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Diamond Tales: Three Thousand Years To Saturnalia by Alison Morton



I was forged in rock and remained
surrounded by rock until the river water and gravel wore it from me over
thousands of years. When I lay bare, the first human plucked me out of the
river. He seized me from the gravel and clutched me to him. I fell when
somebody struck him and he dropped onto the river bank.  Another hand
grasped me and thrust me into the darkness of his robe pocket.

   The sharp
tool pierced me, split me into two. No pain, but a sundering. Now I became
twins. We passed from hand to hand, thrown out onto a dark cloth and offered to
the highest bidder. We shone in the bright sunlight of the Indus Valley. We
were admired, but regretfully never found a home.

Time flowed. We heard the name Yavanas. Brown hands passed us to olive
hands, hands not quite fully finished. They spoke in soft lisping voices and wore
pale tunics. One had light brown curling hair and blue eyes. We were wrapped in
a shiny, slippery cloth, then back into the darkness. We bounced along in a
waist pouch amidst shouts in a strange language. The smell of salt, and
rhythmic movement, stillness, then came the crash and violent rocking of storms
and anguished shouting of humans nearly devoured by fear. We do not count time
but after a while, the rhythmic movement stopped and we juddered to a halt. The
man carrying us hurried on to firmer ground. We were displayed again. The sun
was bright, but not so hot and drenching in heat as in the Indus. An older man
shook his head and among the lisps, refused us. We learnt we were among the
Hellenes.

More time
passed. New friends joined us and left us; some polished, some cabochon,
rubies, sapphires, amethyst, carnelian, garnet, river pearls, peridot,
rock crystal but no other diamonds. We were separate in our silk; we were the
hardest substance in nature, gods amongst stones, never sold.

One day,
we were off on our journeys again, the salt and movement of the sea. Still
secure in a man’s waist pouch we docked. The shouting was harsher, more
directed. Our man argued with grating voices which demanded taxes and fees. We
moved again, this time on animals. The smell, the warmth from their bodies
moving under us, the clip-clop of their hooves on stone roads.

   Laid out
on a dark cloth again, we shone in the sun. Pink, pale fingers rubbed us,
dropped us in an almost white palm, dropped us back onto the cloth.

   ‘How
much?’ came a strong, hard voice. Our man named a sum which meant nothing to us
– we were beyond price. Some arguing, then we saw our man’s hand shake the pink
one and he left us.

We are imprisoned. Surrounded by gold, we are fixed for eternity. Our solace is that we are together. The points of our splitting in the past face upwards and we shine in a new gold ring on display in a fine blue glass dish. In his vast hall we learn is called an atrium the strong voiced man summoned a younger man.

Roman Ring Featuring Two Diamond Crystals.
© Trustees of the British Museum

     ‘Paulus, this is for you to give to Antonia. The stones are called diamonds and have come from the east brought by that damned oily Greek merchant.’

   ‘Father, I
didn’t expect—’

   ‘Well, you
are my only son,’ the gruff voice said. ‘D
iamonds are supposed to be divine
and protect the owner from all kinds of mishap. So that should suit you.’

   The younger
one took our ring in his trembling hands. ‘The two stones will 
signify
our love for each other.’

   ‘For
Mars’s sake, don’t spout that lovey-dovey stuff in old Antonius’s presence.
He’ll call the whole thing off and we’ll lose the land deal. Now we must get
on. The decemvirate is posting their Twelve Tables today and Antonius is part
of the ceremony. Come along, tell your body slave to fetch your toga and we’ll
be off.’

   The girl’s
skin is soft and she strokes the ring gently the whole day of the feasting
following the short ceremony of marriage. Her touch is pleasing. She leaves the
ring on her finger through her household work, her couplings with Paulus, and
three childbirths. On the fourth one she dies and we are buried with her, her
baby and all the rest of her jewellery. Food and drink in earthenware pots are
set by her side. Paulus weeps and is led away by his father now old, white-haired
and walking with a stick.

