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No Harm Ever Came from Digging Up the Past

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Egypt, 1922

They made a pair of interesting contrasts: the English librarian and the American archaeologist; one barely more than a girl, the other a woman grown; one half-Egyptian and dark, the other, by ancestry at least, pure red-headed Scot. The general expectation at the site was that they would either become fast friends, or detest one another on sight. In truth, however, it was several days before they quite knew what to do with one another, and they did not become close until events had taken a decidedly strange turn.

The process of their acquaintance did not get off to a good start. Miss Claudia Coburn was brash and American, almost mannish in her behaviors; Miss Evelyn Carnahan was over-fond of demonstrating her knowledge at great (not to say tedious) length. Each thought the other was trying too hard to win the approval of those around them. But they were the only unmarried young ladies taking part in the excavation, which meant they had to share a cottage; this threw them into one another’s company whether they wished it or not, and it was inevitable that they should make small talk about their circumstances.

“I don’t even know why they require it,” Miss Carnahan said testily. “Half of the Bembridge Scholars have never left their armchairs. But when I applied, they told me I needed experience in the field.”

Miss Coburn looked startled. “I didn’t know the Bembridge Scholars even allowed women among them.”

“Well, there aren’t any yet,” Miss Carnahan admitted.

“I can’t imagine why,” Miss Coburn said dryly. “I’m in a similar boat, actually. The Samuel Mather Parrington Museum has a position open for an archaeological assistant, but I need field experience, too. Didn’t expect to get it in Egypt, but this is the first dig I found that would take me.”

They met each other’s gazes, and their initial coolness began to thaw. Soon after, they laid aside the formality of “Miss” and began to call one another Evy and Claudia.

It was true that Evy knew a great deal about Egypt—far more than Claudia did, whose interest was less in Egypt particularly and more in the remains of the past generally. For her own part, Claudia knew the methods of modern archaeology, as established by the great Sir Flinders Petrie, which involved a good deal more effort than simply ransacking sites in search of treasure.

Unfortunately, there was little enough for either of them to do. “They’re running out of money,” Evy said over breakfast one day. “If we don’t find anything this season, there won’t be another one. And some people think Mr. Davis was right—that the Valley of the Kings has been exhausted, and there’s nothing left to find.” She looked saddened by the thought.

Claudia snorted. “No doubt that’s why you and I were allowed to come play in the sand. But we have found things, haven’t we? Just not anything to write home about. An earl will want his money’s worth, and workmen’s huts won’t cut it.” She stopped, then smiled. “All right, I admit it. I want to find gold, too. It would impress the fellows back at the museum more than some report on how the ancient Egyptian working class lived.”

“Have you ever heard the legend of Hamunaptra?” Evy asked, with a conspiratorial air.

Before she could say more, however, shouts began to echo across the excavation. The young ladies hurried to the source of the commotion, and found the diggers and gentlemen clustered around the place where, until recently, one of those ancient workmen’s huts had stood. It had been removed four days previously, after being documented according to Sir Flinders Petrie’s methods, and now a walled pit existed in its place, at the base of which a piece of stone could be seen.

“It’s a step!” Evy said, delighted all out of proportion to the size of the thing itself.

Nor was it alone. With some difficulty, the foreman cleared the crowd enough for excavation to continue. By the time nightfall forced the diggers to halt, three steps had come into view. The next morning, everyone waited breathlessly as the staircase grew in length: four steps, five, six. Claudia and Evy ate their lunch sitting cross-legged in the dirt, unwilling to risk missing the moment of revelation.

In the end, revelation came more gradually. The lintel of a doorway emerged first. Only a few men could dig at a time in the narrow confines of the staircase, and had to pause periodically for the gentlemen archaeologists to examine and document their progress. Their careful efforts uncovered a plaster door, and then a seal: the mark of the Royal Necropolis.

And that was as far as it went—for the time being. The workers refilled the staircase with rubble, and Howard Carter sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon in England.

at last have made wonderful discovery in valley stop a magnificent tomb with seals intact stop recovered same for your arrival stop congratulations

Now the ladies had work to occupy them, while everyone waited for Lord Carnarvon to arrive.

