The Lost Goddess

Tom Knox

The Lost Goddess


This book is dedicated to the Tibetan villagers of Balagezong,

Yunnan, southwest China.

Author’s Note

The Lost Goddess is a work of fiction. However, it draws on many genuine archaeological, historical, and cultural sources. In particular:

The Plain of Jars is an ancient site in remote central Laos, southeast Asia. It comprises hundreds of large stone vessels, maybe two thousand years old, randomly scattered across the meadows and fields of a limestone plateau. No one knows who made the jars, or why, or how. Burned remains of humans have been found nearby.

In the late nineteenth century, prehistorians working in Lozère, in southern France, discovered a series of skeletons in the cave systems of the region. These human remains exhibited curious and troubling wounds.

In 1923 Joseph Stalin asked a team of French scientists to examine a peculiar kind of crossbreeding, with an eye to creating a more perfect soldier. The laboratory constructed for these experiments still functions today, in Abkhazia, by the Black Sea.


Thanks are due to the many authors I have read, over the years, in the various subjects pertaining to the themes of this novel. In particular I owe a huge debt to Karen Armstrong, Nic Dunlop, Dith Pran, Haing Ngor, David Lewis Williams, Jean Guillaine and Jean Zammit, Steven A. Leblanc, Roland Neveu, Dave Grossman, Jean Clottes, Robert Wright, Jon Swain, Philip Short, Steven Pinker — and dozens of others.

My great friends and colleagues Peter Dench and Dan White, brilliant photographers both, have always been ready to tell me — over a warm beer in London, or a cold beer in Bangkok — just how wrong I am about almost everything. Without them, this book wouldn’t exist in any sensible form. I am similarly indebted to my editors Jane Johnson, Joy Chamberlain, and Josh Kendall, and also to Coralie Saint-Genis.

Above all, I am grateful to the many people who helped with my more difficult research in China, Cambodia, and Laos.

I’ll not forget the Hmong family who helped me as much as I helped them, when we were all stuck in the Laotian jungle one long muddy night. And thanks to Paksan for not being embarrassed when I nearly blubbed at the beauty of the snow mountains near Zhongdian. And I owe a debt of gratitude to the Lozère tourist authorities in France and the guide who showed me around miraculous Gargas cave on that sunny day in late September.

A darkness will settle on the people of Cambodia. There will be houses but no people in them, roads but no travellers; the land will be ruled by barbarians with no religion; blood will run so deep as to touch the belly of the elephant. Only the deaf and the mute will survive.

— Ancient Cambodian prophecy


The cave was cold. And dark. Bitter dark. Even though the last autumn sun of the Cévennes was shining outside, as soon as Julia made that descent, down the metal ladder, into the Cavern of the Swelling, the chilling blackness grasped at her — and sucked her in. Swallowing.

Why was she always unnerved by the initial descent? Surely she should have become accustomed to it by now? All summer she had been doing this: doing her job, digging and scraping in the dank limestone cave systems beneath the Cham des Bondons. Yet the first moment of the working day never got any easier.

Reaching a hand up, she switched on the torch of her headband and crouched through the gloom to her tool roll, left there on the damp cave floor, from yesterday.

She knelt and unwrapped the plastic and laid it all out, exposing the trowels and eyeglass, the brushes and plumb lines. The tool roll was a gift from her devoted yet sighing parents. The tiny family she had left behind in Michigan.

The wind whistled outside, fluting across the cave opening like a child blowing air over a bottleneck. The sound was plangent and sad. Julia picked up her tool roll and crawled farther, painfully barking her shin against rock despite the protection of her soft neoprene kneepads. A few minutes later she halted under a limestone ceiling barely a meter high. Here was her patch. It looked forlorn.

