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Archaeological ghost stories: M.R. James at the Petrie Museum

By Katherine Aitchison, on 30 July 2012

Petrie Museum events are fast becoming a firm fixture in my diary, not least because of the ghostly subject matter that they tend to cover. I’ve been to talks about psychics and curses, but for the latest event (on 19 July) we turned to some archaeological ghost stories.

The action centred on one man: M.R. James and the stories he was inspired to write during his career as an academic at Cambridge and Eton.

James is famous for bringing ghost stories out of their customary Gothic setting and into more contemporary, everyday locations and for being one of the first authors to use antiquarians as the main protagonists.

Dr Gabriel Moshenska of the UCL Institute of Archaeology took us on a journey through his research into the inspiration behind James’ stories and showed how elements of James’ extraordinary life were reflected in many of his works.

As the son of a rector, James spent much of his childhood in or around churches in Suffolk, which served as the settings for many of his stories.

He went on to become a scholar of medieval literature and a famous antiquarian in his own right. It is of no little surprise then that the majority of the protagonists in his tales are also antiquarians who disturb evil presences through their unrelenting curiosity.

Some of the (exclusively male) cast bring the evil happenings on themselves by knowingly digging up buried treasure while others stumble upon trouble after making accidental discoveries. Whatever the cause, one and all find themselves pursued by malignant forces, often resulting in gruesome deaths.

The inspiration for some of these storylines may have come from James’ own interest in ancient literature and his experiences of archaeology.

In late 1902 -early 1903, he was involved in an archaeological dig at a chapter house in Bury St Edmunds. He had come across a fragment of manuscript that appeared to point to the final resting places of several high ranking clergymen and excavations were carried out to test this theory.

These excavations did, indeed, lead to the discovery of the remains of several abbots who were immediately restored to coffins and reinterred in marked sites. Perhaps James was too afraid of his own stories to take any chances.

As anyone who has visited the Petrie Museum will know, it is a fairly small space but absolutely crammed full of case upon case of ancient artefacts.

This makes for a relatively spooky setting in itself, but once Dr Moshenska had finished speaking, the lights went out and some eerie music started playing. Add to this the shadows flitting about and you have an excellent setting for a ghost story, which is exactly what we got.

We were treated to a reading of James’ Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad by Mark Hassall in full costume complete with (unreliable) fake moustache. The perfect way to round off the evening.

So after yet another spooky night at the Petrie Museum,  I was sent home with an abundance of historical facts and the truth behind the story.

Image: M.R. James (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Katherine Aitchison is a Second year PhD student at the UCL Institute of Child Health.


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