“Akhenaten, Smenkhkara, Tutankhamun, Amenhotep III, Thutmosis III,” Evy said, gesturing at the pile of fragments taken from the debris in front of the door. “They’re all from the Amarna period, except Thutmosis. Do you suppose it might be another cache of royal artifacts, like KV55 was?”

“Who knows.” Claudia dipped her brush and painted delicate numbers along the edge of another potsherd, identifying it for the catalogue. “The door’s been broken down before, at least once. But somebody went to the effort of sealing it again, so there must be something interesting still in there.”

“Something more interesting than workmen’s tools,” Evy said with a mischevious smile.

Claudia laughed. “Those poor workmen. Nobody appreciated them back then, and nobody appreciates them now. I hope I’m right, though—for Mr. Carter’s sake as well as my own. It would be dreadfully embarrassing for him to call his patron all the way out there, only to find that ancient grave robbers stole his thunder.”

Lord Carnarvon arrived the next day, so they were not left to wonder much longer. The workers cleared away the rubble and finished the excavation, uncovering sixteen steps in all, and a cartouche that Evy recognized immediately.

“It’s Tutankhamun’s!” she reported to Claudia, all but bouncing in excitement. “Just like in KV55. Oh, I hope it’s another cache! Or—do you suppose it could be his tomb?”

Claudia was too practical to assume any such thing. A cache was more likely, especially once Mr. Carter gave the order for the door to be broken down and the rubble-filled passageway beyond to be cleared. More fragmentary artifacts came into the house where she and Evy had been set to work cleaning and cataloguing the items; there was no doubt that intruders had broken into the place in ancient times, and taken things away with them. The question was what, if anything, remained.

At the end of the passage, a second door. The seal of Tutankhamun, again.

Evy flirted shamelessly to make certain she was among the few who could pack into the staircase just behind Mr. Carter. Claudia achieved the same result, but used her elbows. They were only a few feet away, behind Lord Carnarvon and his wife, when Mr. Carter chipped a hole in the upper left-hand corner of the door and put a candle through to see if the air was good.

All the world heard the tale of what happened next. Lord Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?,” and Howard Carter answered back, “Yes, wonderful things.”

But Claudia and Evy, despite being mere steps away, missed the moment entirely. Their attention was wholly claimed by the gust of air that came from the hole Mr. Carter had made—a gust of air that, despite its warmth, made both of them shiver.

Neither of them said anything at the time, nor for several days after. They were young ladies on what had just become the most sensational excavation ever conducted in the Valley of the Kings. Who would take them seriously if they said they felt something blow past them . . . something dark, cold, and very, very angry?

Under ordinary circumstances, both Claudia and Evy would have been delighted beyond their wildest dreams to spend weeks working inside the tomb of Seti II, which had been appropriated as a laboratory for the endless stream of artifacts removed from the antechamber of the new site. These artifacts were so abundant, and in so delicate a state, that Mr. Carter had yet to even move beyond the antechamber, despite the fact that he could see at least two other doors leading to other rooms (one of them with a hole in it). That he had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb seemed likely. On the objects that came into Seti’s tomb for treatment and packaging before being shipped away, his names appeared again and again: Tutankhamun, Nebkheprure, Kanakht Tutmesut, others Claudia did not even attempt to pronounce. This was no Eighteenth Dynasty cache, no mere storeroom for the detritus of other pharaohs. Despite the haphazard piling of artifacts, it was clearly done only for the sake of one individual.

But the workload meant that everyone was exhausted, Claudia and Evy not excepted, and the mood of the excavation slid unpredictably between exhilaration and gloom. Claudia had not had a decent night’s sleep since the opening of the tomb, which made her patience with the media and curiosity-seekers who flocked to the site even shorter than it might otherwise have been. “If one more ‘private tour’ goes down that staircase, I’m going to start hoping there is a curse on the pharaoh’s tomb, and it bites them on the nose,” Claudia muttered one morning, after receiving a chariot wheel that had been cracked in half by a careless visitor.