She was used to working down here in the Cave of the Swelling, with her colleagues Kanya and Alex and Annika. But in recent days the little platoon had dwindled: Kanya had left for California, finishing the digging season a week early. Alex was elsewhere, working in a cave along the plateau, with the rest of the team. And Annika, her good friend Annika, she was nursing a cold, in her little cottage in the deserted village of Vayssière, high on the Cham.

But at least, thought Julia, adjusting the beam of her LED headlamp, at least she was still doing proper archaeology. And she had only one more week to make the most of this disappointing season. One more week to find something, to justify her sabbatical, to justify all the time and money spent here, in the most remote and isolated part of southern France: the departement of Lozère.

They had a week left; the final slice of the digging season.

And then what?

The vision of a winter in London, and many winters after that, teaching yawning eighteen-year-olds, was a drag. Julia cursed her meandering mind and concentrated on her work. Just do it. Even if she knew she wasn’t going to find anything more than a broken bone pin, she also knew she was lucky to be here at all. And the sheer metronomic rhythm of her archaeology was, as always, rather soothing: brush and trowel and sieve, trowel and tweezer and sieve.

The tinkle of her metal tools echoed down the empty cavern.

Julia tried not to think of her loneliness. What if some mad shepherd came down here and raped her? In speleology, no one can hear you scream. She smiled inwardly, at her own fears. She’d gut the guy with her six-inch survey peg. Just let him try it.

The hour passed. She bent to her task; sorting through the drier dust, at the end of the cave. Troweling and sifting. Troweling and sifting.

She brushed and troweled. And paused. Feeling her own heart. Beating.

An eye stared back at her.

Julia nearly dropped her brush.

A distinctive white circlet of bone was visible through the black soil, like a crescent moon on a very dark night.

An eye socket. In a human skull?

Julia squinted, closely, at the orbital bones and the fine nasal cavity. She felt the pulse of her professional excitement accelerate. An actual human skull.

How old was the cranium? Maybe it was some medieval goatherd, who fell down the hole after a night of rough wine. Maybe it was the corpse of some eighteenth-century Protestant, fleeing the war of the Camisards, but more likely it was Neolithic. The real thing.

The debris of the cave floor was largely Stone Age. They knew that. The other day she had found her tiny fragment of antelope bone pin — dated from 5000 B. C. This skull had to be of the same epoch.

Julia’s hand trembled, for a moment, with excitement. This was the best find of a desultory season in the cave systems beneath the Cham des Bondons. Hell, this was the best find of her entire and desultory career.

She brushed, and scraped, then used the most delicate trowel, her precious four-inch silvery leaf-trowel, to wholly disinter the cranium. As she pushed the grit away, she realized — there was something odd about this skull.

It had a hole, high in the forehead.

Slipping on her working gloves, Julia lifted the cranium into the white and weakening light of her headlamp. Her batteries were on the fade, but she didn’t care. This was too good.

The ancient teeth gleamed in the shivering light, white and yellow. And smiling.

The hole in the bone was, in itself, no revelation. Julia had seen enough damaged bones to know that splinters and fractures were only to be expected in ancient remains: Homo sapiens emerging from the Ice Age had to fight savagely for food and survival, with cave bears and wolverines, with leopards and hyenas. Accidents were also common: from cliff falls and rock falls, and hunting wounds.

But this hole in the head had been made precisely. Carved. Sculpted. Not intended to be lethal, yet drilled into the bone.

She put the cranium on the cave floor and made some notes. Her grimy gloves soiled the white pages as she scribbled. She had discovered, surely, a skull deliberately pierced, or “trepanned,” in a form of early surgery: this was a Stone Age lobotomy, someone diligently excising a disk-shaped hole in the high forehead of the cranium.

Trepanning was well attested in the literature. It was the earliest form of surgery ever discovered; there were several examples of it in museums dating from the probable age of this skull: 5000 B. C.

But no one had any proper sense why Stone Age men did it. So this discovery was still quite something.

A noise disturbed her excited thoughts. Julia set down her notebook and stared int ...