Exhumed tombs and legendary tales of doom

Treasury wonks may disagree, but Roger Luckhurst argues that his AHRC-backed study of superstition is not a waste of public money. The fears of the past inform the politics of the present, the mummy's curse simply a reflection of ambivalence towards Egyptian self-determination

July 14, 2011

Credit: Cris Bouroncle/Getty

As Oscar Wilde might have said, there is only one thing in the world worse than failing to get a research grant, and that is getting a research grant. All those deadlines and outcomes you optimistically projected? You have to meet them now.

After more than a decade of trying and failing, I have for the past few months been a research Fellow funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

It's an odd time to be paid public money to be a full-time humanities researcher, as the government has pulled most of the funding from our disciplines. The good news about my grant arrived last summer, before the Comprehensive Spending Review. Delight soon turned into anxiety about the prospect of the whole funding body simply vanishing. Thankfully, the AHRC survived the bonfire of the quangos, but in the meantime, the framing of the research excellence framework has been put through the mangle. "Minor" questions, such as the definition of research impact, seem to alter each week, affecting decisions as basic as writing style and target audience.

All this would be fine if I weren't being funded to complete what must seem to a hard-nosed Treasury economist to be an utterly frivolous project. Grant number AH/I001441/1 is called "Egypt in London 1821-1924", but my assessors weren't fooled by this po-faced title. I am writing a cultural history of the "mummy curse", its origins, spread and meanings in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

At the centre of my book is the true (or trueish) story of the Victorian gentleman Thomas Douglas Murray, who in Luxor in 1865 bought a rather prettily decorated mummy case of a 19th Dynasty Priestess of Amen-Ra. Soon after his purchase, Murray went quail hunting and promptly shot his own arm off. He survived in plucky Victorian fashion by tying his own tourniquet and stumbling back to his hotel. Meanwhile, his fellow traveller in Luxor, Arthur Wheeler, returned to Cairo to discover that the collapse of a bank in China had cost him his fortune.

This double misfortune started an extraordinary range of rumours and superstition. Ill luck dogged the mummy case long after it arrived in London: it "caused" two decades of havoc in the Wheeler family, stories that are worthy of the 1976 horror classic The Omen, including sickness, premature death and a series of accidents befalling anyone who attempted to photograph it.

In 1889, to be rid of the thing, the Wheelers donated the case to the British Museum. Rumours of the haunting of the Egyptian Rooms soon gathered pace. Catalogue number 22542 is still known as the "Unlucky Mummy", and curators have spent more than a century trying to refute these tales.

The lives of many significant figures get caught up in this story, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Madame Helena Blavatsky, the grand dame of occultism, and W.T. Stead, the famous campaigning journalist. Stead warned that even talking about the curse caused danger, so it was probably a bit unwise of him to recount it at the table of a transatlantic liner in 1912. A few hours later, Stead died with more than 1,000 others as RMS Titanic made its fateful rendezvous with hard, unforgiving ice.

The AHRC fellowship has allowed me to access some odd places. I have sat in British Museum study rooms reading correspondence files surrounded by archaeologists reading cuneiform tablets. A piece of actual mummy wrapping fell out of Thomas Pettigrew's papers in the Wellcome Institute ("Mummy" Pettigrew, an expert on ancient Egyptian mummies, made a craze out of unravelling them in the 1830s). In the Norfolk Record Office, I chased down some details of the mummy that so freaked out the writer H. Rider Haggard that he ordered it out of the house. And I finally had time to read the thousands of pages of handwritten minutes of the Ghost Club, Murray's dining club. Astonishingly, at the meeting following Murray's death, it was reported that his spirit had appeared at a seance to welcome his club replacement, the poet William Butler Yeats.

Perhaps, like me, you pay attention to the partial grant lists that Times Higher Education publishes, just for the fascination of seeing what curious things other disciplines do - all those hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on polymers or neurocognitive processes or ribonucleic-thingummies.

Scientists have been impressive lobbyists for funding, as we saw in the run-up to the announcement of the cuts to be made to the higher education budget. Humanists have been less impressive, less organised. It has been harder to find an expression of our core values, because so often the nature of cultural value has been at the centre of our debates and critiques. That is only right, but it is hard to sell to the Treasury wonks who are ordering David Willetts around.

And I can only imagine that researching the history of a superstition, an urban myth such as the mummy's curse, might cause the likes of Richard Dawkins to blow another gasket (assuming that he has any left). Perhaps the only thing about the Murray story suitable for an age of austerity is its sense of looming cataclysm.

If I were trapped in a lift with Willetts, however, I would try to tempt him out of his utilitarian and economistic way of thinking about humanities teaching and research precisely by telling him the story of Murray. Stop pressing the emergency alarm button, David, and listen. If you pay close attention to the narratives of popular culture - for instance, in order to unravel the origins of spooky superstitions such as the mummy's curse - you might learn a lot about our social attitudes, the fantasies that structure our political life, and our diplomatic and military engagements with the wider world.

Ancient Egyptian culture had no real concept of the curse. It is a later cultural imposition: the trace of the ambivalence Britain felt about the violent occupation of Egypt after 1882. That's when curse stories exploded in the tabloid press, popular fiction and rumour mills. Tutankhamen, the pharaoh who supposedly killed the Earl of Carnarvon in 1923? That story broke at the exact point when the British government gave limited independence to Egypt in the face of growing nationalist riots and the assassination of British officials in Cairo.

This is not just a historical point. Rather, it helps us to read the hesitancy apparent in the West's responses to the "Arab Spring". You could hear the ambivalence about Egypt in the speeches of Barack Obama and William Hague earlier this year. Could the Egyptians be trusted with self-determination? As a symptom of doubt about their self-command, it was reported that mummies were being stolen from Cairo Museum. One can pull at the thread of why that story ran in our press and trace it back to late-Victorian ambivalence about a self-determining Arab Middle East. It is represented in the unruly mummy of popular culture, a superstition that has always done a lot of cultural work. You can see an undead version of this Victorian fantasy still shuffling through our foreign policy.

The head of the AHRC, Rick Rylance, has become embroiled in a spat about whether arts research funding is too closely bound to the Prime Minister's "Big Society" agenda. I would contend that all properly engaged research in the arts and humanities confronts the politics of its time, no matter the subject or how arcane it seems. It may not result in the kind of narratives our political masters want to hear, and perhaps that is why humanities research has been distrusted for so long by governments on both the Left and the Right.

But surely they can cope with this form of critical enquiry: it is the spirit of the Enlightenment that an intellectual Tory like Willetts claims to defend. And if they can't cope? Well, curses on them.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.