She intended the comment to be facetious, but it did not come out that way. Evy shot her an alarmed look, and it awakened all the odd fears Claudia had put to one side as foolish.

But they could not say anything more—not in Seti’s tomb, with all the other specialists Mr. Carter had called in to help with his tremendous windfall working only a few feet away. By the time they had finished their jobs for the day, Claudia had convinced herself once more that it was mere foolishness, and would have brushed away Evy’s questions . . . were it not for the story that reached her ears.

Mr. Carter kept a pet canary in a cage outside his house. Or rather, he had kept such a canary; but it had just been slain by a cobra. This terrible omen, many people agreed, was a sign of the dead pharaoh’s displeasure—the cobra, of course, being a symbol of royal authority.

Even the prospect of asking made Claudia feel dreadfully silly. Your mother was Egyptian; I don’t suppose . . . ? As if that gave Evy some special insight as to the behavior of Egyptians thousands of years past. Besides which, they were both rational young women; for all Evy’s flights of enthusiasm, she was hardly the sort to believe in spiritualism and other such things.

And yet.

After supper that night, while they were occupied writing letters in their cottage, Claudia gathered her determination and asked, “What is all this business about the curse of the pharaohs, anyway? Is it just superstition?”

“Oh, yes,” Evy said, balling up her most recent attempt at a letter and throwing it in the general direction of the wastepaper basket. She was trying to convince her brother not to come visit the site. Jonathan Carnahan had, as she put it to Claudia, a slight case of sticky fingers. “But it’s a superstition that goes back a long way. Ancient priests told everyone the gods would curse them if they disturbed a tomb, because they didn’t want people stealing the riches inside. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop the grave robbers.”

“Or the archaeologists.” Claudia managed a smile.

Evy laughed. “Or the archaeologists. But our motives are noble! And besides, no harm ever came from digging up the past.”

Despite her laughter, she sounded uneasy. As if she, too, had doubts. Claudia said, “So there’s no such thing as a curse.”

Evy stopped, pen just touching paper, and turned to look at her.

Fidgeting, Claudia said, “It’s foolish. But the canary—you heard. With the cobra. And—”

“Well,” Evy said slowly, “the ancient Egyptians did believe in ghosts. The spells in the Book of Going Forth by Day were meant to reunite the ka and the ba after death—”

“The what?”

Evy smiled. “Two parts of the Egyptian soul. They were supposed to come back together and animate something called the akh. But if the spells weren’t carried out correctly, the akh would start . . . roaming about.”

Claudia chewed on the end of her pen. “I’‘m guessing that isn’t a good thing. Would breaking into a tomb disrupt the spells?”

“I imagine so. But look,” Evy said impatiently. “This tomb was broken into before. So were all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. If any such thing as an akh existed, you wouldn’t be able to go for an evening stroll without tripping over one of them. Unless—”

She stopped, looking thoughtful. “Unless?” Claudia prompted her.

“We know the priests sealed the tomb back up again both times it was opened. They would have said prayers to the dead king, to calm him after the intrusion. Cleaning up the mess, so to speak.”

“So,” Claudia said. “Hypothetically speaking. If akhs existed, all of them got laid to rest by ancient Egyptian priests after the grave robbers had come and gone. Except the one they stuffed back into its tomb a few thousand years ago, that just got let out last month.”

“Hypothetically speaking,” Evy said, “yes.”

Outside, a jackal howled.

The tomb had been guarded since before the first door was opened, in case there was something of value in it. Now that the value was known to be incalculably high, it was not left unattended for a single moment.

Claudia therefore made sure they had an excuse for showing up at the top of the staircase before dawn, demanding to be allowed down into the tomb. “The pictures didn’t come out,” she said, in her most brashly American tone. “We can’t take anything else out of the tomb until we’ve documented it properly—and if we wait for these pictures, that will mean delaying Mr. Carter when he comes in a few hours. Do you want to be the one to explain that to him?” She punctuated her question with a wave of the camera in the guard’s face.

He scowled, but Claudia and Evy were both known to be members of the excavation team. “We have to search you when you come out.”

