THE curse of the mummy on anyone who dares to disturb the dead is one of the most enduring superstitions of modern times.
But a new exhibition has revealed how the tombs of ancient Egyptians were in fact reused many times – and the ‘curse’ was more likely to be a polite request to keep out.
The story of how one ancient Egyptian tomb was used across a time period spanning more than 1,000 years is being told at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh through a display of fascinating objects from various eras.
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The collection includes a full-length mummy shroud, which had been stored in the museum undisturbed since the 1940s, five metres of preserved mummy bandages with hieroglyphic inscriptions about being transformed in the afterlife and a mummified woman decorated with intricate glass and gilded wax amulets.
Other objects found nearby the tomb which are on display include a Book of the Dead which belonged to a powerful Egyptian vizier – equivalent to prime minister - called Useramun, and a stone with an inscription warning people not to disturb a tomb.
But Dr Margaret Maitland, senior curator of Ancient Mediterranean at the museum, said rather than a curse the message was more of a gentle reproach to stay away.
She said: “Tomb curses are quite rare and they actually more often [say] just a vague ‘please don’t remove anything from this tomb’ or warn people that they could be prosecuted in the afterlife.
“There is just this sort of warning not to remove anything or the gods will reproach them greatly.”
Maitland said while the idea of tomb curses had great appeal, there was not much evidence they existed.
“Ancient Egyptians were reusing tombs and burial objects, so they don’t seem to have been so bothered by it,” she added.
The tomb featuring in the exhibition was built around 1290 BC after the reign of Tutankhamun in the city of Thebes – now Luxor – for the chief of police and his wife.
It was used for more than 1,000 years and is thought to have held the remains of at least a couple of dozen people. It was last used in 9 BC shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt, when it was sealed intact containing an entire family.
The tomb and its surrounding area were excavated in 1857 by Scottish archaeologist Alexander Henry Rhind, with the finds taken straight back to the museum.
Maitland said some of the objects in the exhibition The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial, which runs until September 3 this year, would not have been displayed for more than 100 years.
She added: “It is the first time the objects have been brought together again as a group in over 100 years and the story of the history of this tomb told.
“There were strong traditions – the belief in the afterlife didn’t really change – but the actual practices changed quite a lot.
“The tomb was built at the height of Egyptian empire when they are constructing enormous rock cut tombs, but that changes when Egypt becomes less powerful. It became much more common for tombs and even burial objects to be recycled.”
Maitland said one example illustrating this was canopic jars – used by ancient Egyptians to contain mummified internal organs of the body needed for the afterlife.
“Once reuse of objects and tombs became common, people didn’t want to risk someone using their canopic jar and their organs becoming completely separated from their body,” she said.
“So they started returning [the organs] to the body and solid canopic jars were made for symbolic protection.”
She added: “It’s an incredible span of the time the exhibition covers and hopefully people will get some exciting glimpses of just how many changes there were."