New archaeological discoveries are always exciting. The thrill of seeing things that nobody else has seen in thousands of years, and finding out a little bit more about how people lived in the ancient world is unlike anything else. The excitement of discovery has inspired filmmakers to include archaeological themes since the early days of motion pictures.
The most storied of archaeology films are the ones that deal with an old archaeological myth: the Curse of the #Mummy. Whenever a new tomb is discovered in Egypt and there are still mummies inside, there's always a fleeting moment when I imagine a scene straight out of the movies: Archaeologists uncover something they are not prepared to deal with!
Thankfully, real archaeological surprises are more along the lines of tens of thousands of pieces of broken pottery you weren't expecting, rather than apocalypse-inducing mummies!
A Recent Mummy Discovery
The latest archaeological news out of Egypt is that an undisturbed tomb has been opened by archaeologists. The location of the tomb has apparently been known for some time, but for some reason it had never been opened. It's located at Dra Abu El-Naga, near the Valley of the Kings, a valley on the west bank of the Nile River where the tombs of many of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt are located, including the famous Tomb of Tutankhamun.
The tomb belongs to a man named Userhat, who lived about 3500 years ago. He was a member of the Egyptian nobility shortly before the time of Tutankhamun. Inside his tomb, eight mummies were found, as well as hundreds of ushabti figurines, which were believed to come to life as servants for the deceased in the afterlife.
Happily, no archaeologists were harmed by a curse as of this writing.
History Of The Curse Of The Mummy
It is difficult to pinpoint the origins of the Western concept of the mummy curse, but general superstitions related to bad luck and the dead go way back into medieval times, and probably extended to mummies once European travelers started bringing them back from Egypt. It wasn't until Jean Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphic writing system in the 1800s that actual curses were found to exist in some tombs. While very rare, some Egyptian tombs do have texts in them that include a curse. One, as quoted by notable archaeologist and television personality Zahi Hawass, reads:
Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.
The most famous case used as an example of a mummy's curse is that of Tutankhamun. The story goes that a cobra (the symbol of Egyptian royalty) got into the house of Howard Carter (the archaeologist in charge of the excavation), eating his pet canary. After this, the financier of the expedition, Lord Carnarvon, died four months after the opening of the tomb due to an infected mosquito bite.
In the years following the opening of the tomb, a number of expedition team members met untimely deaths, including: murder, suicide, poisoning and unexplained illnesses. However, Carter himself lived for another decade, dying of natural causes at age 64. The last participant in the excavation died in 1961, the tomb having been opened in 1922.
Inspiration For 'The Mummy' movies
In that movie, an intact tomb is found with a mummy that has not been mummified according to the usual Egyptian manner. When an assistant reads a passage aloud from the Scroll of Thoth, the mummy Imhotep is resurrected and goes to search for the modern reincarnation of his ancient lover so he can kill her, mummify her and resurrect her as his eternal bride.
While this version of The Mummy doesn't contain as much of a reliance on the idea of the Curse of the Mummy, the 1999 version starring Brendan Fraser does. In this version, Imhotep has superhuman powers that he uses to get to his ancient lover's modern incarnation.
It looks like the newly imagined female mummy, Ahmanet, will have incredible powers similar to those Imhotep used against Brendan Fraser. We won't know the extent of these until the film is released on June 9, but the trailer gives us some clues about the affects her curse will have.
While the discovery of Userhat's tomb is not likely to gain the same amount of attention that Tutankhamun's did almost 100 years ago, it surely is timely considering the upcoming release of The Mummy. Since this movie will be launching the #UniversalMonstersCinematicUniverse, I'm sure Universal will take any and all interest in Egyptian archaeology it can find.
Needless to say, these cinematic imaginations of the consequences of archaeology are nothing short of pure fantasy for entertainment. Nevertheless, we can still sit back and enjoy them, as long as we realize the disconnect between reality and fantasy.