Time passes,
a long, long time. The girl had faded into mere bones. The rich cloth around
her has rotted into the earth. We are still fixed in the gold but the ring is
loose on her finger bone. Will we ever be free and shine in the sun again or
have we returned to the earth forever?

   Movement
above us. Muffled voices. Not Hellene, not Latin, but soft yet staccato. A
sharp edge of steel scrapes the girl’s arm bone. Daylight. Earth is removed.

   ‘Careful,
careful. It’s a skeleton.’

   More earth
is removed, gently. The faces are pink, full of curiosity and energy. Their
hands lay us bare.

   ‘Oh my god,
it’s two, a baby and all that jewellery. Call the superintendent.’

   An older
man, whom they call the 
soprintendente dei scavi looks down
almost lovingly into the grave, then his expression becomes sad.

   ‘Record it
all as usual, then we’ll have to consider what to sell to fund it all.’

   We have been
scrubbed, albeit gently, with a liquid smelling like the latrines of Tartarus.
Now our ring is perched on a red velvet stand in a locked glass case. We are
flooded with light from above. We are in a slave market with bidders battling
to own us.

   A young man
is egging them on; his face is flushed with excitement as he stands on his
rostrum, his hammer in hand. At last the shouting has finished and we are taken
away to our new owner.

   The finger
is as thin as the girl Antonia’s, but the skin is wrinkled and shrunk onto the
bone. An old hand of an old woman. One day the hand is still and cold and our
ring is slipped off.

We are
approached by a curved glass many times bigger than us. Inside is an enormous
blue eye, rotating. If we were human we would be frightened into our soul.

   ‘I agree,
it’s genuine, about two thousand years old, I estimate,’ a woman’s voice in
Italian says.

   ‘We have the
provenance certificate from the dig in the late nineties,’ says a man.

   ‘My client
will take it,’ she says.

A man called
Andrea collects our ring one cold midwinter evening. We have been in the woman
dealer’s safe for a week. At first, she can’t find our ring. The man’s voice in
Italian rises in panic. He is in a hurry; he is late to travel with his
parents, but he cannot go without our ring. The woman’s searching fingers
eventually find us at the back of the safe. Our ring is slipped into a soft
leather pouch then into his jacket inner pocket. Even through the pouch and his
shirt, we can feel his heart beating hard.

   The journey next day was fast, too fast
and the engine vibrations shook us like an eternal earth tremor, but the man
talked to his parents as if it were all perfectly normal.

   After a
short while we hit something on the ground for an instant but thank the gods,
the noise stopped and fresh air flooded in.

   Latin. We
are back among Latin speakers. We haven’t heard that since the time of the girl
we were buried with.

   A short
journey, then the warmth of a fire. Now the man is speaking.

   ‘Mama and
Papa, Countess Aurelia, you know Silvia and I love each other. I am living with
her in the Roma Novan custom as her companion. And today I’m looking forward to
celebrating my first Saturnalia with her.’ 

   Roma Novans?
What are they?

   ‘But the
love of two people has two sides,’ he continues. ‘I commissioned a search and
yesterday, in Rome, I collected a very special piece from a friend in the
antique business. It is a token of my love that I bring a Roman ring today
across the centuries to my true love.’

    Oh, he pulls
the pouch out of his pocket and we fall in our ring into the palm of his other
hand. He speaks again.

   ‘I am
assured this is very rare, the diamonds do not sparkle as modern ones do, but
my love outshines any diamond.’

   But we do shine.

   He takes a
young girl’s hand. Her hair is dressed like Antonia’s from all those years ago.
He slips our ring on her fourth finger, a soft warm skin. He whispers in her
ear, ‘Now with these ancient diamonds for Saturnalia, we are married.’ She
kisses our ring, and us, her eyes sparkling, then kisses him.

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