This week a crocodile exploded in the British Museum.  It was in a crate in the vaults.  The curators had been aware for years that this reptile of prodigious size and weight, mummified in the XVth dynasty was emitted foul smelling gases.  This had been noticed by the public.  There were complaints.  So they nailed it up in a heavy wooden crate and took it down to the cellars and stored it in a room marked Egypt  amid sarcophagi, mummies and other assorted artefacts.  Other crates were heaped on top of it, but this did not prevent the smell from seeping out of the box, spreading through the underground chamber and oozing through cracks in the ceiling and floorboards to infect the chamber of Assyria and Persia.  On winter days when the windows were closed and the air conditioning switched off, the smell was so bad that even the stern profiles of the Assyrian warriors, immortalised since Sennacherib, wrinkled their noses.  

Nobody knew what caused the explosion.   Maybe it one of the curator’s assistants lit up in an attempt to disguise the stench.  It later emerged that not all of the charred bodies the police found in the wreckage had been mummified.  The explosion punched a hole through two floors, destroying for the second time the Persian Empire and severely disturbing the erotic façade of the Temple of Arasnipur, excavated from a site near Mumbai.  The curator was devastated.  On television and white faced, he said,  ‘It had completely destroyed our only record of pre-Christian Mesapotamia.  It would cost millions of pounds to rebuild the gallery and restock it, but the cost in terms of our human heritage and culture is incalculable.  This is devastating.’   Asked if the museum had any idea of the risk, the poor man admitted that they had known of the gases leaking from the croc for years, but literally covered it up.  ‘I have today tendered my resignation to the Culture Secretary.’ 

But this was only latest in a series of embarrassments for the Rt Honorable Mr Christopher Smith.  Only a few months previously, he had received a report recommending urgent refurbishment of the middle eastern section of the British Museum.  He had forwarded it to the Chancellor,  Gordon Brown, who refused to allocate additional funds and advised him to set up a committee.  Mr Smith resigned, the Chancellor was exposed, the government discredited and the Prime Minister went to the country. 

 The moral of this tale: Unless dark prehistoric secrets are dealt with, they can tend to emerge with devastating consequences.

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