and the Curse of Tut's Mummy
Golden Mask of King Tutankhamen (Photo by Bjørn
Christian Tørrissen licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share
Alike 3.0 Unported license).
|The rumor of
an ancient curse didn't stop archaeologist Howard Carter
from opening the tomb of King Tut.
|Tut's name had
been removed from almost all records, so Carter thought
his tomb, if it could be found, might not be looted.
year after year Carter found Tut's tomb with its treasure
intact on November 4th of 1922. The legend claims Carter
also found a tablet with a curse on it, but hid it from
|A few months
after the tomb opened Carter's patron, Lord Carnarvon, died
of an infection from an insect bite, reviving rumors of
|The press followed
the story for years attributing many deaths to the curse,
though Carter himself scoffed at the idea and lived till
the age of 64.
have suggest that mold in the tomb might have infected those
that worked around it shortening their lives.
|A study of people
in Egypt at the time compared those involved the the tomb
and those not and found no statistical difference in their
Death Shall Come
on Swift Wings To Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King...
-Supposedly engraved on the exterior of King
Curse of King Tut
The king was only
nineteen when he died, perhaps murdered by his enemies. His
tomb, in comparison with his contemporaries, was modest. After
his death, his successors made an attempt to expunge his memory
by removing his name from all the official records. Even those
carved in stone. As it turns out, his enemy's efforts only ensured
his eventual fame. His name was Tutankhamen: King Tut.
The ancient Egyptians
revered their Pharaohs as Gods. Upon their deaths the King's
bodies were carefully preserved by embalming. The mummified
corpses were then interned in elaborate tombs (like the Great
Pyramid) and surrounded with all the riches the royals would
need in the next life. The tombs were then carefully sealed.
Egypt's best architects designed the structures to resist thieves.
In some cases heavy, hard-granite plugs were used to block passageways.
In others, false doorways and hidden rooms were designed to
fool intruders. Finally, in a few cases, a curse was placed
on the entrance.
Most of these precautions
failed. In ancient times grave robbers found their way into
the tombs. They unsealed the doors, chiseled their way around
the plugs and found the secrets of the hidden rooms. They stripped
the dead Kings of their valuables. We will never know if any
of the thieves suffered the wrath of a curse.
Europe became very interested in Egypt in the 19th century.
They uncovered the old tombs and explored their deep recesses
always hoping to find that one forgotten crypt that had not
been plundered in antiquity. They knew that the Pharaohs had
been buried with untold treasures that would be of immense artistic,
scientific, and monetary value. Always the archaeologists were
The Search for
the Missing King
In 1891 a young
Englishman named Howard Carter arrived in Egypt. Over the years
he became convinced that there was at least one undiscovered
tomb. That of the almost unknown King Tutankhamen. Carter found
a backer for his tomb search in the wealthy Lord Carnarvon.
For five years Carter dug looking for the missing Pharaoh and
Carter to England in1922 to tell him he was calling off the
search. Carter managed to talk the lord into supporting him
for one more season of digging. Returning to Egypt the archaeologist
brought with him a yellow canary.
"A golden bird!"
Carter's foreman, Reis Ahmed, exclaimed. "It will lead us to
Perhaps it did.
On November 4th, 1922 Carter's workmen discovered a step cut
into the rock that had been hidden by debris left over from
the building of the tomb of Ramesses IV. Digging further they
found fifteen more leading to an ancient doorway that appeared
to be still sealed. On the doorway was the name Tutankhamen.
It is said that
when Carter arrived home that night his servant met him at the
door. In his hand he clutched a few yellow feathers. His eyes
large with fear, he reported that the canary had been killed
by a cobra. Carter, a practical man, told the servant to make
sure the snake was out of the house. The man grabbed Carter
by the sleeve.
"The pharaoh's serpent
ate the bird because it led us to the hidden tomb! You must
not disturb the tomb!"
Scoffing at such
superstitious nonsense, Carter sent the man home.
Opening the Tomb
sent a telegram to Carnarvon in England and waited anxiously
for his arrival. Though under close inspection it appeared that
the outer sections of the tomb had been entered in ancient times,
the door to the innermost part of the tomb still seemed to be
intact. Carnarvon made it to Egypt by November 26th and watched
as Carter made a hole in the door. Carter leaned in, holding
a candle, to take a look. Behind him Lord Carnarvon asked, "Can
you see anything?"
"Yes, wonderful things."
The day the tomb
was opened was one of joy and celebration for all those involved.
Nobody seemed to be concerned about any curse. Rumors later
circulated that Carter had found a tablet with the curse inscribed
on it, but hid it immediately so it would not alarm his workers.
Carter denied doing so.
The tomb was intact
and contained an amazing collection of treasures including a
stone sarcophagus. The sarcophagus contained three gold coffins
nested within each other. Inside the final one was the mummy
of the boy-king, Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
The Press Discovers
A few months after
the tomb's opening tragedy struck. Lord Carnarvon, 57, was taken
ill and rushed to Cairo. He died a few days later. The exact
cause of death was not known, but it seemed to be from an infection
started by an insect bite. Legend has it that when he died there
was a short power failure and all the lights throughout Cairo
went out. His son reported that back on his estate in England
his favorite dog howled and suddenly dropped dead.
