Wordplay, The CROSSWORD COLUMN
August Lee-Kovach delivers a challenge from antiquity.
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SUNDAY PUZZLE — This grid is built on an exuberant historical theme, and it delights me that it sprang from the mind of August Lee-Kovach. August is making his Sunday debut as the youngest constructor of a Sunday Times puzzle, at the age of 14 years 11 months. He is a freshman at Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Mass., and started solving crosswords with his family at age 9. (Someone would read clues aloud, and anyone could call out answers.) This is his third puzzle for The Times since last October, when he started his run with an excellent Saturday crossword.
The historical theme is one of the subjects that I remember being fascinated by as a student (along with other ancient civilizations, faraway places like Tibet and the Amazon and crowd pleasers like dinosaurs, of course). As I worked my way through the puzzle, I felt increasingly nostalgic and appreciated that someone roughly my age back then had created this elaborate challenge.
There are many other examples of this type of trivia in the filler entries of today’s puzzle, most of them somewhere in my memory once I jogged it — TOGAS, AD ASTRA, TOGO and so on. I had no idea who ALEX the lion or REX the dinosaur was, but that X was the only spot I couldn’t identify using a crossing entry.
23A. This vehicle pops up as a clue every decade or so, but it’s easy to write “caravan” instead of EUROVAN in this spot if you’re not a “van life” aficionado.
109A. Here’s another clue that took me back to junior high. Learning about Gregor Mendel’s study of peas was when I picked up some knowledge of plant anatomy, including the contents of pollen — GAMETES. (On a related note, the clue for GENE is great.)
116A. This element appears in a Times puzzle for the first time since 1965 and is one of the rarest metals on Earth. The German river that inspired its name is the Rhine, and the element itself is RHENIUM, with the chemical symbol Re.
89D. It feels as if there has been a lot of sports trivia in the weekend puzzles lately, and I figured that this clue — “Brewer Frederick” — was asking for a member of the Milwaukee baseball team whom I’d have no chance of knowing. I answered PABST completely on crosses before realizing we were talking about a Wisconsin beer magnate.
You will notice two visual elements in this grid right away: the 21 circled letters forming a triangle with the bottom of the puzzle, running from the bottom left corner to the center-most square and then back down to the bottom right corner, and the isolated five-letter entry that appears in the “keyhole” at the bottom of the puzzle.
Several entries closer to the top of the grid allow this theme to slowly come into focus. Once you lock in, you’ll see how perfect that circled-letter run is, but the ultimate solution may remain a mystery for some time. (It did for me, at least.)
Among those higher-up entries, three — 5-Down, 51-Across and 15-Down — combine to provide you with a historic grouping that includes what you’re looking at. Those 21 circled letters both depict and spell out a massive structure — the oldest in that historic group and the only one still in existence. This is the inspiration for the puzzle’s title, “I’m Still Standing.”
There are a few more entries with relevant trivia. 41-Across specifies that 5.5 million tons of LIMESTONE were required to build this structure. 101-Across, CHAMBER, plays in two factoids: With 79-Down, we learn there are THREE separate rooms in the structure, including one called, as clued at 74-Down, the KINGS CHAMBER (explored by Napoleon, apparently, in the 18 century).
The subject of the puzzle himself was presumably once ensconced in the KINGS CHAMBER, but his mummified body was never found. If you’re like me, you learned that the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid of Giza was CHEOPS, who appears as another hint at 10-Down. The answer “stands” at the top of the puzzle and runs straight toward that “keyhole” entry that lies in a state that’s disconnected from all other entries. I’d have been lost without the help of the magazine version of this puzzle, which numbers each of the five letters in the tomb: 74, 92, 21, 52 and 118. If you look for those numbers in the grid, you’ll find KHUFU, who oversaw the building of his pyramid during his reign, circa 2500 B.C.
There are a couple of entries that, while not specifically associated with this theme, deserve mention. It’s no coincidence that ENCRYPT appears at 68-Across, right through the centerline of this puzzle. (The “R” in ENCRYPT is the “R” in PYRAMID, as spelled out by those circled letters.) Also, just below CHAMBER, note the appearance of LOOT. The pyramids were plundered many times during periods of upheaval and changes in religious beliefs, and many of their contents were lost to history.
Perhaps not forever, though. In 2020, some wood fragments from Khufu’s pyramid were found in a cigar box in Scotland. And in recent years, an international group of researchers discovered a mysterious void in the Great Pyramid, the purpose of which is still mysterious.
This puzzle has gone through more iterations than any other puzzle I have constructed, from seed idea to publication. I developed the central theme early in seventh grade. (I’m now in ninth grade.) We were learning about Ancient Egypt in Social Studies. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the mystery behind how it was built and what’s inside always fascinated me. When I realized that THE GREAT PYRAMID OF GIZA was exactly 21 letters and that it would fit in a pyramid shape inside a crossword puzzle grid, it was too perfect an opportunity to pass up! I also liked the idea of having KHUFU in his tomb in the pyramid.
After that, I (mostly) took a break from the puzzle for about a year and a half. I didn’t know where to go from there, and I still hadn’t had a puzzle accepted by The Times. Then last summer, I discovered the possibility of using numbered squares to hide KHUFU. I was off and running again. The supplementing, straightforward theme content followed, and I submitted. Still, it bugged me that the puzzle had no word play in it. The Times said “yes” to the theme but asked for cleaner fill. I refilled the puzzle, and in the process, I noticed that ENCRYPT would fit front and center. For me, that entry makes the puzzle, because it ties together how KHUFU is in a crypt but also encoded through the numbered squares. Three months later, here we are!
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NYTimes Crossword Answer: They’re stored in pollen grains – The New York Times