Recently, archeologists discovered yet another ancient Egyptian tomb with dozens of mummies. The tomb contained the bodies of both adults and children stored across multiple burial chambers. According to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the main room contained about 30 mummies, including the remains of several young children. Along with other artifacts, archeologists also found a painted statuette of the “Ba-bird”: a part-bird, part-human figurine depicting the “soul of the deceased,” the Egyptian ministry explained. Fragments of painted wood from coffins indicated the tomb belonged to someone called Tjit, who lived around the end of the time of the Pharaohs and the start of the Graeco-Roman period—332 B.C.E-395 C.E.
This is by no means the first discovery of mummies and ancient artifacts. Nor is it the first time that speculation has been fueled: will the curse of the mummies be activated this time and extract a heavy price? Certainly, it will not be the last time either that concerns about a curse will be expressed. As Brian Handwerk wrote in the National Geographic, “the legend of the mummy’s curse seems destined never to die”.
In July last year, a massive black stone sarcophagus was found in Alexandria and triggered rumours that the 27-ton stone sarcophagus was the final resting place of Alexander the Great. But there were also warnings against opening the tomb due to worries of a mummy’s curse. But despite the anxieties, the mysterious black sarcophagus was opened, and as Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said, “We’ve opened it and, thank God, the world has not fallen into darkness. I was the first to put my whole head inside the sarcophagus… and here I stand before you … I am fine.”
However, there are many stories and theories about people who did not remain fine after disturbing a mummy and died strange deaths. But to return briefly to the black stone sarcophagus, BBC News reported that the stench which leaked out upon opening the lid by just was enough to clear the site. Egyptian military engineers had to be called in to help pry the sarcophagus open. The black sarcophagus was found to contain three skeletons and lots of sewage water. And believe it or not, over 20,000 people petitioned online to drink the “Pharaoh Punch”—the sewage water in which the three skeletons had been seeped for over 2000 year s! Alicia Mcdermott wrote: “The creator of the petition, innes mck explained why: ‘we need to drink the red liquid from the cursed dark sarcophagus in the form of some sort of carbonated energy drink so we can assume its powers and finally die.’ Others backing the petition give an interesting array of explanations why they want access to the smelly sewage; reasons range from re-animating mummies to gaining superpowers to natural selection taking its course…”
The Egyptian Antiquities Authority felt it necessary to declare that the liquid “is neither ‘juice for mummies that contains an elixir of life’ nor is it red mercury”—it’s just sewage water that has had human remains marinating in it for a couple of thousand of years. But thousands of petitioners were not convinced and the petition’s creator rebutted, “please stop trying to tell me the skeleton juice is mostly sewage that’s [ sic] impossible everyone knows skeletons cannot poop.” Curiously, the lure of an elixir with unknown powers seemed to override considerations of the mummies curse, which brings one to the question, why is a mummy’s curse deemed to be so powerful and is there evidence to support it? According to Dr Craig Barker, a classical archaeologist and museum educator, “A mummy is a deceased human or animal whose skin and organs have been preserved. This can either be done deliberately, through chemical embalming processes, or accidentally, thanks to the climate. A number of ancient cultures practiced deliberate mummification, such as the Chinchorro people of South America, and most famously, the desiccated bodies of ancient Egypt, which were meticulously prepared for the afterlife.”
The mummy, Barker explains further, symbolises some of our most basic fears surrounding mortality. The mummy’s enduring appeal can also be traced to the one archaeological dig everyone on the planet has heard of: Tutankhamun’s tomb. The discovery of this tomb by Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 made international headlines. Carter had an exclusive deal with the Daily Express newspaper, which led other reporters to embellish their stories. This led to reports of a supposed curse on the tomb, “Death comes on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King”. “It was nonsense of course, but once the financier of the archaeological project, Lord Carnarvon, died in Cairo thanks to an infected mosquito bite, the curse story took off faster than any real news. In popular culture, mummies and curses became irreversibly linked.”
Though the public fascination for curses pre-dates Carnarvon’s unfortunate death, the real curse of the mummies, Barker avers, is not what they can do to us in fiction and film, but rather the way we have desecrated and treated them in real life. In an insightful article, National Geographic said that Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, believes the curse concept did exist in ancient Egypt as part of a primitive security system. “She notes that some mastaba or early non-pyramid tomb walls in Giza and Saqqara were actually inscribed with ‘curses’ meant to terrify those who would desecrate or rob the royal resting place. They tend to threaten desecrators with divine retribution by the council of the gods or a death by crocodiles, or lions, or scorpions, or snakes.”Whatever the theories, it is a known, oft experienced fact that the dead do not want their last resting places to be disturbed.