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The Curse of the Pharaohs and the Truth Behind King Tut's Curse

The year is 1922. Egyptologist Howard Carter has been pretty down on his luck career-wise, having not found much in his latest campaigns. His financier, Lord Carnarvon was also unsatisfied with Carter’s work and gave him one more season to find something in the Valley of the Kings before his funding would be cut off.

Carter returns to an area in the valley that he had previously abandoned and continued work there in hopes of finding something. On November 4, 1922, the waterboy on site tripped over a stone, which turned out to be the top of a flight of stairs that were cut into the bedrock.

Carter had the steps dug out partially, and found a mud-plastered doorway that was stamped with cartouches. Imagine how exciting that must’ve been! He quickly filled in the stairs to prevent anyone from robbing it and sent word to Carnarvon, who arrived in Egypt two weeks later.

On November 26, Carter, Arthur Callender, Carnarvon and his daughter, went down the stairs to the doorway. Carter made a tiny breach in the top left hand corner of the door and peered in with the light of a candle. Carnarvon asked: “Can you see anything?” – to which Carter responded: “Yes. Wonderful things!”

The burial chamber itself was opened on February 16, 1923, and that my friends, is when we finally got our first glance of King Tutankhamen.

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb sent shockwaves around the world. (But it wasn’t long before whispers of a curse started to appear) But did it also unleash a curse that would plague those who disturbed his rest, ultimately leading to their demise?

Allegedly, a curse was found in the tomb written on a clay tablet that when translated from hieroglyphs read:

‘Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the pharaoh’s peace.’

Spooky, right? (Well, perhaps it would be, but) unfortunately, no tablet like that was every catalogued from the finds in the tomb and there is no trace of it ever existing.

But even though there wasn’t a curse found in the tomb, shortly after it was opened, a key player fell fatally ill.

Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter’s financier, cut open a mosquito bite on his cheek while shaving. The bite became infected and he contracted blood poisoning, dying not even two months after the burial chamber was open. If this was the supposed curse, it probably could have been cured by antibiotics. Unfortunately, we’re still a few years away from the invention of penicillin.

Legend claims that the moment Carnarvon died, all of the lights in Cairo mysteriously went out – of course a power outage in Cairo at the time was not uncommon, and his son, Lord Porchester said Carnarvon’s dog back in England died after letting out quite the howl… even though Lord Porchester was in India at the time and would continue to benefit from the sale of newspapers thanks to a deal Carnarvon brokered with The Times of London and creating a supernatural scandal would ensure more profits. Papa didn’t raise no fool, that’s for sure. (So these two creepy facts turn out to be quite a bit less creepy and a lot less factual)

Some even believe that the mosquito bite was in the same location as a lesion on King Tut’s cheek. Alas, Lord Carnarvon’s body was buried without an autopsy so this could not be confirmed.

Carnarvon’s death sparked a field day with the press; pretty much every newspaper around the world said it was due to the mysterious and ominous forces that were released as a result from opening the tomb. It was the Mummy’s curse taking its revenge for being disturbed even though Carnarvon didn’t have the best immune system and had been prone to frequent and severe lung infections, and there had been a belief ... that one acute attack of bronchitis could have killed him. Of course, people don’t want compromised immune system and chronic illness, they want scandal an intrigue. And that’s exactly what they got.

The sensation spread like wildfire through international newspapers, and soon they were claiming that any death, even obscurely associated with King Tut, regardless of its circumstances was because of the curse.

Lord Carnarvon

As a result, more victims were soon to follow:

George Jay Gould, an American financier and railroad executive visited the tomb in 1923 and fell sick almost immediately after. He died of pneumonia just a few months later.

In 1925 Sir Bruce Ingham, who was close friends with Howard Carter, was given a gift from him: a paperweight. But it was no ordinary paperweight. Carter gave Ingham a mummified hand supposedly wearing a scarab bracelet that said: "Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water, and pestilence." First of all- who gives a creepy mummified hand as a paperweight? Second of all, if you’re going to give that as a gift, maybe you should take the cursed bracelet off first.

Soon after receiving it, his house burned down. When he rebuilt it, it was hit by a flood. Luckily Ingham was smart enough to dispose of the hand before the pestilence came about. This hand didn’t belong to King Tut- we don’t know who it came from actually, but the only association to King Tut’s tomb was Howard Carter.

