Rubellium West, Pioneer of Ice Age Archeology

Rubellium Baadlund West, the discoverer of Finnungric Civilization and the decipherer of Gamma Cyclic Script, died last night at his home in Ivalo, Finland, of tertiary dementia.  He was 93.  Dr. West was most noted for his discovery in 2007 of a Nordic civilization that flourished at the edges of the continental ice sheets during the last Ice Age.  His 2011 book, The Golden Ice, chronicled the discovery of the Lapland Friezes, monumental inscriptions that had been preserved in the frigid depths of several freshwater lakes in northern Scandinavia.  West also authored Canine Semiolinguistics (2018), The Spires of Finnungria (BCE 18000) (2020), The Return of Icarus, or the Doom of Civilization (2024), Fractal Denouement (2028), and an autobiography, Unleashed (2030).   In addition he wrote many scholarly and popular articles on archeology, linguistics, and geopolitics, and briefly hosted a television show, For the Dogs.

West was born in Buffalo, New York, and pursued his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Columbia University and Oxford.  His D. Phil. thesis in biological paleoarcheology defended the theory of “marginal fluorescence,” arguing that animal species and human cultures flourish not in environments for which they are optimally adapted, but rather in “zones of fortuity,” unstable regions where environmental dominance is hotly contested among various species.  His theoretical conjectures led to the prediction that early humans would have developed advanced cultures at the edges of continental glaciers during recent Ice Ages.

In his memoir, West described an academic conference in 2003 where he first presented his hypotheses about Ice Age civilization.  Amidst talks on Pharoic Egypt, Sumer, and Babylonia,

“a young graduate student stands before his title slide, ‘Environmental Gradients:  the Hand that Rocks the Cradle of Civilizations.’  He has thirty slides about multivariate catastrophism lined up like thirty dominoes, his statistical proof that zones of rapid climate change will lead to a bimodal split of big winners and losers in the Darwinian sweepstakes.  But his calculations did not predict his audience, established trowel-and-text types whose compass points landed squarely on the rim of the ancient Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent to its east.  But rather than mumble his way through his slides and out the door, the young fool turns off the projector and steps in front of the podium  ‘Look,’ he says to them, ‘you guys are fourteen thousand years too late.’…”

West spent the evening of his talk at the “designated conference bar” amidst “dozens of name tags,” but not one conferee would speak with him.  Variants of this experience would characterize most of his professional life.

Undaunted, West embarked on a solo expedition beyond the arctic circle, convinced that early humans built and worked in ice long before they learned to cut stone and smelt bronze.  By night the young archeologist supported himself by playing Sibelius tunes on an accordion in Finnish bars, while by day he trained himself for deep-water scuba diving in the frigid waters of Lake Inari, two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Finland.  Only in the three hundred foot depths of such a lake would the traces of the conjectured civilization endure.  Day after day during the summers of 2004 and 2005, West sank toward the silt of the Lake, to the growing amusement of the local Laplanders, who referred to him affectionately as “mähä”  (“Fool” in Sami, the Lapp language, closely related to Finnish). 

On August 7. 2007, the high intensity beams of West’s lamps cut through the crystalline waters of Lake Inari to fall on the first of the Lapland Friezes.  West’s journal for the day records the breathless discovery:

“7.8, 94 meters at 69.091 N, 27.487 E.  New max depth.  Bottom curiously flat, but for crosshatched patterning.  At first I thought these patterns were rills and ripples from the current, but as my light played over the grooves, something regular and rhythmic called out to me with the whisper of Meaning.  Standing lightly on the bottom, I trained my light at the tips of my flippers, and with its beam traced one, two, three, four, parallel grooves of about a meter each, ending abruptly.  The second was the longest of the set, and the fourth the shortest.  With a distinct chill, superadded to my cryogenic context, I swung the lamp leftwards to behold a fifth groove, half the length of the others but thicker.  A thumb!  I was standing in the palm of a colossus.  Despite the desperate deadline of the depths, I swam along the bas-relief of the arm back to the shoulder and up to a profile face fully two meters from chin to brow.  With utmost delicacy I pitched headfirst toward the eye of this Ancient King, setting the circle of my mask against the exquisitely rendered pupil, the size of a saucer.  As I rose, and rose, even as the nitrogen bubbles frothed in my blood and brain, I knew I had met the gaze of the Old Ones.  I had seen!”

West’s discovery quickly attracted both science and media to Lake Inari.  Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic, brought his technology and the funding of the National Geographic Society to the Finnish find.  West’s “Ancient King” turned out to be a full-figured Queen, a central figure in a monumental relief that depicted an inconceivable city of geodesic domes and hexagonal towers, all based on the shape and previously unknown engineering strength of the simple snowflake.  The “Finnungrians” (as West dubbed them) recorded their heroic achievements on the towering faces and broad expanses of continental ice sheets, carving friezes up to a square mile in area, apparently using torches as their writing implements, melting grooves in the ice for the low Nordic sun to catch and set aglow.  As the glaciers receded, great slabs of ice toppled into the mud and silt at the glaciers’ foot, leaving something like a fossil imprint.  In rare situations, such as that in northern Finland, the imprinted mud settled beneath calm waters as the millennial ice disappeared, awaiting discovery by a Rubellium West.

