We are now well into conference season. They are great fun to go to, to meet colleagues, chat about projects that we all have on the go and just immerse yourself in the subject for a day or two. The trouble is that once you have been there for a day you start to wish that you were somewhere else, or doing something different – like writing your novel or playing golf.
I was at a conference down in Norfolk last week and took time out to visit the Swaffham Museum. It has a rare wee exhibition about Howard Carter, the Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. He had been brought up in Swaffham, a fact that I had been unaware of all those years ago when I was a frequent visitor to the area, for my wife’s father had been the Rector at Cockley Cley, a nearby village.
There is a facsimile of the tomb in the museum. You can look through a sort of window and see what it looked like. Then press a button and you see a film clip of Howard Carter crawling along a corridor. Then Lord Carnarvon asks anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’
Carter replies ‘Yes, wonderful things.’
For a moment it felt as if you were there.
I have to confess to having a fascination with Tutankhamen, and the whole story of Carter and Carnarvon. Over the years I have built up quite a library on archaeology, especially Egyptology. And although I know that it is all bunkum, I have a fascination with the story of the Curse.
I am sure everyone will have heard about it. The ancient curse supposedly warned anyone who dared to attempt to desecrate the tomb that they would die a horrible death.
The Egyptologists ignored the curse, of course, then strange things started happening. Carter’s canary was eaten by a cobra, and some time after the dig Lord Carnarvon received a mosquito bite on his cheek. He subsequently nicked it shaving and soon after developed septicaemia, and died in a Cairo hotel. The lights went out in Cairo and seemingly at that very same moment Lord Carnarvon’s dog at home in Highclere Castle howled, rolled over and died. And then over time a number of people associated with the dig died.
When Carter examined the mummy of the King he found a scar on the cheek. It was said to be on the same side as Lord Carnarvon’s.
Such is the stuff of legend, and most of it has been debunked as sensational journalism with scant regard to facts. Yet it is a compelling story which has inspired many writers. I think it was etched in my own mind when was an aspiring writer.
I remember the excitement I felt when I heard that the famous Tutankhamen exhibition was going to come to London in 1970, complete with the golden death mask. I queued up for hours to see it. Years later I visited the tomb itself in the Valley of the Kings and guess what – I was bitten by a mosquito on my cheek!
My daughter Kate reminded me about it when I told her that I had been to the Swaffham museum. The thought of it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Although I have been scientifically trained, there was still a part of my mind that had wondered about the curse when the mosquito decided to feast on me!