National Geographic : 2004 Jan
Sn the basement cafe of a tourist hotel in Basel, Switzerland, I tell the smug gler and his accomplice that the exquisite bronze sword he has placed on our table is a worthless forgery. Having handled hundreds of Bronze Age artifacts, I know this sword actually dates to 1600 B.c. But I'm bluffing, for if the smugglers learn its true origin, they'll never part with the real prize: a bronze disk from the same period that is purported to be the earliest known depiction of the cosmos. If authentic, the disk would be one of the most important finds of the early 21st century, and its value would far sur pass that of the sword. Despite my bravado, I'm extremely nervous. As an archaeologist, such cloak-and-dagger deals are new to me, and I can't forget the advice from the Swiss police officer who had set up this sting: "The most important thing," he'd said, "is that you survive. We lose people in some of these transactions." A week earlier the smuggler's accomplice had phoned to arrange our meeting, assuring me they would bring the disk. Now I'm getting impatient and demand to see it. The smuggler slowly pulls an object wrapped in a towel from beneath his shirt. As he opens the package, I stifle a gasp. Indeed it's a bronze disk, and it's the size of a large dinner plate. It's been crudely cleaned, and I can make out a gold sun and moon set in a field of glimmering gold stars. One constellation appears to be the Pleiades. If the disk is the same age as the sword, it will precede the beginning of Greek astronomy by a thousand years. And it will far surpass monolithic Stonehenge. At this moment, with my heart racing, I know how Howard Carter must have felt when he first glimpsed King Tut's tomb. After I closely examine the piece, we agree on a price. I'll pay $400,000 for the disk and other items found with it-two swords (including the bronze one I had already seen), two axes, two spiral armbands, and a chisel-all forged from bronze. Then I politely excuse myself to the men's room, snap open my cell phone, and alert the police. After what feels like an eternity, six officers swarm into the cafe and arrest us all. The smug glers were shocked because I'd assured them that Switzerland's neutral status would afford a safe haven for our meeting.