Even more strange,
when the mummy of Tutankhamun was unwrapped in 1925, it supposedly
was found to have a wound on the left cheek in the same exact
position as the insect bite on Carnarvon that lead to his death.
By 1929 eleven people
connected with the discovery of the Tomb had died early and
of unnatural causes. This included two of Carnarvon's relatives,
Carter's personal secretary, Richard Bethell, and Bethell's
father, Lord Westbury. Westbury killed himself by jumping from
a building. He left a note that read, "I really cannot stand
any more horrors and hardly see what good I am going to do here,
so I am making my exit."
What horrors did
Westbury refer to?
The press followed
the deaths carefully attributing each new one to the "Mummy's
Curse" By 1935 they had credited 21 victims to King Tut. Was
there really a curse? Or was it all just the ravings of a sensational
Herbert E. Winlock,
the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City,
made his own calculations about the effectiveness of the curse.
According to Winlock's figures of the 22 people present when
the tomb was opened in 1922, only 6 had died by 1934. Of the
22 people present at the opening of the sarcophagus in 1924,
only 2 died in the following ten years. Also ten people were
there when the mummy was unwrapped in 1925, and all survived
until at least 1934.
In 2002 a medicine
scholar at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, named
Mark Nelson, completed a study which purportedly showed that
the curse of King Tut never really existed. Nelson selected
44 Westerners in Egypt at the time the tomb was discovered.
Of those, twenty-five of the group were people potentially exposed
to the curse either because they were at the breaking of the
sacred seals in the tomb, or at the opening of the sarcophagus,
or at the opening of the coffins, or the unwrapping of the mummy.
The average age of death of the group that was "exposed" to
the curse was 70 years. The average survival rate for those
not exposed was 75. This might seem like the curse may have
had an effect, but statistically, given the small size of the
groups, the difference isn't significant.
Many of the stories
surrounding the curse are also without foundation. Carter's
canary was never eaten by a snake (but given to a friend). As
for the lights going out all over Cairo at Lord Carnarvon death,
power failures in Cairo in 1923 were a common occurrences and
a supernatural cause is hardly needed to explain them. Even
the Lord's demise seems hardly inexplicable in itself as he
was already known to be in poor health before the opening of
the tomb, and infections, especially in the days before the
invention of antibiotics, were a common cause of death.
Perhaps, the power
of a curse is in the mind of the person who believes in it.
Howard Carter, the man who actually opened the tomb, never believed
in the curse and lived to a reasonably old age of 64 before
dying of entirely natural causes.
Was the Curse
Actually a Fungus?
Carter with the sarcophagus
of the boy king. Several people have suggested that illnesses
associated with the ancient Egyptian tombs may have a rational
explanation based in biology. Dr. Ezzeddin Taha, of Cairo University,
examined the health records of museum workers and noticed that
many of them had been exposed to Aspergillus niger (black mold),
a fungus that causes fever, fatigue and rashes. He suggested
that the fungus might have been able to survive in the tombs
for thousands of years and then was picked up by archaeologists
when they entered.
Dr. Nicola Di Paolo,
an Italian physician identified another possible fungus, Aspergillus
ochraceus, at Egyptian archaeological sites suggesting it might
also have made visitors to the tomb, or even those that just
handled artifacts from the tombs, sick. Aspergillus ochraceus
has not been shown to be fatal, however.
In 1999 a German
microbiologist, Gotthard Kramer, from the University of Leipzig,
analyzed 40 mummies and identified several potentially dangerous
mold spores on each. Mold spores are tough and can survive thousands
of years even in a dark, dry tomb. Although most are harmless,
a few can be toxic.
Kramer thinks that
when tombs were first opened and fresh air gusted inside, these
spores could have been blown up into the air. "When spores enter
the body through the nose, mouth or eye mucous membranes, "
he adds, "they can lead to organ failure or even death, particularly
in individuals with weakened immune systems."
These days archaeologists
wear protective gear (such as masks and gloves) when working
in a tomb or unwrapping a mummy (though more because of dust
than fear of germs) something explorers from the days of Howard
Carter and Lord Carnarvon didn't do.
As much as the theories
involving mold spores have often appeared in the popular press,
researchers have had a hard time tracing any death - including
Lord Carnarvon's - back to a microorganism coming from a mummy
or a tomb. In fact, F. DeWolfe Miller, professor of epidemiology
at the University of Hawaii wryly observed, "Given the sanitary
conditions of the time in general, and those within Egypt in
particular, Lord Carnarvon would likely have been safer inside
the tomb than outside."
So was the curse
of the mummy a mold spore named Aspergillus flavus or ochraceus?
Or was the whole thing just media hype?
Carnarvon (left) and Carter (right) at the entrance of the tomb.
Copyright Lee Krystek 1997-2012.