The Descent of Liberty: An Archeological Enigma for the Future


"I think at last I understand what happened to Liberty."


"As in: u2018The Hymn to Liberty.' You know, those fragmentary inscriptions we've been finding." The philologist was looking up from the table cluttered with the artifacts which the archeologist had fostered on to him in a fit of exasperation.

The archeologist wiped the sweat from his brow. It was hot as hell in this country, that hadn't changed since the time of the Amerikkans…for that matter, it hadn't changed since the time of the Sumerians. "Are you sure you haven't mixed up the labels I put on exhumations from different strata? It's awfully easy to confuse Ishtar or Inanna with….what did you call her? Liberty? That's not even a proper name, its just a kind attribute or title."

"Call her what you will, but I think I have the hymn pretty well worked out. For one thing its not a hymn…it's a kind of lament, or an admonition."

The archeologist made a rude gesture indicating irritation. "Lament or admonition…which? It's not a trivial distinction. If it was a lament then your hypothesized catastrophe was probably unavoidable. But if it was an admonition, we're talking about people who believed their civilization could still experience a rebirth."

"Fair enough," the philologist sighed as he scratched his bald pate, "why don't we put our heads together and see what we can deduce."

"Do you think you have a sound translation of the first stanzas?"

"Better than that, I've rendered the whole inscription as literally as I could! But the real challenge is to come up with a satisfactory interpretation of the meaning…there is a great deal of ambiguous symbolism in the text."

The archeologist looked skeptical. "Assuming we know what dialect we're working with. As I remember, you claimed to be none too sure about of that."

"I am now. At first I thought we were looking at Old Amerikkan…because it didn't have that rude staccato quality that serves as a marker for Middle Amerikkan, but now I'm convinced this is a late text…that there was some sort of neo-classical revival at the very end. Well, can we start into it?"

"If you must…"

"There's no title. The introduction must have been destroyed in the catastrophe."

"Or simply by the ravages of time."

"Whatever. This is the first fragment that I could make out…

This lady left earth and heaven      And went down into the pit Left powers and titles      she went down into the pit Left fields of waving grain      To go down into the pit Left shore to shining shore      Going down into the pit Left purple mountains majesty      And went down into the pit

…..well, does that make any sense?"

"So according to you u2018this lady' is referring to Lady Liberty?"

"Yes. If you think I'm wrong, and that the fragments describe a local fertility goddess, let me point out…"

The archeologist waved the paleographer off of his impending justifications, "Let's suppose for the moment that your hypothesis is correct. By u2018Liberty' you mean the same as the colossus which once stood somewhere beyond the mouth of the Hudson river."

"A densely populated area at the time."

"I know, I know. It's too bad that these colossi have a way of disappearing without a trace. As you may know, the bronze Helios of Rhodes was broken up and transported from the Mediterranean to the banks of the Tigris…right around here. But we're not likely to find a single rivet, no matter how deep we dig. Over the millennia there are too just many upturns in the price of metals. Sooner or later…"

The philologist blustered, "But of course, I don't mean that she was here herself! But her devotees…"

"Just relax, it's not that I take you for a fool…I can even see where one might find some sort of deep allegory in these inscriptions. As for it being Amerikkan, old, middle or late…I suppose that some of the geographical allusions might refer to places the western hemisphere as well as here…but it’s pretty ambiguous."

"Then listen to the next stanzas…you know the iconography as well, if not better, than I do…

She put on her insignia      And walked down

The steep path      That led to hell

The four signs of her noblility:      The seven spiked nimbus           Of her coronet      The torch held aloft           With its mighty flame      The book of laws           tucked beneath her hand      Her robe of dignity           Flowing about her And she said: "Open the gates of hell      I desire to enter.      I, bold and alone,      Into the Land-of-No-Return!"

…does it check out or not?"

The archeologist paused for thought. "Iconographically? I suppose it matches the verbal accounts of her appearance well enough…the visual media of that epoch were too fragile to have survived. But there are other, and I am afraid insurmountable, objections to your hypothesis. Why would anyone in their right mind posit a Late Amerikkan intrusion into Mesopotamia?"

"I admit it constitutes an apparent anomaly."