“I am an archaeologist,” she said witheringly. “Not a grave robber. Do you think I would damage an artifact by stuffing it into my pocket? Now help us carry this equipment down.”

The guard quite rightly refused, as Claudia had hoped. Together she and Evy lumped the camera and flash down the stairs and into the cramped antechamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

A few weeks of work had made only the smallest dent in the piles of artifacts. Claudia had not lied about documentation; Mr. Carter was being scrupulous about it, numbering and photographing each piece before taking on the delicate task of lifting it out of the tangle. The dry air had preserved the wood and other perishables, but age had still weakened them; sometimes the workers had to brace an entire pile before they could safely remove a single object.

The ladies, however, were not there to admire or to document. “Ordinarily the spell would be written on the wall,” Evy said, then paused helplessly. The walls of the antechamber were blank plaster; Tutankhamun had died too young for his subjects to decorate his tomb as they should. “Maybe it’s here somewhere. Help me look.”

But if there was anything on the walls, it was well-hidden behind the piles of artifacts. And at the rate the work was proceeding, it might be a year, or even longer, before such an inscription was discovered.

Evy was not easily daunted. “A boat, perhaps. Or something painted with a boat. It’s supposed to carry the soul into the afterlife, so the spell might be placed around that image . . . .”

In the crowded confines of the antechamber, there was not much room for both of them to search, not without endangering the artifacts. Furthermore, Claudia would not recognize a spell from the Book of Going Forth by Day even if it came with a helpful English translation painted below. She crawled under one of the funerary beds and peered briefly into the dark hole leading to what Mr. Carter had dubbed the Annex—another artifact-filled chamber—then went to the right-hand wall, where the outline of another door was visible between two statues of Tutankhamun.

They seemed to stare at her. “We’re trying to help,” she muttered, and turned her attention to the door.

Everyone suspected the burial chamber lay on the far side. It, like the Annex, had been broken into at some point in the past; but unlike the other door, this one had been repaired. “What are the odds that the thing we’re looking for is on the other side of this wall?”

Evy paused in her search. “Oh, I hope not.”

Claudia chewed her lip, thinking. “I wish we could tell which intrusion this was, the first one or the second. I don’t suppose the priests helpfully left a sign—‘repaired in the fourth year of Pharaoh Somebody-or-Other?’ No, of course not.” She sighed. “Not that it matters. We can hardly go breaking the wall down ourselves.” They lacked the tools; the noise would bring the guards; they would destroy everything in the antechamber in the process. If what they needed was in the burial chamber, they were in serious trouble.

“No,” Evy said regretfully. “And I’m afraid I don’t have the Book of Going Forth by Day memorized.”

“Shocking oversight,” Claudia said. “Come one; we need to be out of here before the others show up.”

They climbed out of the tomb, camera equipment in hand, and submitted to the guards’ search. Dawn had not yet broken as they trudged across the hard ground in silence, wrestling with their thoughts. Both had the flat, weary feeling that came with being up at such a dreadful hour, and the fruitlessness of their search had them doubting. One dead canary did not a curse make. They could have imagined the ominous feeling when Mr. Carter opened the door. All of this was merely a hypothetical, and an unlikely one at that.

Claudia stopped dead. A jackal stood not far away, staring at them both. Its eyes were flat, featureless black, and then it opened its mouth and spoke.

Shurtuf entet sumenmenef cheti.  Yutenef tekau mu herretu.

The jackal loped off into the desert. It was several long minutes before either woman could move, and after that, there was no more talk of hypotheticals.

First a cobra; then a jackal. Neither one of them voiced the question: what might the akh choose to inhabit next?

The whispers were spreading. Mostly among the Egyptian workers, but Evy said that was because they did much of the labor of disturbing the site, while the gentlemen studied the results. Claudia thought it was simply because the Egyptians were more willing to admit to their unease. They were ransacking someone’s tomb, undoing the hard work of millennia before. Was this not precisely what the priests had striven to prevent?

“Tomb robbers said their feelings of guilt came about because the akh was haunting them,” Evy told Claudia when she admitted to such thoughts.

