Home > Archaeology Myths > Archaeology and Curses

Archaeology and Curses

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 9 Nov 2012 | comments*Discuss
 
Curses Archaeology Defixiones King

Anyone having a momentary thought about curses would hardly couple them with anything related to archaeology. Or would they? Is there any connection? It is true that archaeologists locate many ancient artefacts that contain writings that when deciphered or translated reveal calculated curses.

It is also true that many rumours have developed into grand stories of curses that strike down archaeologists or any other would-be intruder into the bowels of a tomb or some other sacred centre.

The Curse of the Mummy

King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt is one of the most famous of the archaeological curse stories. Howard Carter had led an Egyptian archaeological expedition and up until and after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb, had not noticed any particular anomalies on the site. Until, Lord Carnarvon, who boasted the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in private hands, died in Cairo. The city itself suffered an electrical failure that blacked out the town by night. Meanwhile, back in England, Lord Carnarvon’s most faithful canine howled like a wolf on a full moon and fell over dead.

All such intrigue might otherwise be regarded as unfortunate coincidence but for the publishing in the newspapers of a translation from an inscription in one of the tombs. It read: “Those who enter the sacred tomb will be swiftly visited by the wings of death.” Rumour spread that supernatural forces had been responsible for the death of Carnarvon and his dog. The Curse of Tut’s Tomb was born.

Carter vigorously rebuked the notion as preposterous and dismissed the curse as mischievous invention. But the aggressive appetite for anything Egyptian seemed to fuel the flames of fantasy and the Curse of the Mummy became reality in the minds of the public.

Science Investigates the Curse

Mark Nelson, an Australian epidemiologist and researcher, published results of an investigation into the ‘curse claims’ in the British Medical Journal in 2002. Nelson studied more than 25 significant people who were present at the tomb when it was opened or with the mummy of Tutankhamun during analysis. He concluded that all 25 had an average death age of over 70 years old. Two of the main personalities who had had great dealings with the tomb had lived much longer.

Lady Evelyn Herbert, daughter of Lord Carnarvon, was present at the tomb’s opening yet lived to age 79. Douglas Derry, who performed the autopsy on the mummy, died at age 87. Another interesting finding is that no one can locate the exact Egyptian inscription that first sparked the curse.

Real Curses

Archaeologists have found inscribed metal tablets that describe curses that have been placed upon others. These ancient curse-tablets are known as ‘defixiones’ and the messages that they contain usually seek gods and spirits to hurt, harm, or bind up an enemy.

Archaeologists find these tablets particularly useful. They provide much unexplained evidence into the religious beliefs and practices, language, private lives of citizens and their interaction with others, and the influences of ancient magic arts.

Why Use Curse Tablets?

Curse tablets were used to influence the behaviour or the welfare of people against their usual desire. Their power lay in the strong belief of the recipient. The small sheets of metal would be inscribed with an appeal to a god or some supernatural being to perform an action upon the cursed person.

Most of the defixiones so far discovered seem to fall into one of four categories.

  • Seeking justice or vengeance
  • Marriage, love, and sex
  • Circus and theatrical performance (competitive rivalry)
  • Witnesses in court (to confuse or silence their testimony)
Over 1,500 separate curse tablets have been excavated, the majority being in Greek with many Latin examples being found in Britain. The ancient ruins of the Temple of Mercury, in Gloucestershire and the Sacred Spring in Bath, have yielded over 250 tablets.

Most ancient writing materials such as wood, wax, and papyrus have deteriorated over time. As many of the curse tablets were written on lead or a lead based alloy they have been relatively well preserved. Nearly every tablet has been rolled up like a scroll and buried. It is felt that rolling the text was symbolic of the binding up of the target person and burying it put the curse in the hands of those in the powerful underworld.

From the extant sources it seems that curses were used by every class of person upon every class of person. A 3rd century AD defixione found in the well chamber of an ancient private house in Antioch reveals the curse placed upon the local greengrocer.

It reads:

“O thundering and lightning-wielding god, cast down and bind Babylas, the greengrocer, who lives in the neighbourhood of the Mygdonians, whom Himera bore in her womb. Just as you destroyed the chariot of Pharaoh, so destroy his soul. Just as you choked the first-born in Egypt, so choke up [his children]. Bind together his animals and his donkey, let them overturn and fall apart, let them be unable to move from this hour and day forth, Now, now! Quickly, quickly!”

Whatever the reason for this curse and whatever happened as a result of it may never be known but one thing we can be very sure of is that the greengrocer lost a customer that day.

You might also like...
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
Do you know where I could get a list of archaeologist who were at the opening of Tut's tomb? My great uncle, Billy Johnston, was there. He passed on a slave's amulet that was given to my father's second wife. She went nuts after wearing it. Anyway, my father passed away and I do not know how to find out about my relative who was working with Carter. My dad's Uncle Billy was there at the opening. I suppose a good number of archaeologists were there, and I hope there would be a list of them. --Sincerely, Miles Burn
Mizel62 - 26-May-11 @ 4:30 PM
Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice...
Title:
(never shown)
Firstname:
(never shown)
Surname:
(never shown)
Email:
(never shown)
Nickname:
(shown)
Comment:
Validate:
Enter word:
Topics
Latest Comments
  • Sallyrad
    Re: Pottery Experts
    Hi I have a very old terra cotta colored clay cooking vessel that has a sable brown glaze inside and outside. Can I send photos? Cheers Sally Owens
    9 January 2022
  • Taterpo
    Re: Stone Tool Experts
    Found a rock in central Ky would like it identify wh er re can i send pic
    9 January 2022
  • Barny
    Re: Stone Tool Experts
    Who can i send photos off a very unusual stone with markings on thanks mark
    20 October 2021
  • Heather
    Re: Conservators of Underwater Archaeology
    Good Afternoon, I have recently graduated from University with a BA in Art History, a GD in Conservation Studies, and…
    4 September 2021
  • henryW
    Re: Pottery Experts
    I found a potsherd in the sea in Greece which has a black pattern on it, looks very old. Anyone interested in trying to identify the origin and age?
    20 June 2021
  • viv
    Re: Etched Vase: How to Discover its Origins?
    found what looks like an old ink pot while digging does anyone know more about it?where can I send pictures
    8 June 2021
  • SarahMdr
    Re: Be a Volunteer Archaeologist
    Hi As odd as this sounds - we live in “Gold Country, CA (calaveras county ) and while doing yard work, have discovered over 200…
    12 May 2021
  • Jam
    Re: Pottery Experts
    Found an old statue? Under a hedge in the garden. Obviously been there many years. Can anyone tell me iwhat it symbolises. Also a few shards of…
    15 March 2021
  • Phil
    Re: Pottery Experts
    Hi, I have an extremely old looking pot of Chinese origin. Would anyone be interested in looking at photographs?
    12 March 2021
  • Jesusbaby
    Re: Types of Archaeological Data
    Examine the different types of archaeological data.
    25 February 2021