"It's more than just an anomaly! It's positively grotesque! And I'm not talking about technological improbabilities here. From what we know, it would have been perfectly feasible for the Amerikkans to have gotten over here physically during that period. Physically yes…but motivationally improbable, for at an even deeper level it goes contrary to everything that we can reconstruct about the meaning of the icon herself."

"I'm afraid you've lost me there."

The archeologist, working hard not to loose his patience, continued. "How much do you know about the colossus of Liberty island…or rather the archetype that she represented?"

The July sun was beating down on the philologist's shiny scalp and doing some damage to his faculty of recall, but he managed as best he could. "Well, let's see…located outside of a harbor, she must have been a liminal deity…a kind of boundary stone inflated to divine proportions."

The archeologist gave a patronizing grin. "That's correct as far as it goes. She welcomed immigrants approaching the Western Hemisphere from the North Atlantic. The idea was that the Western Hemisphere, at least during that period, was a kind of refuge for people seeking asylum. It wasn't a matter of then turning around and wreaking revenge on whoever had pushed those people out of the Eastern Hemisphere. The Amerikkans were supposed to stay on their own continent once they had arrived and build up a new civilization. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the continent to the west of the colossus was intended to inspire by example, not the projection of force. That's the significance of the torch in her right hand."

A flicker of acknowledgement lit up the philologist's face. "Aha! So she acted as a kind of semipermeable barrier…a one-way street, aloof from extra-continental affairs. Thus my hypothesis of a Late Amerikkan intrusion into Mesopotamia based on this literary artifact violates the laws of symbolic grammar, and thus may be dismissed as incoherent!"

The archeologist gave a sigh of relief. "It is a good scientist who can see the error of his ways."

"A good scientist perhaps, but a great scientist will never give up on a promising paradigm, especially if it can explain an interesting anomaly. Anomalies are precisely what we need to investigate if we want to break out onto a higher level of explanation!"

The triumphal look on the face of the philologist warned the archeologist that there was no turning back…they would have to wade through the entire text until it had rendered up all its enigmas. "Very well, let's continue on the assumption that this inscription is going to tell us something about the fate of Lady Liberty. To be honest, I don't feel comfortable with where the narrative seems to be heading…not that I am exactly the most chivalrous of men. But in all my years of devotion to the field of Mesopotamian archeology, delving into strata ranging from pre-Akkadian to post-Amerikkan, I have come to the reluctant opinion that this region somehow attracts wrathful forces. I would like to be able to hold onto the popular view of the Amerikkan as a happy cultural epoch. Truly, I'm not sure how I justify that prejudice, for as you know from your philological researches, we have too few remains of their literature to form any opinion whatsoever. To this day most people remember nothing of that culture beyond Disney's comic redactions of Grimm's fables, which is probably just as well. But now, if your hypothesis is correct, and there is indeed an intrusion of Western hemispheric matter into the cultural deposit of Mesopotamia dating from the Late Amerikkan, we are forced to conjecture some terrible and hitherto unguessed at tragedy which engulfed the region, and perhaps the world, around that time. I grow weary at the prospect…but of course you are right, we should seek no solace short of the truth."

"Let's just follow the text wherever it leads us. Perhaps the Amerikkans were able to avert tragedy. It continues…

And the gate-keeper of hell cried out      "Why, O lady, do you wish to enter           the lapis lazuli halls of hell?      Why do you leave the land of dawn           And force your way into the                Realms of twilight?"

It was as that moment That the lady sinned.      At the gates of hell she lied, and said, "I have come to free my little brothers and sisters      The shackled ones of Mesopotamia      I have come to strike the fetters from their necks,           Lest, in trying to do so on their own           They should injure themselves."

…so what do you make of that?"

"If we read it literally? Superstitious rubbish!" The archeologist enjoyed donning his skeptical persona from time to time.

"But should we read it literally?"

"Probably we shoudn't. The Amerikkans, for all the lip-service that they paid to religion, were seldom pious at heart, which many have posited as an explanation of their demise. Personally, am no more inclined to believe that they were talking about a real goddess in this inscription, than I am willing to believe in a hell that has lapis lazuli halls."

"Which doesn't necessarily mean that the narrative is without importance. Even if the so-called u2018lady' was not a real person, she might be a summing up of all that the Amerikkans valued in life."

The archeologist was inclined to grant the philologist that much. "Yes, which makes the story even more tragic."

