5 of the World’s Most Legitimately Dangerous Artifacts
There’s nothing that any creator of even slightly spooky fiction loves more than a cursed object. Nobody’s writing a book about a regular old ring, but give it some spooky powers and suddenly you’ve got one of the greatest fantasy trilogies ever written. Curses in real life, however, are a whole lot less confirmable. Things like Annabelle the doll or the famous Dybbuk box obviously have never been scientifically confirmed to be housing a spirit, but I can’t be too dismissive given the fact that I’m never fucking touching either one of them without a serious cash prize.
Some historical artifacts, though, do have their own form of real curse, in that they can absolutely make you medically dead via some less magical methods. These are five of the most dangerous...
Marie Curie’s Notebooks
Marie Curie is among the most famous scientists of all time. When you get a nickname like “the mother of modern physics,” it usually means you discovered some pretty important stuff. One of the things she’s best known for is her research into radioactive elements like radium and polonium — research she did by studying them, up close and personal, and research that eventually killed her. See, there’s a bit of a catch-22 in pioneering research on radioactivity: You’re the one who’s figuring out how dangerous it is, which Curie found out via a fatal case of aplastic anemia.
Her laboratory itself could have used a whole lot more in the way of safety measures, both to save her life and to stop the lab, and materials within, from becoming deeply radioactive as well. Curie’s notebooks, now located in the national library of France, are stored in lead-lined boxes, and visitors aren’t allowed to see them without signing a waiver and donning protective gear. This being due to the fact that the pages are absolutely riddled with radium-226 radiation. Given the 1,600-year half-life of radium, they’ll stay hot for quite a while, too.
Though I can’t say why bright green became the color of choice when denoting poison in media, there’s a small chance it might have something to do with arsenic. Arsenic, a strong poison up there with cyanide as two of the world’s worst ice cream flavors, is enough to make people’s eyebrows raise at its mere mention. Needless to say, most modern humans wouldn’t be particularly happy to spend time in a room with a large quantity of the stuff.
But for a period of time, people were literally coating their children’s rooms with it. This is where the green comes in: Arsenic proved to be a highly effective colorant, giving a lightfast, bright green that didn’t fade over time, which made it perfect for use in wallpaper. Outside of the fact that you’re now sleeping in a poison box, of course. Weirdly, people used it despite knowing it was deadly if ingested, and paid the price. Moisture could release arsenic into the air, and the wallpaper has a confirmed body count.
The curse of King Tut’s tomb is as much a piece of pop-culture knowledge as it is a historical tale at this point. Mummies and curses are now forever entwined in our minds, a pairing for the ages that rivals Romeo and Juliet. The fates that befell the archaeologists that cracked open Tutankhamun’s famous cold one, dying from sudden illnesses, unfortunate accidents, and a smidgen of suicide, didn’t remove any fuel from that fire.
Admittedly, you’ll have a hard time getting any reputable scientist to own up to a belief in curses, at least on the record. But recently, it’s been discovered that many Egyptian tombs are filled with a more scientifically confirmed invisible killer: radon gas. The active levels are mild and not too dangerous for anyone not spending an extended amount of time each year in them, but scientists also believe that the quantity would have been much higher when the tombs were originally opened. Definitely not something that was lengthening any Egyptologist’s life expectancy.
The Cursed Tomb of King Casimir
Next, let’s take another look at a tomb that ended up being a fatal discovery for a good portion of the people who originally excavated it — the tomb of King Casimir IV Jagiellon. A Polish king with a name that would easily slot into an anime, he was buried in Krakow and subsequently unburied centuries later in 1973. Four of the researchers who popped open the tomb quickly passed away, and we had a brand new cursed king on our hands.
However, the real culprit — fungi — was pretty easy to figure out. Specifically, aspergillus flavus, a saprophytic (meaning growing on decaying matter) and pathogenic (meaning disease-causing) fungus that King Cas’ tomb was absolutely chock-full of. The fungal infestation’s estimated final death toll was 15 people connected to the research of the king’s body. This same fungus has been given some of the credit for the curse of King Tut’s tomb, where it was found as well.
Radioactive Household Objects
If you thought humanity had learned from our deadly mistake with arsenic wallpaper, you are giving us entirely too much credit. In the early 1900s, radiation was the coolest thing around. So, naturally, people wanted to have that cool stuff in their homes, with exactly the consequences you’d assume. Next time you’re antique shopping, keep in mind that some manufacturers back then were entirely too cool with filling everyday objects with radium and uranium.
There’s plenty of examples — from radium watch dials that famously killed the brush-licking painters who applied them, to a kid’s decoder ring with polonium inside. My personal favorite comes from this Atlas Obscura story on the people who track these sorts of unexpected dangers down: a highly radioactive water jug. Called the “Revigator,” it was a ceramic jug that was lined with the gruesome twosome of lead and uranium, and could dispense, in addition to water, an entire year’s safe value of radiation exposure in one hour for anyone standing around it, much less drinking out of it.