Enduring myths of the clothbound avengers
POPULAR CULTURE:Stories about Egyptian mummies and their curses have been scorned as pyramidiocy, but they reveal a lot about late Victorian and Edwardian culture
The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy, by Roger Kuckhurst Oxford University Press, 336pp, £18.99
On November 26th, 1922, the British archaeologist Howard Carter caught his first flickering glimpse of the contents of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who had died more than 3,000 years before, around 1323 BC, in New Kingdom Egypt, at the age of 17. Carter had discovered, by chance, the most complete Egyptian tomb ever found by an archaeologist, and the Times correspondent reported: “Egyptian Treasure – Great Find at Thebes”. By February 1923, Harry Burton’s high-contrast photographs of the interior of the antechamber – Burton had learned from Hollywood professionals – had turned the gilded couches, the golden throne, the dismantled chariots and the life-sized guardian statues into instantly recognisable masterpieces from the history of ancient art, all over the western world.
But after the initial excitement had subsided, and after the newspapers had discovered that the strictly historical significance of the find was less than dramatic – the excavators had unearthed what they thought was a basketful of written records, but these papyri turned out, disappointingly, to be fragments of Tutankhamun’s underwear – the story began to run out of steam.
The many journalists who crowded around the stone parapet above the opening of the tomb hoped to see something to write home about, but as the aristocratic sponsor of the dig, George Herbert, fifth earl of Carnarvon, had signed a lucrative, very controversial agreement with the Times, which gave the Thunderer exclusive access to all official stories emanating from the tomb, they soon had to look elsewhere for copy. Details of the hard slog of labelling, recording, conserving and transporting the many artefacts soon lost their novelty value, and Carter found himself constantly being asked: “When is something going to happen?” The journalists were becoming frustrated and angry.
Then, on April 5th, 1923, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning and pneumonia – following a bite on his left cheek by a mosquito – and, as his sister Winifred wrote, a story that had opened “like Aladdin’s cave” turned almost overnight into “a Greek myth of Nemesis”.
The rumour mill started to grind immediately. It was reported in the popular press that the entire electricity supply of Cairo, all four grids, had blacked out for several minutes at the moment of his death, while, half a world away on the Carnarvon country estate of Highclere, the family’s favourite terrier, Susie, had let out a mournful howl and dropped down dead. Both of these events were attributed to the curse of Tutankhamun, which had apparently been ferociously energising itself since 1323 BC, just waiting for someone to break in and desecrate the tomb. At last, here was something in which nonspecialist newspaper readers were assumed to have a ready-made interest.
Stories began to circulate about strange artefacts that bore hieroglyphic messages protecting the tomb from intruders and that were being “suppressed” by the Egyptologists. Such stories added an extra ingredient of conspiracy to the proceedings. One of them concerned an “ordinary clay tablet”, said to have been found over the entrance to the tomb, that Lord Carnarvon had had the temerity to remove in order to substitute his own family’s coat of arms. It apparently read: “Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh.”