"Assuming it's a tragedy. Let's continue…

Then the keeper of the gates of hell      Went to the palace of the Queen of Fatality And he said, "My lady,      there waits upon the gates of hell           a maiden wondrous fair      like she is unto a god           who speaks of liberty      she wears a crown upon her brow           of seven solar rays      In her right hand is a torch           her left hand holds a book      she wears the robes of modesty           what shall I do with her?"

Fatality spoke to her servant,      "Open the locks of the gates of hell to her           One by one      But at each gate extract the toll           Required for its unlocking      Such that she will be fitted           To enter the Dark City."

….so how are you liking it so far. I'm sorry I couldn't quite get it to rhyme."

"Naturally, it's just a translation, and after all you're dealing with Late Amerikkan, an argot only distantly related to English. I can hardly fault your scholarship…but if this is anything other than a lament or a tragedy…well, I don't see things lightening up anytime soon."

"They don't, listen to this…

The door-keeper bowed to his mistress Returning to unlock the first door of hell He recited to the lady her obligation      And took from her the seven spiked coronet      Which once had gleamed in the light of dawn. "Why do you take my crown?" she asked.      "Quiet maiden!      This is the law of the underworld      Which must be fulfilled.      Do not question the rites of hell!"

…this is the pattern which continues for the rest of the poem, or at least the fragments which have come down to us in this inscription."

The archeologist laughed. "I see, it's a kind of subterranean strip show! Well, that certainly bolsters your hypothesis of a Late Amerikkan composition doesn't it?"

Wearing an expression of disappointment, the philologist murmured. "Please, try to be serious. There's a lot of depth in this text…I was hoping you would be able to help me figure it out."

"Depth! I should say so! There's enough matter in every verse to write a doctoral dissertation on, which is one reason why I would just as soon be non-committal. The other reason is that any comments I had to make wouldn't paint a very pretty picture…not in light of what we surmise about exogenous intrusions into this region. It's bad enough when you have the indigenous Sumerians or the Akkadians or the Arabs slaughtering themselves in the region around the Tigris and the Euphrates, but when you get something really exotic, like the Mongol invasion, the excavation pits become a happy hunting ground for forensic anthropologists. You've seen the Mongol strata haven't you, with all the shattered femurs and bashed in craniums?"

"Yes, but we haven't seen anything quite that bad at the depth of our proposed Amerikkan intrusion layer."

"Indeed. But perhaps they were just better at disposing of their corpses, or the wounded were taken off to die somewhere else. Personally, I wouldn't want to speculate on what happened."

The philologist banged his hand down on the table, jostling the motley collection of artifacts out of their places…in itself a terrible crime against law of preserving chronology. "But it's our job to speculate!" he exclaimed. "If you won't do your job and locate the level of the Amerikkan intrusion, then at least help me do mine and try to unravel this inscription!"

"All right, you win!" the archeologist found his colleague's determination compelling. "What we are proposing as the Amerikkan layer is very thin…so thin that we can assume their presence didn't last very long, at least as archeology measures time. Of course from their point of view things probably dragged on at an excruciating pace. When we compare the excavated material, or rather lack thereof, with the verses that you just cited from the inscription, it becomes clear what was going on. To begin with there is the reference to the crown…"

"Representing sovereignty."

"Of course, and the sudden loss thereof. But we're talking about more than sovereignty in a narrow legal sense. I get a vision of people afflicted with a terrible hubris, bursting into the region from far away. These people, whoever they might have been, would have initiated their adventure according to a sense that they were in control of history, an almost godlike feeling of omnipotence. But as time went on and they realized that it was impossible to control the environing forces of Mesopotamia, this confidence began to crack, and they began to understand that they were at the mercy of forces which they had, in their ignorance, conjured up out of the depths of history. Whether these people actually founded a state, or whether they manipulated the local people to do their will, is impossible to tell from the evidence at our disposal. From the inscription we know that they came in on some sort of pretext, that they spoke of liberty and freedom…"

"Words which can mean a thousand different things to as many people!"

"Exactly! What their real motivations might have been isn't stated, but that doesn't ultimately matter. The point is that they insinuated themselves into the region using lies, and that initial act of bad faith set in motion a series of calamities which would ultimately lead to their downfall."

"That pretty much tallies with what I get out of the inscription."