Aubrey Herbert, Lord Carnarvon’s half brother was born with a degenerative eye condition that made him go blind. A doctor suggested his infected teeth were to blame for his poor vision and Herbert had them all pulled in hopes of regaining his vision. WELP that didn’t work out so well and he died of sepsis as a result of the surgery, 5 months after his brother. The press claimed he became a victim of King Tut’s curse by merely being related to Carnarvon.

Hugh Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist visited the tomb and may have helped on the excavation hung himself in 1924, allegedly writing in his own blood that he had essentially “succumbed to a curse”.

Next there was American Egyptologist Aaron Ember, who was friends with many people present at the opening of King Tut’s tomb, but was not there himself. Ember died in 1926 when his house in Baltimore burned down. He, his wife, son and the family maid. Although there was apparently plenty of time to escape, he tried to save the manuscript he was working on: The Book of the Dead.

Then there was Richard Bethell, Lord Carnarvon’s secretary and the second person to enter the tomb. He died suspiciously in 1929, found smothered in his room at a Gentlemen’s club in London. A few months later, his father apparently “deliriously” leapt to his death from his 7th floor apartment, which was said to have been filled with artefacts from the dig site in Egypt.

It seems like you didn’t have to even be involved in the excavation in any way. Sir Archibald Douglas Ried was the radiologist who x-rayed King Tut. He became sick the next day and died three days later.

It seems like anyone and everyone’s deaths were being attributed to the Pharaoh’s curse! I could go in with more names who were claimed to be victims, but I think you can see the pattern going on here.

Funnily enough, Howard Carter, the man behind the discovery of King Tut seemed to be immune from the curse. Carter didn’t believe in the curse, and he died at the age of 64 from lymphoma in 1939. You’d think if there was a curse, that he would have been the prime target. Maybe that was his curse though… to see them all die. Woah.

Not only did Carter survive the curse, but Sgt. Richard Adamson, a member of Carter's team who guarded the burial chamber for seven years and was the European closest to Tutankhamun's remains, lived for another 60 years until his death in 1982.

In reality, only around 10 people died in the 12 years after the tomb was discovered. And if you look at the stats, many of those who died were already quite old.

So what’s the deal with this Curse of the Mummy anyways? Well the idea of cursed mummies isn’t a new thing! In 1699 Louis Penicher write of a mummy’s curse in his book Traite des Embaumemens, which translates to Treatise on Embalming. Penicher told the story of a Polish man who had purchased two mummies from Alexandria for medical purposes – if you watched my video on how people used to eat mummies as medicine, you’ll be familiar with concept. If not, click up here and watch it later.

Apparently, as he was sailing home across the Mediterranean, he was haunted by visions of ghosts on the boat, and they didn’t’ stop until he threw the mummies overboard.

The Mummy’s curse was big in English literature before Howard’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb as well. In 1869 Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, wrote a short story called “Lost in a Pyramid: the Mummy’s Curse.” There’s another tale by US painter Joseph Smith, about a curse on king Akhenaton, they guy who made Egypt monotheistic. In the tale, upon his death, priests were said to have damned “his body and soul . . . to wander separately in space and never to be reunited for all eternity.”

So you can see the concept of the curse was a trend way before anyone even knew about King Tut. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself fanned the flames. In 1892 Doyle had published a short story called “Lot no. 249”, which with a reanimated mummy as the protagonist. Once word of Carnarvon’s death came out, 30 years later, he suggested that an “evil elemental” from the tomb was to blame for lord Carnarvon’s death.

Newspapers are always looking for a good story, and the idea of a major archaeological find combined with a deadly curse for anyone who was involved was the perfect recipe for public interest. It isn’t known who first mentioned King Tut’s tomb being cursed, but we do know that Howard Carter probably exploited it to his advantage in the name of protecting the excavation.

Reporters and tourists were flocking to Egypt in order to get access to this discovery. So in order to keep everyone at bay but keeping the interest alive, Carter himself put out a story that a curse had been placed upon anyone who violated the rest of the boy-king.

Another issue newspapers were dealing with was exclusivity rights. Only The Times newspaper was allowed on site, and had first access to all finds. This meant that other papers had to come up with other related stories that were exciting enough to compete. This meant really leaning into the curse angle.