“And people shuffling around as if they’re half-dead?” Claudia asked. Day by day, it was becoming less of an exaggeration. Visitors had no trouble, but all the people who worked on the site—particularly those who had been there when the tomb was opened—were beginning to look as if they belonged in the tomb rather than out of it. Only Mr. Carter seemed unaffected. But, as Claudia had also said, they could probably light Boston for a year with his manic energy.

Evy looked troubled. “That too.”

They were in Seti’s tomb again, and nominally working on the artifacts. Claudia sagged back in her chair and stared at the far wall, where a faded Greek inscription showed that ancient tourists had no better manners than modern ones.

Evy followed her gaze and became thoughtful, one finger tapping on her lip. “The spell might be painted on another tomb in the area. I don’t know if it would work—the priests would have written it for another pharaoh—but I could try to adapt it. I just need to think where I might find it. Whose tomb has a boat painted in it . . . .”

“A boat!” Claudia sat bolt upright, drawing stares from the men working nearby.

With more energy than she had felt in days, she scrambled out of her chair and ran from the tomb, Evy following after. She did not stop running until she reached the house that had originally been given over to the processing of artifacts, before Mr. Carter realized he would need the dry atmosphere of another tomb, an easier entrance to guard, and also a great deal of space. The lonely scattering of items they had found before opening Tutankhamun’s tomb still resided there, forgotten in the excitement of everything that followed.

Forgotten, but not before being sorted according to Claudia’s meticulous cataloguing. “Aha!” she said triumphantly, thrusting a potsherd toward Evy.

It showed the front end of a river barge, with a fragmentary hieroglyphic inscription alongside. Evy turned it toward the light and began to sound her way haltingly through the symbols. Then she shifted to English. “Something about an abyss, and making fast the ropes. This might be it. Where’s the rest?”

“In pieces,” Claudia said. “They found this at the bottom of the staircase, outside the very first door. I think the second set of thieves were caught in the act and dropped it. The priests filled in the tunnel they had made, and maybe did something for the akh—or maybe not. Poor thing. What if it’s been caught in there ever since then?”

She was moving even as she spoke, collecting the other pieces of the pot. Evy scanned them quickly, muttering in Egyptian under her breath. “Yes, I think we have it. Can you put the pot back together?”

Claudia reached for the glue. “It will be dry by tonight.”

Evy was not idle during that time. When she returned, she had a sheet of paper in her hand. “What’s that?” Claudia asked, peering over her shoulder at the hieroglyphs. “It doesn’t look like the spell.”

“That’s because it’s a letter,” Evy said.

“To your brother?”

She smiled. “To Tutankhamun. People used to write letters to the akh, asking it to do favors for them; perhaps we can appease it with one, too.” She pursed her lips, looking over the page. “I do hope my grammar is correct.”

“As long as you don’t insult it.” With careful hands, Claudia lifted the reassembled pot from the table. “All right: pot, spell, letter. What now? To the tomb?”

“I don’t think we can get in again, do you? But we might go to one of the abandoned tombs.”

“It’s better than this house, at least.” Tools in hand, they sallied forth, into the desert night. Evy rehearsed her Egyptian under her breath; Claudia hoped they would not meet another jackal.

They did not. Instead they met Howard Carter.

“Oh, Mr. Carter! You startled me,” Evy said. Claudia bit back on an oath. She had nearly dropped the pot.

One look at the archaeologist told her he would not have taken kindly to the destruction—but not for scholarly reasons. Ever since the opening of the tomb, Howard Carter’s giddy excitement had driven him like an engine, defying overwork and lack of sleep to slow him down. He was never still, except when undertaking a delicate task. But now he stood as if carved from stone, and his posture was not his own.

“Evy,” she said, very carefully, “I don’t think that’s Mr. Carter. At least, not only him.”

He stared at them both, and his eyes were a flat, featureless black.

“Oh,” Evy said.

The coldness was back, unrelated to the desert air. Through her teeth, Claudia said, “Talk to him. Tell him we’re on our way to help.”