The astounding perspectival renderings of the minarets and buttresses of the ice metropolis were only the beginning of the wonders of the north, however.  A form of writing, “Gamma Cyclic Script,” snaked around the fantastic friezes.  With the same feverish intensity, “the fool” dove into its decipherment.  Not surprisingly, West found no helpful Rosetta Stone in the sediments of Lake Inari.  Scholars of hieroglyphics, of Minoan Linear B, of Sumerian Cuneiform, of Mayan pictographs, of ancient Chinese and Korean script, were all baffled.  In a single year, West’s youthful black hair turned gray as he approached a complete nervous collapse.

He had but one clue.  The pictograms/runes/syllables/whatevers of Gamma Cyclic Script were diverse, perhaps infinitely so, as were the wondrous ice faceted pictures.  Yet the chemical analysis of the silt substrate of the friezes revealed some subtle variations.  A few of the symbols, and a few of the images, showed a slight increase in uric acid in their muddy “canvasses.”  It seemed that this chemical variation was not due to random composition of the mud, but rather was a leftover of the ice itself.  But no one, West included, had any hypothesis to explain the apparent pattern in the ice chemistry.

One cold noon West took his dog Silja for a walk along the shores of the lake. “I was seeing runes in my sleep,” West wrote, “and in branches and clouds and drier lint.” Staring idly at snow stained with Silja’s canine signature, a bit of graduate chemistry came back to him, and he recognized the origin of the compounds found in the ancient silt.  The stories from that time had him bursting into his lab exclaiming, “The yellow snow!  Bring me the yellow snow!”  In reality his eureka was less histrionic; his memoirs report he had no doubt that the silt samples would match the composition of canine urine.

Silja earned extra reindeer meat for her supper that day, beginning a distinctly canine chapter in West’s career.  Dogs had peed on the Lapland Friezes, but not at random.  Only certain heroic figures and particular pictograms had been so honored.  Their ancient masters had led the animals to specific symbols, but why?  West conjectured that the gesture expressed disdain for the referents of the symbols, and discovered the first of more than sixty grammatical cases that inflected the ancient language – the derogatory case. 

For the rest of that year, West was unable to make any further progress with either the syntax or semantics of Gamma Cyclic script.  His laboratory was strewn with photos and sketches of the friezes.  He paced among them day after day, and slept head in arms at his worktable.  Suddenly on a Tuesday in September 2013 he noticed that his dog was imitating his own behavior in remarkable detail.

“She scanned the runes column by column, and at the end of each locked eyes with me, panting.  ‘What is it, girl?’ She emitted a high whine, and pawed at one of the symbols.  Then she pawed another and growled.  I looked, and saw it was in the derogatory case.  I pointed to another symbol in the same case – she growled again.  I patted her head, and with a sweep of my hand indicated the entire sprawl of friezes, and uttered the command that would shatter paradigms:  Speak.”

Silja, a purebred Finnish Spitz, was an innate speaker of the ancient language (whose name cannot be represented in any known orthography).  She was also literate.  What first seemed like a miracle, or a joke, eventually fit the edifice of science like a key in a lock: early humans and ancestral dogs migrated toward the howling scarps of ice at the same time, and fell into a thousand year dance of domestication.  Each exploited the specialized bodily talents of the other:  Dogs brought fur, fangs, and ferocity, while humans had opposable thumbs.  More important, each exploited the brain circuitry of the other.  Language arose initially as a joint invention, the cognitive common ground of the two species.  The canine brain could support a lexicon of less than one hundred words, but was subtly attuned to myriad inflections.  West confirmed sixty grammatical cases, and speculated that there were hundreds of others in the ancient tongue.  Most were modifiers that specified human-dog relations.  The command “sit,” for example, could occur in the impero-optative mood, meaning something like, “Would you be so kind as to sit so that I can do some action that will benefit us both?” as opposed to the impero-coercive case, meaning approximately, “Sit, or I’ll beat the shit out of you.”  Each of these had subcases appropriate to different relationships between man and dog, from first encounter to mutual symbiotic care.  Thus a very few words could found a joint culture.   West identified cognate meanings still in use between humans and canines, despite different articulations across the millennia.  “Sit” was one, a call to council. “Lie down” descended from various forms of “Lie on top of me,” essential for keeping warm through long Nordic nights. The ancient “fetch” resulted in the harvest of firewood from miles around.  And so forth.

Dogs might be fluent in a language evolved for their needs and abilities, but canine literacy seemed simply incredible to all but West.  No less incredible was his strategy for explaining the cultural and evolutionary origins of a script once understood by two distinct mammalian species.  “When in doubt,” wrote West, “ask an expert.” In consultation with linguists, speech therapists, and acoustic engineers, West mastered the phonetics and syntax of the ur-language of the north, including the hypersonic teeth hissing, subsonic throat rumbles, yawns, whines, and, of course, hundreds of variants on the basic bark.   The ultimate expert, hard wired for literacy in Gamma Cyclic, was of course the dog Silja.   Tape recorders running, West finally asked Silja how and why humans began to inscribe writing in the ice.

