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 this
archaeologist from opening the tomb of King Tut.
Death Shall Come
on Swift Wings To Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King...
-Supposedly engraved on the exterior
of King Tutankhamen's Tomb
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:
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
Few Authentic Curses from Mummy Tombs
historians dispute that a tablet with a curse was found
in Tut's tomb, there are records of such threats found in
other sacred locations:
As for anybody who shall enter this tomb in his impurity:
I shall ring his neck as a bird's.
As for any man who shall destroy these, it is the god Thoth
who shall destroy him.
for him who shall destroy this inscription: He shall not
reach his home. He shall not embrace his children. He shall
not see success.
Archaeologists from 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 disappointed.
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 found nothing.
Carnarvon summoned 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 the tomb!"
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
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!"
and Lord Carnarvon at the entrance of the tomb in 1922.
Scoffing at such superstitious nonsense, Carter
sent the man home.
Carter immediately 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?"
Carter answered, "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.
Press Discovers the Curse
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
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 press?
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.
works with the Tut coffin: No mask in those days.
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.
the Curse Actually a Fungus?
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
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?
Book: "Ancient Egypt"
"The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story"
Copyright Lee Krystek
1997-2012. All Rights Reserved.