"You say it just goes on in the same vein."

"Worse and worse."

"I suppose we had better accompany Lady Liberty as far down into hell as the text will take us…so lead on my friend."

"Don't expect any reversal in her fortune."

"I won't…but by teasing out the remaining allegories we may be able to make some inferences about the fate of the political class during Late Amerikkan times."

The philologist, who was feeling vindicated now, cheerfully continued his recitation. "The meter just stays the same…I think there was a sense during the Middle and Late Amerikkan that monotony was poetic….

The gate keeper unlocked the second door of hell

He recited to the lady her obligation      And took from her the lamp of leaping flame      Which once had guided mariners to port "Why do you take my lamp?" she asked.      "Quiet maiden!      This is the law of the underworld      Which must be fulfilled.      Do not question the rites of hell!"

…you see, everything is the same but the lamp, which is usually a cipher for the mind or knowledge in these kinds of inscriptions…although I'm not too sure of the significance of the mariner."

"I think you have the gist of it all right, as long as you don't loose it by worrying the text to death. You philologists are an odd bunch aren't you? You think you can get more out of a book by putting your eyeballs as close to the letters as possible, but that only makes you cross-eyed! With archeology the point is to be well cross-indexed, not cross-eyed."

"No thanks for the compliment, especially when you could graciously cure me of that myopia by giving me a few clues about this lady's lamp."

"Well, in literature, it means no more than you have already deduced…the mind in general. But on a site like this, where we are surrounded by hints of possible catastrophe during the Late Amerikkan, it points to a failure of political decryption."

"There you go again…"

"Sorry, let me back up. We've already cross-referenced the data from the Mongolian and the Amerikkan intrusions within this, and other, Mesopotamian sites. The deposits are about six or seven hundred years apart, and as we've already had occasion to point out, the Mongolian has yielded up much more satisfactory evidence of sudden, cataclysmic violence. However I'm not convinced that the Amerikkan intrusion was any less contentious than the Mongolian. How could it have been? Whenever you see that sort of sudden influx into a region it means that exogenous forces were probably trying to force entry into the native culture using political means."

"Lady Liberty trying to insinuate herself into the halls of hell?"

"Exactly. But we still have to account for the relative paucity of forensic evidence in comparison to the Mongolian strata. First, I think some of that evidence was deliberately destroyed, but second, I also think that the information war played a much larger role during the Amerikkan epoch than the Mongolian."

"Those are mutually supporting hypotheses."

"Yes. And now we see what became of the lady's torch. The longer an information war persists, the harder it is to isolate its negative side effects. At first the idea is to gather accurate information from one's friends and disseminate disinformation among one's enemies. However as the struggle persists into later phases, the boundary between allied cadres and adversaries begins to blur causing information and disinformation to circulate indiscriminately. At first this corruption of data is only severe around the raw boundaries of violent conflicts, but if the struggle goes on interminably, it begins to seep back into core areas of the contending cultures. Ultimately the core civilizational norms are themselves corrupted, as philosophy gives way to propaganda, mental clarity and sound judgment to shadow-boxing with erroneous data. Indeed, the erroneous data works, at the level of thought, much like a transfusion of bad blood would physiologically."

"I prefer the way our anonymous poet allegorizes it."

"That the lady lost her means of illumination…yes, that would have been yet another fitting toll to extract from one who had embarked on such a misadventure. So now she is forced to witlessly stumble her way down into the City of Darkness."

"And her stripping is far from finished. Perhaps I should continue….

The gate keeper unlocked the third door of hell

He recited to the lady her obligation      And took from her the book of laws      Which she had long clutched to her bosom "Why do you take my book?" she asked.      "Quiet maiden!      This is the law of the underworld      Which must be fulfilled.      Do not question the rites of hell!"

…you see how everything just iterates around the same phraseology."

"The repetition of the phrase u2018rites of hell' is what catches my attention. I think it refers to something more inclusive than the abode of the dead…although I'm afraid the historical circumstances which provoked the narrative witnessed a sharp uptick in morbidity. Note, for example, that the ruler of the underground, this so-called u2018hell' is Lady Fatality, a kind of negative counterpart to Lady Liberty."

The philologist piped up with pride, "We call that a u2018syzygi'!"