“What writing?” was the reply.  As West summarized, “Every assumption in my question was wrong.  Gamma Cyclic wasn’t originally writing.  And its first authors weren’t human.”  Instead, the inscriptions began as odorant trails laid down in passing by animals and humans as they pursued the business of survival.  Every animal leaves unique molecular traces of itself with every step.  Humans are insensitive to these traces, but dogs and many other species can discriminate millions of scents and follow their trails. West continued: 

“Suppose that everywhere you went, you left footprints that could always be identified as yours.  And suppose that everyone, and every animal, did the same.  In time your landscape would become your story.  You could read from the interwoven paths and well-worn loops the history of your group, who leads and who follows, who loves and who hates.  At the same time, in the overlays of trails you’d see the traditions of your world, the regularities of nature and the prescriptions of culture.  Your landscape would be its own map, at once its own science, its own myth.”
Then as now dogs had the nose, and brain, for reading these trails of chemical breadcrumbs.  Sniffing the ice had the side effect of melting it, however, and over time as dogs tracked trails across the glaciers their hot breath eroded subtle grooves.  A chemical trail became visible, and the scene was set for the symbiosis of the powerful olfactory brain of one species with the powerful visual brain of the other.  West again:

“I imagine the midnight sun raking a field of white out to the horizon, but the polished sheen is visibly crisscrossed with the shadowy rills of dog trails.  What ancient thinker first stood before this majestic scene and read it?  What founding genius realized that one need not merely wait for circumstances to produce a legible record, that one could use a torch or even a stick to mimic nature’s script -- to write?  Was this ancient Einstein human, or beast?  I often think, the latter.”

The inventors of Gamma Cyclic script are, of course, unknown.  The content of the script that snakes across the Lapland Friezes, on the other hand, appeared for a time in every anthology of ancient texts, and thus need not be quoted here.  It celebrates impermanence and change, elevates love and loyalty while deriding material things, and above all welcomes death with fatalistic humor.  After all, when your civilization could be dissolved by a spring thaw, attachments to the material world could only lead to frustration, while cultural preservation would require continual effort.  Whether dogs were deliberately bred for innate literacy, or simply evolved for that in a world inscribed with useful meaning, is unknown.  What is known is that the Finnungrians flourished for thousands of years is one of the harshest climates imaginable.  Then, as their climate warmed, they disappeared.
Rubellium West’s life followed a similar arc.  The Lapland Friezes brought fame, but their sequel brought only derision.  For some months following the publication of Canine Semiolinguistics, West became a regular on talk shows.  Routinely, the host or some guest star produced a dog for West to question about details of the star’s domestic life, favorite fire hydrants, and other smirky topics.  Briefly, West’s own show elevated dialogues with dogs, with English subtitles, to the main event, but the interviews were spliced with footage of animal bloopers.  The sum was comedy at West’s expense. 

It must be acknowledged that as the decades passed West provoked some of the derision with his own speculations.  In 2034, for example, he claimed to have translated a language descended from ancient Egyptian that is still spoken by some species of cat.  That is, when the cat is willing.  “Nothing so anti-intellectual and snooty as a cat,” West stated.  Then came “translations” of migration routes of birds, bees, and butterflies, of growth patterns of ivies and branching patterns of trees.  Finally the earth itself spoke to Rubellium West though the tributaries of river systems, the ridges of mountains, and the crazing of subterranean faults.  All these prehuman informants told West that the tapestry of advanced civilization was a passing fad and that the seeds of its own destruction had already been sown.  They advised him to be happy.

Strangely, West seemed to have no insight regarding the ridicule he provoked.  In this he resembled his favorite animal companion.  Indeed, West himself found through an exhaustive content analysis of the Lapland Friezes that no dog ever knew she was a dog.  One ancient word denoted both dogs and humans;  arguably, the Finnungrians were themselves oblivious to distinctions between human and canine. 

Late in life, his hypotheses were recast as the early symptoms of dementia.  However, in an interview last year, West (as always) offered his own alternate interpretation:

“What do others think?  What value to me is the opinion of others?  It simply distracts from the work.  No:  The best work must necessarily appear inconceivable, incredible, absurd.  It must seem like fantasy, fiction, or madness.  The reception of my ideas has always convinced me that I’m speaking truth  -- a deeper truth than you are prepared to hear.”

Only history will judge whether Rubellium West found deeper truths in the idioms of animals, vegetables, and minerals.  Last year funding for the maintenance of the Lapland Friezes expired, and so far no government or private agency has stepped in.   The ongoing warming of northern Europe has exacerbated convection currents in Lake Inari, erasing the friezes year by year.  West’s translations from Gamma Cyclic no longer appear in any textbook.  The voluminous data West observed and recorded have been lost to indifference, neglect, and obsolete formatting.  Even this obituary, in the only journal that has noted his death, will reach a tiny and obscure readership.

Perhaps this is Rubellium West’s ultimate failure.  Perhaps it is the vindication of the ideas he “translated” over his long life.  Perhaps it is both at once.

[translated from Gamma Cyclic by Dan Lloyd]