4338-The Third Letter
Yesterday, one of the scientists here took me to the Cabinet of Curiosities. It’s in a huge building right in the middle of the Neva and which looks like a whole city on its own. There are arches joining it to the river banks, and from the windows you can see an enormous fountain which protects the coastal part of Petersburg from flooding. A nearby island, which in ancient times was called Vasilevskiy Island is also part of the Cabinet. It has an indoor garden with trees and bushes, and there are animals walking around freely there – although they’re behind bars they have plenty of space to roam. It’s an absolute work of art! It is entirely build on arches which are constantly heated by warm air – so only a few steps separate the tropical and temperate climate zones. The garden is like a miniature version of the entire planet, so walking round it is like a journey round the world. The creatures of each country are exhibited in the corresponding places, and the whole thing is laid out just like a globe. Above the garden, in the centre of the Cabinet building on the Neva itself, is a gigantic heated pool. There you can see rare species of fish and amphibians. On both sides are halls with the natural kingdoms of dry land – flora and fauna all displayed in chronological order starting with the creatures from before the flood up to the present day. Even a quick look round it all made me realise how Russian scientists manage to become so extraordinarily knowledgeable. It’s sufficient to make a thorough tour of the Cabinet, and without reading any books, you can receive the training of a well-informed naturalist. The collection of animals is truly wonderful. So many species have disappeared or changed completely! I was especially taken with the very rare exhibit of a giant horse, which still had its wool. It is very similar to those little horses which ladies like to keep with their bedroom dogs – but the ancient horse was an incredible size. I could hardly reach up to its head.
– is it really possible, I asked the curator, — that people once rode on those monsters?
– Although there is no clear evidence for it, he replied — there are ancient monuments which show people sitting on top of horses.
– But isn’t that some kind of allegorical representation? Maybe the ancients wanted simply to indicate the victory of humanity over nature, or over their own passions?
That’s what many people think, and it’s a reasonable point of view — said Khartin. But it seems as though those allegorical images were taken from the real world. Otherwise, how could we explain those words like "horseman" or "horserider" that are often found in ancient manuscripts? Also look –he said, showing me a raised foot of the horse with a curved bit of rusty iron nailed to the hoof — this is one of the Cabinet’s most valuable exhibits. You see this iron is held on with nails, well, there are traces of nails on the other hoofs as well. This was obviously done by people.
– But how would they use that iron?
– Probably to limit the strength of that terrifying beast, said the curator.
– Or perhaps during wars they let them loose on the enemy, and the iron would help them to cause more damage?
– Your comments are rather witty, replied the courteous scientist. But where is the evidence?
I was silent.
– Not long ago a very ancient picture was found here, said Khartin. It shows some gear which was probably used to tame horses, and the horse in the picture has its legs tied to a strut and a man with a hammer is hitting its hooves. Nearby there is another horse which is harnessed to some kind of strange container on wheels.
That’s very intriguing. But how do you explain the decrease in size of these animals?
– There are various hypotheses. The most likely explanation is that in the second millennium after the birth of Christ the spread of flying craft made horses unnecessary. The horses were just abandoned and they went off into the forest. They just ran wild and nobody was bothered about conserving them. Most probably died. Then later people started to take an interest in them and decided to finish off what nature had begun. The was a fashion for small plants and animals for several centuries and horses were part of that. So the horse eventually became the amusing decorative pet that we have today.
– So I suppose, — I said, looking at the skeleton, — that the people who rode on horses in ancient times were all heroes, or else, maybe people then were a lot braver that we are now. How could anyone risk sitting on a thing like that!
– Indeed, people in ancient times did tend to put themselves in danger more readily than today. For example, now it is firmly established that steam, which we presently only use for tunnelling and mining, is a terrible and dangerous force. But there was a period of several centuries when it was used for transport.
That’s just baffling.
– ?! I am sure that if the ancient books had been preserved we might understand a lot of things that don’t seem to make sense now.
–" In that respect you are more fortunate than us. At least your climate helped to preserve a few fragments of ancient writing and you had time to transfer them onto glass; but in China, everything that didn’t rot on its own was eaten by insects – so we have no written records dating from early times.
"And very little was preserved here," noted Khartin. — There are huge bundles of material were only the odd word or letter can be made out, and those serve as the basis for all of our ancient history.
– A lot must depend on the work of your curators of antiquities. I heard that the new dictionary which they have prepared will include two thousand recently discovered words.
– Indeed! — The curator responded. "but what good will that do?" They’ll write two thousand dissertations about each of those words without ever discovering what they actually meant. Take the word "Germans" as an example. Our scientists have dedicated so much work to it, but they still can’t unearth what its true meaning was. The Physicist had hit one of my sore points. As a student of history it’s easy to wind me up with that sort of criticism. I decided to show off my learning.
– The Germans were a people who lived to the south of ancient Russia," I said. This is already beyond dispute. The Germans were subjugated by the Allemanns, then in the place of the Allemanns the Teutons appeared. The Teutons were then conquered by the Nemtsi, or more correctly, by the Germains, and then the Germains by the Deutsche. This last was a well studied ethnicity with a language that has been partially preserved in some fragments of writing by their poet Geothe…
Yes! That’s what we used to think – said Khartin. But now antiquaries are practically all of the opinion that the Deutsche were something quite different and the Germans were some sort of caste or class, which people from different tribes were able to join.
"well I must admit, that’s a completely new idea for me, I can see that our research is not quite up to speed on your latest discoveries."
We had conversations like that everywhere we went in the Cabinet. I asked permission to visit it more often and the curator told me that the Cabinet is open round the clock every day of the year. You can imagine how pleased I am to have met such a brilliant scientist.
Various Academies are also housed in the same building. They are called the "The Permanent Learned Congress." In a few days’ time the Academy will be open to visitors and Khartin has promised to take me to the first session.
See the next part here 4338-The Fourth Letter