Claudia did not speak Egyptian, but she doubted the little noises limping from Evy’s mouth were words in any language. Then Evy licked her lips and tried a different tack. Holding her letter in front of her like a shield, she began to read from it.

It was impossible to tell what Howard Carter, or rather the akh of Tutankhamun, thought of it. He stood unblinking through the entire recitation. When Evy finished, the only sound was the wind blowing through the Valley of the Kings.

Then the akh turned and began to walk.

The young ladies exchanged glances. “Do we follow him?” Claudia whispered.

If the akh did not want company, it showed no sign. Before long, it was clear where the creature was going: the narrow staircase that led to its tomb.

The guards were there, of course. But Howard Carter was one of only two man who could walk past them at any hour without challenge – the other, of course, being Lord Carnarvon -- and Claudia and Evy, hurrying to catch up, did their best to look as if they had been invited to come along. Together the three (or perhaps four) of them descended into the cramped room below, forgotten for three thousand years.

None of the lights had been lit. Pot cradled in her other arm, Claudia dug in her pocket until she found her little flashlight—useful, she reflected wryly, for both the close study of artifacts and midnight excursions in the desert. Its light was weak against the darkness of the tomb, but she set it on the floor, where it allowed her and Evy to see what happened next.

The akh went and stood between the statues of Tutankhamun that flanked the door to the suspected burial chamber. Once there, it became utterly still once more. Evy gestured for Claudia to go forward; hesitantly, fearful lest she offend, Claudia approached the akh and laid the pot on the floor at its feet. Then Evy joined her, and began to read the inscription from the broken and carefully reassembled surface.

Claudia Coburn did not speak Egyptian. Despite that, she found her own lips moving, and the words seemed as clear to her as English.

“O you who bring the ferry-boat of the Abyss to this difficult bank, bring me the ferry-boat, make fast the ropes for me in peace. As for him who knows this spell, he will go out into the Field of Reeds, and there will be given to him a cake, a jug of beer and a loaf from the altar of the Great Gods, an acre of land with barley and wheat by the followers of Horus, who will reap for him.”

In the dim light from her pocket lamp, with Howard Carter’s body and the two statues of Tutankhamun casting shadows on the wall behind, she could almost imagine that she saw ripples of water in the aged surface of the plaster, and a boat sliding into view. An indistinct figure climbed onto the boat. Then sunlight seemed to come streaming down, as if the lights for the workmen had been turned on all at once, until Claudia’s eyes watered and she had to close them. When she opened them once more, the pot was gone, and it was only Howard Carter, standing in front of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun.

“What—” he said, blinking and rubbing his eyes. “Ah—Miss Coburn, isn’t it? And Miss Carnahan?”

They scrambled to their feet. “Yes, that’s us,” Claudia said. “You know, it’s most irregular of you, Mr. Carter, to go inviting us down here in the middle of the night; you might at least have the courtesy to be certain of our names.”

It had the desired effect of unnerving him enough that he neglected to ask any questions about what the three of them had been doing. He marched them out of the tomb straightaway and escorted them back to their cottage, and there the two young ladies stared at one another.

“That was . . . very peculiar,” Claudia said at last.

“Yes,” Evy said. “Very. I think I shall sleep well tonight, though.”

And that was the last either of them said regarding the matter, although they did both note with satisfaction the improved mood of the excavation team, in light of which the events of that night began to seem more like fancy than reality. Claudia left soon after, not because Howard Carter fired her—he was too embarrassed by his unexplained nighttime jaunt to risk drawing attention by sacking either woman—but because the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum accepted her application, and invited her to begin work immediately.

She did receive a letter a few months later from Evy, who was by then back in Cairo. It read:

Have you heard the sad news about Lord Carnarvon? The poor old man has passed away. Of course all the press are saying it was the ‘curse of the pharaohs’ that did him in, but that’s nonsense. It was a mosquito bite, that became infected after he cut it while shaving. Honestly, the things people will believe. Howard Carter is still doing quite well, and if anyone were to be the victim of a curse, surely it would be him.

Which seemed eminently sensible to Miss Claudia Coburn. Smiling, she folded the letter, then went to glue a Grecian urn back together.