits of their case to have unlocked the true significance of the Beringia Land Bridge. She became an instant TV star in her own right with Bradley revelling in her reflected glory.

Private Eye’s front page showed a picture of Prince Charles standing next to a huge life sized reconstruction of a Woolly Mammoth, which Bradley had erected in the first barn, with the headline “Spot the Relic”.

The Guardian’s leader was headed “A Bridge Too Far” and went on to criticize the owners of Pleistocene Park of warping young minds with mythological nonsense in pursuit of profit.

Richard Dawkins had sent them a letter pointing out that organised religion had been doing that for years.

The tabloid press was equally scathing but the combined cacophony only succeeded in precipitating a rush to buy tickets on line to see what the fuss was all about.

Phoebe had invested £100,000 from her aunt’s inheritance in return for a 40% stake in PP plc. She explained to Bradley that Pleistocene Park was a classic case of serendipity.

When she first looked at the bill of lading, she immediately linked one or two of the items to the museum’s own star molar attractions. She had intended to ‘borrow” them for a week whilst she carbon dated them using the very latest technology. To the best of her knowledge, they had never been subjected to scientific analysis since being discovered in 1921.

To cover herself, she had reported them missing but hadn’t thought for a nanosecond that the reaction to the TV news item would have been so swift and so apposite.

“It was meant to be” as she put it to a delirious Bradley Forest who had come clean to Phoebe with his own secret. His bank had refused his application for further funding; as a result, he was facing possible financial ruin.

Bradley & Phoebe worked very hard over the two year period restoring Brockets House so that it now had a lecture theatre, a tea room and a gift shop. The two barns had been cleared to exhibit a life sized woolly mammoth in one and a mastodon in the other, using real tusks on each model, as the notes made clear.

Around the edge of each barn, Bradley had installed five foot high wooden posts on which molars of each species were displayed in glass boxes, with notes explaining how old they were and why they were the shapes they were. Children were invited to compete with each other to see if they could spot the differences between the two reconstructed mammals. Teachers found the whole experience incredibly inspiring as their young charges became absorbed in archaeology for the first time.

This was in sharp contrast to the furore from the senior educational establishment about the absurdity of the owners basic claims which quickly inspired a Loch Ness style hunt for the actual place where these relics had been found in Cumbria and why they had ended up at Brockets.

In one interview, Bradley suggested that earlier owners of the property might have discovered a secret cave full of them but the process of retrieving them had been interrupted by a natural meteorological phenomenon. Perhaps the cave had been flooded or blocked by a land slip. After all hadn’t Storm Desmond destroyed Pooley Bridge as recently as 2015?.

It all added to the growing numbers visiting Cumbria searching for hidden caves after visiting Pleistocene Park.

As a condition of Phoebe’s involvement, Bradley had agreed never to talk about the science of carbon dating but even he knew enough to know that the dates involved were indisputable proof of their basic proposition. He was also mindful of his own scientific limitations.

After only two years of trading, PP plc’s turnover had reached an astonishing £20 million. Staff numbers had reached 75 with plans to create pockets of play areas within the woodland hinterland for all ages. A nearby derelict five acre site which used to be for light industry was acquired. The plan was to turn it into a carpark and create a footpath through the woods to the front entrance of Brockets Farmhouse.

Meanwhile Prof. Phoebe Fitzroy- James BSc Hons was in huge demand presenting all manner of TV programmes for BBC 4, Sky Arts and Channel 4 from “Digging For Gold” to “Treasures Under Your Feat” and “History In The Making” coupled with her continuing role as Director of Pleistocene Park, Cumbria.

END OF PART THREE

Bradley Forest became something of a local celebrity in an understated sort of way; Chairman of the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce and Captain of Penrith Golf Club but maintained his day job of CEO Pleistocene Park which he thoroughly enjoyed.

He did upgrade his car to the new all electric Jaguar I-Pace Concept but that was the only outward sign of his growing wealth. His only regret came when Phoebe turned down his somewhat clumsy proposal of marriage.

“I know you mean well Bradley” she had said, giving him a peck on his cheek. “But I don’t think working and living together would work for me”.

Six months later, in a quiet ceremony attended by only a few close friends, Phoebe exchanged vows with Inspector Elisabeth Warren as they entered a formal civil partnership. Afterwards they enjoyed a concert of classical music by Marin Alsop, one of their favourite conductors.

Phoebe had sent the museum’s molars to the radiocarbon-dating Chrono Centre at Queen's University Belfast who had confirmed they were indeed 10,850 years old. She knew the place to look for a hidden cave was not Cumbria but West Virginia.

She did have a pang of guilt about the adaptations she had made to her Tesla Model 3 to impress Bradley Forest, but theatrical software in the digital age made stage effects ever more realistic.

THE END

This Decamot was inspired by the following items:

Conductor, mastodon, screwdriver, Tesla Model 3, country road, cube, Bradley, paper cup, Pooley Bridge, pylon