On Curses


What is more fitting for Friday the 13th than a post on archaeological sites and curses? NOTHING I SAY!

I’m inspired by this post, which describes the horrible experiences of the archaeologists who “discovered” the cursed City of the Monkey God in Honduras. Without rehashing the article here, that the experiences of these archaeologists was deemed worthy of a news story is likely because of one simple truth: 1) archaeology is sexy af.

But seriously, popular culture loves the idea of the brave (usually white, usually male – another post!) archaeologist who finds a lost city/tomb/temple. Of course this mysterious yet incredibly valuable site was left untouched through the ages by indigenous populations because of tales of curses and traps associated with it (Ed: how can something be “lost” if local people are aware of it? KB: Yeah that’s absolutely another post!). Many of us end up in archaeology because of these popular depictions…

A brief example: The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. The allegedly”early and unnatural” deaths of Lord Carnarvon and several other people associated with the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb have been attributed to the “Pharoah’s Curse”. While few Egyptian dynastic period tombs have been found inscribed with curses, no such curse-related inscription was ever found in Tut’s tomb. Many of the deaths were of older individuals  with tenuous connections to the project, who never went near the tomb. But google”Curse of King Tut’s Tomb” and you’ll get over 269,000 results including links and references to dozens of films, comics, and books. Clearly we love this story.

To be fair, most explanations of the “curse” do not focus on nor attribute deaths of people associated with tombs or other archaeological sites and project to supernatural causes. It has been shown that ancient mummies, for example, do indeed carry mould, such as the genus Apergillus, that can be deadly. But the connection between the illnesses or other misadventures of the archaeologists is always made back to the curse if possible.

The reality is archaeological field work IS dangerous! Every archaeologist has their stories. At my very first field school, on a Friday the 13th (no lie!) I climbed down into my excavation unit (2 m below datum) and found a dead mouse and a black widow spider. Ominous signs indeed! I once lost twenty pounds in just three weeks as a 19 year old consulting archaeologist thanks to illness caused by giardia (don’t drink unfiltered, untreated water kids! This is NOT a recommended weight loss plan). In Tanzania, I was stung by a large black wasp three times in thigh after it crawled up my pants; I was in a moving vehicle at the time so once I driver stopped I hopped out and dropped my pants in the middle of town to free the wasp. While my thigh and dignity were hurt, I was relatively unharmed by the vicious attack but still carry a reminder of it – the three spots where it stung me still “raise” up every time I have an allergic reaction to something. So infections, illnesses, diseases, and animals (don’t get me started on bears, and moose, and earwigs…) do pose serious threats to our health and safety when working in the field.

We are also put at risk by the places we work in and the very things we do. We dig. Trenches can collapse. We utilize dangerous vehicles (quads, trucks, helicopters) to get to areas that can be far from medical care or intervention. Archaeologists actually have so much to worry about do we really need to add “curses” to the list?

Well maybe.

As an anthropologist, I understand the value of curses. Curses can be used to explain misfortune, to threaten individuals, to prevent and/or to justify certain behaviours or actions, or to exercise power, particularly when one feels powerless. Curses are powerful whether you believe in them or not. For example, you don’t have to believe that Friday the 13th is a day of misfortune, but if a series of unfortunate events (*wink wink*) were to befall you on this very day, you may be more inclined to chalk it up to the date than just a typical bad day. This illustrates that it is not just that curses make for a sensational story (about a project that is already pretty darn interesting imo) but that curses are important and valued in many societies.

May your Friday the 13th be curse free.