HASAKE, SYRIA—When archaeologist Edward Whitson joined a Penn State University dig in Hasake last year, he did so to participate in the excavation of a Late Bronze Age settlement rich in pottery shards and clay figurines. Whitson had hoped to determine whether the items contained within the site were primarily Persian or Assyrian in origin.
Instead, he found himself fleeing giant flying demon-cats as he ran through the temple's cavernous halls, jumping from ledge to ledge while locked in a desperate struggle for his life and soul for what seemed like the thousandth time in his 27-year career.
"All I wanted to do was study the settlement's remarkably well-preserved kiln," said the 58-year-old Whitson, carefully recoiling the rope he had just used to clamber out of a pit filled with giant rats. "I didn't want to be chased by yet another accursed manifestation of an ancient god-king's wrath."
Over the course of his career, Whitson has been frequently lauded by colleagues for his thorough, methodical examinations of ancient peoples. He has also been chased by the snake-bodied ophidian women of Al'lat in Israel, hunted down by Mayan coyote specters manifested out of lost time and shadow in the Yucatan, and hounded by the Arctic-sky-filling Walrus Bone Woman of the early Inuits.
"It's true, I've got to stop reading the inscriptions on ancient door seals out loud," Whitson said. "I also need to quit dusting off medallions set into strange sarcophagi, allowing the light to hit them for the first time in centuries. And replacing the jewels that have fallen from the foreheads of ancient frog-deity statues—that's just bad archaeological practice."
Whitson added that he hopes one day to excavate an ancient Egyptian monastery or marketplace without hearing the ear-splitting shrieks of the undead while being swarmed by green-glowing carnivorous stink beetles.
"I realize I'm entering grounds that are considered sacred to these people," Whitson said. "But that doesn't mean I deserve to be pelted with poison-tipped darts shot from cavern walls. A simple 'Do Not Enter' sign in hieroglyphics would suffice."
Turning to the subject of his latest incident at a dig site in Peru, Whitson maintains he was not at fault for summoning the forces of evil.
"I was just idly rearranging flint sickle blades that had already been catalogued. Apparently, I spelled out the true name of a long-dead god-priest," Whitson said. "Can't a man even clean up his work area without inadvertently conjuring up a pack of lightning-breathing ocelots?"
Making matters worse, such encounters have had little to no scientific value.
"It's always, 'I will drink your soul' or 'I will chew the flesh from your bones' with these hellish apparitions," Whitson said. "When I ask them if that means the ancient Etruscans did, in fact, add copper to their mixing clay to make their urns more sturdy, they don't even seem to hear me."
Worn down by nearly three decades of peril, Whitson said he plans to move off the front lines to become a museum curator or in-office researcher.
"It's unfortunate," Whitson said. "Nothing quite compares to being out in the field on an actual dig. But the reality is, I'm really starting to hate almost getting killed all the time."