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.
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.
“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.