"No, you call it a syzygi, I call it a miserable blunder. Liberty in itself is a problematic idea. On the one hand it can represent a political system freed from despotism, but it also has voluntaristic connotations as in u2018free will.' I suspect the poet, whoever he or she might have been, was playing on this ambiguity. Liberty, as long as she stayed west of the North Atlantic, was the incarnation of the anti-despotic sort of freedom. However when she shows up here, in Mesopotamia, she personifies an arrogant denial of the law of cause and effect. She walks headlong into the element of Lady Fatality, and the latter obliges her by springing the trap. The story of her journey down into hell may be long and dolorous, but the underlying impetus is really quite simple."

"Bravo! That is precisely what I had deduced about the underlying unity of the text, and it’s good to get confirmation on that point. But the real reason I'm asking you to tag along with me through this rather terrifying inscription is to get at its significance in historical, as opposed to mythical, time. What does this tell us about our hypothetical Late Amerikkan intrusion?"

"A hypothesis which, I now concede, is looking less and less hypothetical all the time. Alas, to seek the source of a mirage is itself an illusion! No doubt the people who suddenly showed up in Mesopotamia during the epoch we call Late Amerikkan…no doubt they felt that they were somehow magically exempt from the law of cause and effect. Perhaps they saw themselves as racially superior to the indigenes…although there is evidence to the effect that the Middle to Late Amerikkans typically conducted their campaigns under the auspices of anti-racialist symbols."

"One can seldom go wrong overestimating the power of hypocrisy."

"How true! Another possibility is that the exogenous forces put their confidence in some sort of technological differential. The difficulty with that idea is the evident technological uniformity of the world during the Late Amerikkan. But it may be that, from an archeological point of view, we are too impressed by the brevity of the Amerikkan strata. At the time fleeting delays in the extension of technology might have loomed large in people's minds, and they might have thought that, for example, the countries situated on the North Atlantic had a permanent advantage over those, say, surrounding the Indian Ocean. At an even higher level of abstraction they might not have been aware of the mobility of capital, and thus felt that gains in productivity were somehow an intrinsic and inalienable aspect of their own civilization."

"I find that hard to believe! I'm no archeologist, but it does seem to me that you are imputing to the Amerikkans an ideology which would be more appropriate to the Sumerians or the Akkadians. After all, we speak of the Middle and Late Amerikkan as industrial…even post-industrial."

"Oh, I'm not saying that they weren't smart enough to understand their own economy and technology, to be sure that would be a complete absurdity. But there must have been some fatal gap between people who had experiential knowledge of these matters and the political class. Otherwise how could something as potentially catastrophic as an exogenous penetration into Mesopotamia have even been conceived?"

"Perhaps there was something here that they wanted very badly?"

"Oh, undoubtedly there was! Let's suppose there was a wish-fulfilling stone buried somewhere in the desert, something that would give its possessor omnipotence. You are the mythologist, you are the one who knows how all these attempts at circumventing the laws of cause and effect turn out in the end."

The philologist gave a grim chuckle. "Badly of course…at least in song and fable. Which is one reason I think there is often more wisdom to be found in poetry than science."

"And to that end you probably think we should rejoin Lady Liberty on her downward course to perdition."

"By all means."

"Even though you have already perused the inscription a hundred times and have come to your own conclusions."

"As you have correctly divined, I need archeological confirmation."

"Well, I have little more to add at this point. As you say, the text has an integrity which is founded on Lady Liberty's lack thereof. She lies herself into hell and from that point on matters take their course. First she looses her crown, namely, the ability to control events. Inevitably this causes her to loose her mind, as represented by the torch. Once the ability to distinguish true from false is extinguished, the capacity for judging right from wrong rapidly ensues. This is symbolized by the loss of the book of laws."

"That much I know…but how is this reflected in the archeological record?"

"I'm afraid we've passed the point at which I can be of much assistance. It's a dicey business making conjectures about extinct political and legal systems from stones and bones. Things would be much easier if we had a copy of their constitution, but up until now none has turned up. Its ironic, we have a better knowledge of the constitution of Athens, thanks to the preservation of Aristotle's works, than we do of political organization during the Amerikkan period, which is much more recent."

"I think the phrase u2018book of laws' indicates that they had a written constitution."

"I tend to agree, and furthermore, the preservation of that fragment alone would vindicate all the hard work that you've poured into deciphering this inscription."

