Drawing of a pyramid in front of sand dunes. Caption reads: "A large picture of the pyramid formed the background."

Pharaoh short story by Iris Carden

It was an amazing opportunity. The Queensland Museum had acquired the loan of treasures from an Egyptian pyramid.

I was in charge of the display. I had a massive photo of the pyramid itself, to place on the wall as a background. In the actual historical materials I had the sarcophagus, and the mummy, all kinds of funeral accoutrements, gold bowls and cups, statues of cats and other animals, incredible jewels.

Howard was the museum’s director, he personally supervised the unpacking, and arranging the materials.

“This is quite astounding,” I said. “It’s almost unbelievable they found a new pyramid they hadn’t known about.”

“Shifting desert sands were responsible,” Howard said. “An entire sand dune moved in a desert storm, and revealed it had been covering this pyramid to the unknown pharaoh all the time.”

“I don’t get the whole ‘unknown pharaoh’ thing. How do they not know who it is? Archaeologists can read the hieroglyphs, can’t they?”

“They can, but everything identifying the pharaoh had been scratched out. All anyone knows is, from the x-rays, it’s a woman. It seems to be the same age as the Giza pyramids, so twenty-five fifty BC to twenty-four ninety BC, but that’s all we know.”

“How did a museum as small as ours get it?”

“The Egyptian authorities seemed very keen to loan it to whoever could take it quickly. We had this space clear from the last travelling exhibit, so we got first dibs. I gather, it’s all going on a world-wide tour after its six month stay with us.”

“Kind of undignified, if you think about it. She was buried with all these incredible riches, by people who expected her to have some glorious afterlife. Instead, she and all her possessions are packed in shipping boxes and sent all this way to be put on public display.”

“That’s the nature of archaeology. It’s how we learn about the past.”

I carefully wiped the sarcophagus with a polish cloth. “I still wouldn’t want it to happen to me.”

It took three days to set up the display, with help from various museum staff as needed.

On the wall opposite the huge photo, a documentary would play, detailing the discovery and exploration of the pyramid. The documentary wouldn’t include that three of the archaeologists involved had died. That’s the kind of thing we don’t advertise. There are too many silly ideas of curses after the deaths which were coincidentally related to the Tutankhamen tomb.

The day before the exhibit opened, I came in to work, to find a security guard dead on the floor. Apparently he had a heart attack during the night. He was behind the rope barrier, leaning against the sarcophagus, with the lid slightly askew. He must have moved the lid as he fell, which was quite a feat as it took four of us to place it back where it belonged.

After the security officer’s body was removed, the head of security approached me and said his staff wanted to know the actual details of the curse on the pyramid. I said as far as I was aware there wasn’t one, and even if there were, surely he wasn’t afraid of a few words meant to scare off tomb robbers four thousand years ago.

He was insistent that he wanted his staff kept safe from the mummy.

I pointed to the sarcophagus: “She’s dead. She’s been dead for thousands of years. Her brain, and all her other organs are in those canopic jars in that cabinet.” I pointed. “If she killed your staff member she’s doing pretty damn well for a dead woman.”

He told me in future his officers would not enter the room with the exhibit, but would patrol outside as normal. I shrugged my shoulders. There was only one door to the room. If they were patrolling outside when the museum was closed, that was enough.

The next day, I did a final check of the exhibit before we opened to the public. Again the sarcophagus lid was askew. Again, I needed multiple staff members to help me put it back in place.

I persuaded Howard to put a security camera in the exhibit to watch in case whoever had moved the lid would do it again.

The following day the lid was askew once more, when I checked the security tape, I found the file was corrupted. That was when I decided. If security staff wouldn’t watch the exhibit overnight, I would. I told Howard my plan, and he allowed me to go home early to have a couple of hours sleep before my overnight vigil.

That night, I took a thermos of coffee and a folding chair and sat beside the sarcophagus. Hours after the museum closed, when the cleaners had left, and it was just the security staff and me, I saw it.

The sarcophagus lid moved. With a scraping sound it moved back to that slightly ajar position. Then it moved further, was about a third open, pushed much further the lid would come crashing down on the floor.

Then I saw the mummy move. It sat up, then stood. Slowly it climbed out of the sarcophagus. I held my breath, didn’t want to let out the scream that was brewing inside me.

Once out of her sarcophagus, she moved not quickly, but smoothly. She went to the glass display case which held the canopic jars. She ran her bandaged hands over them. I noticed that each of her fingers were individually wrapped. Then, she went to the cases with her other possessions, again ran her hands over the cases.

Then she simply went back to the sarcophagus and pulled the lid back, leaving it slightly askew.

I let out the breath I’d been holding for so long. No wonder the security guard had had a heart attack. Poor man must have had the fright of his life.

In the morning, I organised staff to remove the lid, and to stand it beside the sarcophagus, leaving the mummy exposed. I told Howard visitors to the exhibition would want to see the actual mummy.

This definitely wasn’t the afterlife the pharaoh had planned, but at least she wouldn’t have to keep moving that heavy lid to check her possessions were there.

Museum Stories

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.

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