Ancient Magic – Part III: “Who disturbs my slumber?”

Few films have managed to truly creep me out and stay with me long after my first viewing them. One of those was a cartoon (don’t judge).

For all my fellow ’90s babies – remember “Courage the Cowardly Dog”? Yeah. Most episodes were fine, but one of those episodes *shivers* involved the creepiest mummy – supposedly that of King Ramses – asking for the return of a stone slab stolen from his sarcophagus. That episode literally traumatized me, along with, I’m sure, a few million other children (thanks Cartoon Network). The menacing words uttered by cartoon Ramses, and the tone of his voice, still ring in my ears to this day:

“Retuuurn the slaaaaab”, he says, “or suffer my cuuuuurse”.

Thankfully, Creepy Ramses didn’t put me off pursuing a career in archaeology, and one involving the dead nonetheless (victory!). And no, I will not make your life easier, reader, by posting a video or a picture of said mummy here. As much as I care for you, I have no intention of tainting this page, thank you very much, nor do I wish to risk recurring nightmares every time I open this blog. So feel free to look up said episode on Youtube. But careful now – you do so at your own peril.

The show did get one thing right though: the curse of the dead.

Most people are familiar with the pharaonic curses of Egypt. But Phoenician kings had a few curses up their sleeves as well. Interestingly, the most famous example is that of a ruler from a Levantine city with strong ties to Egypt: the city of Gubal; known locally today as Jbeil or by its Greek name, Byblos.

Byblos is by far one of my favourite Lebanese cities. It is a city that has preserved its beautiful architectural heritage, and one that boasts an impressive archaeological park and museum overlooking the Mediterranean. The city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Archaeological work has taken place at Byblos since the middle of the 19th century. But every now and then, nature steps in and helps archaeologists make some of the most significant discoveries.

That’s exactly what happened on February the 16th, 1922, when after heavy rainfall, a landslide on the shoreside of the citadel of Byblos exposed an ancient tomb located at a depth of 12 meters. This chance discovery led to the uncovering of eight more tombs in its vicinity. A total of nine burials were eventually unearthed that formed part of the Bronze Age Royal Necropolis of Byblos.

Three of these tombs were found intact, one had been looted in the 1800s, and the remaining five were broken into in antiquity. Despite their varying levels of disturbance, all tombs added valuable information to our understanding of the history of the ancient city and its traditions. The most famous of these tombs, however, was Tomb V.

Similar to the other tombs in the Royal Necropolis, Tomb V was constructed by excavating a vertical shaft in the ground and carving out a burial chamber to one side of its base. The large stone sarcophagi would be lowered from the ground surface and then pushed into the side chamber where they were expected to remain for all eternity. A wall was constructed to seal the burial chamber, and the shaft was thereafter filled with earth and stone and the access to it covered with flagstones. Unlike the other tombs in the necropolis, Tomb V had an additional level of protection through a set of wooden beams inserted across the shaft near the surface, which created a secondary “roof” to the shaft.

This is where the first warning to anyone who dared disturb the dead was placed. Just above the wooden beams, a Phoenician inscription on the southern wall of the shaft read:

Attention! Behold, thou shalt come to grief below here!

Ancient looters, however, missed this first warning as they managed to reach the burial chamber by digging through the layers of earth beyond the flagstones of the shaft and above the chamber itself.

It was there that they came upon the sarcophagus of Ahiram, which is the most ornate of all the sarcophagi discovered at Byblos.

The Ahiram sarcophagus is richly carved on all sides with scenes of funerary processions involving mourners, offering bearers, and the ruler himself seated on a sphinx throne. Four crouching lions are seen supporting the sarcophagus on each of its corners, with their heads projecting outwards. Two other lions are depicted on the lid, along with a relief of Ahiram and his son on either side of the powerful beasts. In this representation, Ahiram is portrayed raising his hand in a gesture of benediction upon his son who commissioned the sarcophagus for his father.

The richly decorated Ahiram sarcophagus on display at the National Museum of Beirut. The crouching lions are seen at the four corners of the coffin, as well as on the lid of the sarcophagus. The ancient curse is inscribed on the long side of the stone lid (image source: N.Sadek).

Ahiram’s successor also made sure to include an inscription on the lid of the coffin that held a curse targeting those who violated his father’s resting place:

The coffin which Ittobaal (or Pilsibaal), son of Ahiram, King of Gubal, made for his father as his eternal dwelling place. Now if a king among kings, or a governor among governors, or a commander of an army should come up against Gubal and uncover this coffin, may his judicial sceptre be broken, may his royal throne be overthrown, and may peace flee from Gubal. And as for him, may his inscription be effaced!

Ahiram sarcophagus (center back) displayed at the National Museum of Beirut (image source: author).

Although the ancient looters did not heed these warnings and proceeded to plunder the royal tomb, the “wrath” of the dead may have caught up with them still. The royal spell includes a list of potential vandals, and the final threat of “having their inscriptions effaced” is not to be taken lightly. That final sentence holds the gravity of the erasure of the vandal’s eternal memory. And while we, today, once more remember Ahiram and display his coffin as a treasured artefact at the National Museum of Beirut, the identity of the looters is not only lost in time, but their legacy is also scorned by all who understand that their act of greed resulted in a loss that goes far beyond material value.

Fortunately for myself and my colleagues, archaeologists do not feature in the list of individuals targeted by the ancient curse. And thank heavens for that! Otherwise, I would currently be living my childhood nightmare, only with a fleet of Ramses-es instead of just the one!

However, I humbly do like to think that, for the most part, we are viewed in good light by the departed. It is all about intention after all. Looters seek to plunder and benefit from ancient relics, while archaeologists seek the complete opposite. Archaeologists aim to salvage, conserve, and protect ancient remains. They approach the past with respect, knowing just what a privilege it is to handle ancient objects, let alone ancient human remains. The work carried out through this discipline also seeks to preserve and disseminate the story and memory of ancient peoples and societies that would otherwise remain forgotten. And because wider communication is an important aspect of our work, I will soon be launching a new section in this blog called “Reading Remains”. It will be a portal through which I take you along with me and introduce you to the work and research that I do as an osteoarchaeologist in the Middle East.

So stay tuned for that, and remember: unless you’re an archaeologist, don’t go digging up old graves (or new ones for that matter!). And definitely don’t steal ancient slabs, lest the curse of the dead fall upon you…

Sources:

Jidejian, N. 2000. Byblos Through the Ages. Editions Dar an-Nahar.

Pritchard, J.B. 1978. Recovering Sarepta, A Phoenician City: Excavations at Sarafand, Lebanon, 1969-1974, by the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Princeton University Press. Princeton: New Jersey.

Beirut National Museum.


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