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April 17, 2015


Curse tablets from Roman Britain. Copyright

Curse tablets from Roman Britain. Copyright

I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s article about the eerie allure of the English landscape in The Guardian this weekend, early on Macfarlane discusses an M.R. James short story revolving around a pair of binoculars that had belonged to a local antiquary (who had died in a mysterious manner) and showed disturbing visions of hanged men. It turns out the antiquary had ‘filled their barrels with a fluid derived by boiling the bones of hanged men, whose bodies he had plundered from the graves on Gallows Hill, formerly a site of execution. In looking through the field-glasses, Fanshawe was “looking through dead men’s eyes”, and summoning violent pasts into visible being. Prospect was a form of retrospect’. I’m going to have to read the story now in the hope of finding out why anyone would do that. What could he have hoped it would achieve? Obviously this isn’t the main point of the story but I’m notorious for fastening on inessentials, But why? Why would anyone do such a gruesome thing? Initially I began thinking how often antiquarians and archaeologists are portrayed as macabre, unscrupulous or foolhardy meddlers in things best left alone.

A common fictional trope is the reawakening of an ancient being or curse. From Cheops to Allan Quartermain to Lara Croft via Lord Carnarvon and countless others, artefacts or tombs, usually, but not invariably, Egyptian have brought death and/or suffering to those unwise enough to investigate them. Despite warnings – for example, Howard Carter’s canary being eaten by a cobra – the investigator persists in meddling and is then pursued by monsters/aliens/mummies/bad things.

Obviously this trope makes good fiction and enjoyable adventure and horror films*, in Consuming Ancient Egypt Sally MacDonald suggests curses are so popular in western popular fiction because they revolve around the excitement of discovery and trespass. And, it’s true that news agencies seem to delight in the possibility of curses existing, even while they’re supposedly debunking the idea – witness the stories invoking curses while discussing Manchester Museum’s revolving statue. However, I began wondering if there was more to the cursed artefact/foolhardy archaeologist  cliché than I’d originally thought. If we broaden the genre to include narratives where a particular site is perilous there are many examples which seem to suggest it’s the past itself which is dangerous. Think of all those films and books where evil lurks in the ground and any disturbance can set off an unearthly chain of events; Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is a prime example of the Native American burial ground being the loci of supernatural horror. Although Native American burial ground is the most used trope it could be the burial ground of Vikings, Romans, plague victims, you name it there’ll be a curse upon it.

So, is it that death is the last taboo in the West and archaeologists, as notorious disturbers of the dead, are seen as unpredictable and unsafe. Or is it that the past itself is dangerous, not just a different country with different customs, but a precarious/supernatural place operating under different and potentially lethal rules? And, because archaeologists and antiquarians spend so much time in the past they become tainted by association. Or, am I reading too much into all of this and simply need to get out more?

Discuss – while having a great weekend.


*I say ‘enjoyable’ horror films but I’m lying. While I’m well aware there’s a lot of mummy/Egyptian artefact horror films out there, Jasmine Day’s books and papers reference many such films, there’s no chance of me watching them even in the interests of research for this blog. I have a notoriously low squeem threshold, the 70s Hammer films are my limit and some of them are too scary for me. If I tell you that Men in Black gave me nightmares it’ll give you an idea of just how wimpy I am.

** Another one that gave me the fear, foolishly I took the line ‘how scary can it be? It stars Herman Munster!’


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Monica Barnes permalink
    April 17, 2015 3:00 pm

    Quechua Indians in Peru and Bolivia believe that archaeologists can suffer from Aya Oncoy, corpse sickness, a malady that potentially afflicts anyone who comes in contact with the dead. Maybe that explains some of our strange behavior. Fortunately, it can be cured with the correct ritual.

    • harngroup permalink*
      April 17, 2015 6:23 pm

      Well, it might go some way to explaining archaeologists – perhaps we should do a mass ritual in Glasgow and see what effect it has?
      I’m still perplexed (and perturbed) by those binoculars! Not sure there’s any ritual for that.

  2. Jennifer Bracewell permalink
    April 17, 2015 3:30 pm

    Hi Julia! A quick thought about human remains in particular. As you know, in my part of the world (Montreal), this is a very touchy subject, because of both Native American beliefs about the dead and also a few centuries of utter disregard for their burial places. But I think we all have a taboo relationship with human remains. In the human evolution classes I have TA-ed, the first two labs are always on the human skeleton, and we use a real skeleton, mounted for classroom use. I am inevitably asked in each lab about where we got the skeleton and “who was it?” A science class with mostly Arts students enrolled, they are bored out of their minds by having to memorize every bone in the human body, but they are fascinated by the skeleton itself, which is still, in their minds, as person. Furthermore, when I talk about things like whether you can tell if a female skeleton has had a baby through looking at healed tears in the pubic symphysis, half the class inevitably winces.

    When we get on to the artificial bones of the collection, that interest inevitably wears off. The two times I see it re-ignited are a) When I show them a clone of the Broken Hill skull and point out the extensive signs of tooth decay, and b) when they first get to handle real prehistoric stone tools.

    In short, these artifacts are particularly prone to be anthropomorphized. Human remains, in particular, are still in some ways “alive” to my students. There is the additional point that we all have a very similar structure inside ourselves, but somehow this unfortunate individual, once a living, thinking person like them, ended up suspended by a rod in its spine to be stared at and periodically disassembled by this TA who cooly removes his arm to show how the radius rotates around the ulna when we flip our hands over. The process from living being to scientific display is profoundly unsettling.

    That wasn’t very quick. Sorry.

    • harngroup permalink*
      April 17, 2015 6:49 pm

      Not quick, but revealing. And it’s reminded me that my husband, who’s dug up a lot of skeletons, is still unnerved by skeletons of babies and small children. I guess that if we didn’t feel that connection we wouldn’t be archaeologists.

      • Jennifer Bracewell permalink
        April 17, 2015 7:53 pm

        Oh goodness, someone posted this picture, when I was pregnant, it totally gave me the willies. It turned out to probably be fake. But still.

  3. Jennifer Bracewell permalink
    April 17, 2015 7:54 pm

    Gack, sorry, I thought that would just post the link, not the actual pic.

  4. harngroup permalink*
    April 20, 2015 6:51 pm

    Crikey! Yes, that’s given me the willies too – my feet are hurting and now I’m going to go and find something soothing in an attempt to forget it – and I’m not pregnant. Ok, so our much vaunted distance is nonsense.
    Still betwattled about the binoculars, still haven’t managed to find the courage to read the story – could someone volunteer to read it for me and then tell me if the binoculars are ever explained?

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