The philologist gave a whimsical look and muttered, "Thank you."

"But what actually happened I can't say. When we find aggregates of indigenous and Western hemispheric material in the Late Amerikkan level, is it too much of a conjecture to suppose that political organization had entered a period of rapid transformation? Was Mesopotamia actually annexed and administered as an integral part of the Amerikkan polity? I would be curious to know. The most that one can say is that there would have been a great deal of mutual interpenetration among the political classes of both regions. Naturally this would have led to changes in legal and moral norms on both sides of the relationship. Whether for good or ill…I don't suppose that's for either you or I to judge."

"No, but the author of the inscription has judged, and judged very clearly."

"I sense a certain amount of bitterness in the text. But then, assuming the hypothesis that we have framed to be correct, it must have been a terrible experience, seeing one's world implode so suddenly. Or was it as sudden as the thinness of the strata, together with the alarming tone of the text, seem to indicate? Let's have the final stanza and be done with it, this thing is making me depressed and making you more cross-eyed than you already are!"

Ignoring the insult the philologist burst out. "Agreed! This is where she goes out for the count and we finish our labors….

The gate keeper unlocked the fourth door of hell

He recited to the lady her obligation      And took from her the robe      The single garment which covered her body "Why do you take my robe?" she asked.      "Quiet maiden!      This is the law of the underworld      Which must be fulfilled.      Do not question the rites of hell!"

…and that's it, its over, she's standing there stark naked, presumably in front of Lady Fatality who is grinning like a cat with its paw in the canary's cage. Any comments?"

"Well, not a very satisfactory ending is it? Obviously there are a great many missing fragments."

"Then go dig up some more inscriptions! My job is just to do the decoding."

"Well, somehow you've finagled me into doing both of our jobs, and I suppose now that you want my amateur opinion on the symbolism of the robe."

"And I suspect that you will say that it represents the loss of dignity."

"No, I won't fall for that. Of course whoever wrote the poem must have felt a great deal of shame, as if having been stripped naked by the winds of history. But he or she was also an acute symbolist, and knew that a garment stood in the same relationship to the body as the body itself does to the soul. Thus the loss of the garment symbolizes death. The terrible truth is that the momentum of the whole narrative, from the very beginning, is hurtling towards the death of Liberty."

"You've confirmed my own hypothesis…although I would have preferred it if you hadn't. It's as if the poem was a cry of anguish from the past. Now that we've given it a careful reading, how would you place its genre: a lament or an admonition?"

"Both! A lament for them, an admonition for us."

The philologist gave the archeologist a searching look. "And what precisely is it that we are being admonished about?"

"Well, I'm a skeptic myself, but at the risk of sounding like an ancient Mesopotamian, the admonition is very clear: don't betray and blaspheme your god…or goddess as the case may be. Liberty underwent a transfiguration on her way to hell, in which her icon was first drained of all meaning, and finally came to signify virtually the opposite of what she had stood for in her native land. I assure you, nations don't long outlive the death of their gods!" The archeologist thought he had done a good summing up, but his colleague was holding up his hand in a gesture of defiance. "What, do you think I've gotten it wrong?"

"Yes, you've omitted an essential element in the story. Hope! You see, although we only have fragments of the text, we can try to guess its outcome by relating it to the classical structure of Mesopotamian epic. I hope some day we find further fragments of the poem, fragments which tell how Lady Liberty either extricates herself from hell or is rescued by a benevolent force. You describe the poet as bitter…I would say indignant, and resolved to see a new birth for Liberty, rising up from the underground. After all, that's what all the old myths promise, in one form or another, isn't it?"

The archeologist gave a sigh. "I suppose you're right…but I'm tired. To begin with, tired of pondering the fate of the Amerikkans! They had their day in the sun, and its time for us to get out of it…back to town and into the shade."

"Very well, but let me lock the Descent of Liberty inscriptions up in the storage shed first. They say the antiquity thieves are on the prowl again, and at the minimum I hope we can at least safeguard these meager fragments, lest their testimony of a long forgotten freedom vanish utterly from the earth."

Amongst other things, The Descent of Liberty: An Archeological Enigma for the Future is a layman's tribute to the now threatened field of Middle Eastern archeology. For more information on the Mesopotamian epics see Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia.

September 17, 2007

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