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It's like being a grown up Harry Potter. You arrive at a huge, historic building in the middle of a famous capital city. You wander wide- eyed through soaring marble halls before being led through an unobtrusive side door. You walk down dimly- lit passages and the occasional narrow staircase and finally reach a series of hefty, locked doors. One by one, they open up until you are in a large, chilly, windowless chamber which knows no day, no night, no season.
Then you realise you are not exactly alone. Right up to the 5.
And once you meet them, you quickly turn round to check that your guide has not abandoned you. Because even the most rational, seen- it- all- before old cynic would find it uncomfortable spending any length of time here in the latest addition to the British Museum - the brand new, state- of- the- art mummy store. Deep inside the museum's great Bloomsbury complex, this place is the last word in mummy luxury, the Ritz for the bandage- wrapped brigade. Aside from the Pyramids, there is nothing like it. So, I am very honoured to be the first outsider admitted to Britain's first purpose- built hotel for the eternal corpse, a phenomenon that has enthralled and terrified us for centuries. Such is the enduring fascination that some of these mummies are starring in a Sunday night history quiz on Channel 4.
They may be famous, but that doesn't make them particularly pleasant company, though. I wouldn't want to spend a night in here. In fact, I would be pretty unamused if anyone turned out the lights and left me with row upon row of ancient Egyptians dating back up 4,0. I know all those horror films with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing and some runaway bandage- draped zombie were complete hogwash. I don't believe any of those tales about the terrible curses which befell anyone intruding on a Pharaoh's tomb.
But all the same, hang on, did something just move . I step into one dingy aisle and come face to face with the image of a middle- aged priestess who is thought to have died around 7. BC. She has no coffin, but is wrapped up in cartonnage, a sort of linen- based papiermach. X- rays have shown that her vital organs were removed, mummified and then placed back inside her - except her brain. As with all mummies, this was pulled out through her nose and thrown away because the ancient Egyptians regarded the brain as irrelevant.
Lying next to her is another woman who does not even enjoy the luxury of an outer casing. She is simply wrapped up in bandages just like a proper horror movie mummy. There are dark marks on parts of her which turn out to be pitch from the original embalming process. I later learn that she had terrible teeth and died around 3.
BC. Her bandages are a bit of a mess, but that is because she was unwrapped and then wrapped back up again in ancient times, possibly after a grave robbery by treasure hunters. Mummies were often buried with jewels inside the embalmed body. This is mixed accommodation, it turns out. On a bed next door to the pile of bandages is an elaborate coffin containing what is very clearly a chap, because his face is painted on the lid and he is sporting a long black beard. What about the curses attached to mummies? He turns out to have been a priest called Besenmut, a very senior figure in the Egyptian holy city of Thebes, who died in 6. BC. The coffin is painted with symbols which either demand food and beer for the deceased in the after- life or vow terrible vengeance on anyone who interferes with his grave.
Surely, in the finest Hollywood traditions, there must be a terrible curse attached to this mummy? The museum's most famous curse is attached to exhibit number 2. BC. It was said to have been bought by four British travellers holidaying in Egypt in the 1. All died soon afterwards and it passed through various next of kin to a Mrs Warwick Hunt who gave it to the museum in 1. Legend has it that the man who delivered it to the museum died within a week. A photographer was commissioned to snap the thing, but was allegedly so traumatised by the resulting image that he committed suicide.
The next photographer charged with the task suffered a terrible injury. By 1. 90. 9, its reputation was so fearsome that security staff refused to guard the thing, and it was locked away. But the stories just grew and grew. The 'unlucky mummy', as she is still known, was allegedly sold to an American and was on the Titanic when it went down. Recovered from the sea, she is rumoured to have used her malign influence to sink another ship which was transporting her to Canada. Rescued once more, she was then returned to the British Museum.
Records show that she never actually left the premises at all, but that didn't stop the rumours and she was even blamed for defeats in World War I. The stories are all pure fantasy, but that has done nothing to diminish her appeal. When I try to find this notorious troublemaker, I am told that I cannot. He spends more time than anyone among the mummies. He doesn't find this place remotely creepy, and he is extremely proud of the sophisticated new home for his elderly charges. Oldest and most gruesome resident. At any given time, several will be on display in the museum's Egyptian galleries or at exhibitions around the world.
But each will have its own registered berth here, in the bowels of this great institution, where it can rest between public appearances . Most importantly, the mummy store has been designed to keep all its contents at a rigorous 2. C and a 4. 0 per cent relative humidity, which should ensure that this lot are still around for several thousand more years. And then I find Dr Spencer's oldest - and most gruesome - resident. This one doesn't even have bandages. Known, unofficially, as ' Gingerella' because of her shock of ginger hair, she was unearthed in the Egyptian sand where she is believed to have been interred as far back as 3.
BC with a few pots and pans.