Since they had access to pictures, they often found Egyptologists who were willing to provide information on objects, or translate inscriptions. But as with all press, it’s all how you present it. That means many translations provided by Egyptologists were re-translated by the press to fit their curse mandate. For example, a text inscribed before the shrine of Anubis in the Treasury stated: “I am the one who prevents the sand from blocking the secret chamber,” But.. in the newspaper, it conveniently turned into: “…I will kill all of those who cross this threshold into the sacred precincts of the royal king who lives forever.”

This kind of thing happened with whatever texts they could get ahold of. Seeing as very few people could read hieroglyphs and fact-check them, reporters could pretty much publish whatever they wanted.

So now that we’ve discussed the pop culture version of the mummy’s curse, let’s look at what actual ancient Egyptian curses actually looked like because how the Egyptians viewed their tombs, and how we view them today are very different.

Ancient Egyptians did in fact use curses, but not in the killing everyone who disturbs their tombs kind of way. Curses were used on tombs as warnings and threats, essentially like early versions of “No Trespassing” signs and most of them occur not on royal tombs, but tombs of private citizens.

Actual written examples of tomb curses from ancient Egypt are quite rare. Those that survive generally follow an almost legal structure; that if you do something negative you will be punished. I would be more inclined to call them warnings – you wouldn’t call a modern “No Trespassing” sign a curse. (do you have an example?)

Some early mastabas in Giza and Saqqara were inscribed with these security threats in order to deter people who would desecrate or rob graves, threatening them with divine retribution or death from dangerous animals.

A lot of other “curses” follow a sort of established pattern. So for example, for private non-royal tombs in the Old Kingdom, it starts off with whoever passes by give me provisions etc and you will receive good things. But if you do anything evil to the grave or enter in impurity, then you will be judged by the gods, your survivors will be exterminated… essentially you’re gonna be in big trouble.

Most of the curses pretty much say, if you do something bad to my grave the same will be done to yours or you

will face the wrath of the gods. Standard Karmic retribution.

The ancient Egyptians also had something called “execration texts” that are found on pottery bowls and figurines from the end of the 12th to the13th Dynasty. These are more curses against enemies like foreign states people who acted against Egypt. They would be written on the pottery, and them ritually smashed.

Perhaps the most colourful curse example I could find was from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep. It’s quite long but my favourite part pretty much says that anyone who destroys or loots the temple will be

“… put them in the furnace of the king… His uraeus will vomit flame upon the top of their heads, demolishing their flesh and devouring their bones…” (British Museum Stele 138; Varille 1968).

That right there is 1,000 more times creative than any of the newspaper headlines claiming cursed inscriptions.

So as you can see, the Curse of the Pharaohs or the curse of the mummy’s tomb is more of a media tall tale than dangerous curse for archaeologists. And if supernatural forces aren’t the case for Lord Carnarvan’s death in particular, let’s try and look at some science.

In recent years, some have suggested that the pharaoh's curse could have biological. Scientists have been looking to see if sealed tombs house pathogens that can be dangerous or even deadly to those who open them after thousands of years, especially to people who have weakened immune systems like Lord Carnarvon.

In 1996, researchers discovered that some pathogens can lie dormant for a crazy long time, and then once a suitable host comes along, spring back to life and kill someone. In fact, the severity of some pathogens can even increase if it’s had some dormant time.

Some lab studies have shown that some ancient mummies had mould on them such as Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus, which can cause allergic reactions, and congestion or bleeding in the lungs. There was other bacteria found on tomb walls like Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus which can also affect the lungs. All of these toxins can be harmful, especially for people with weakened immune systems.

The presence of all this bacteria makes sense because Egyptian tombs were filled not just with mummified human remains, but meat, fruits, vegetables, bread- everything you needed for the afterlife. All of that would have definitely attracted insects and bacteria and all that stuff.

There’s also other wildlife that can inhabit tombs, like bats. Bat poop can carry a fungus that respiratory diseases. And I’m making this video in 2020 so we all know what madness bats can spread around the world.

Scientists have also detected ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulphide from air samples in sealed sarcophagi. These in large amounts can cause burning in your eyes, and nose, affect your lungs and in extreme circumstances, cause death. Of course all of these have a strong odour and would have repelled anyone right away before they could do any harm.

The presence of these substances may make tombs sound dangerous, places riddled with diseases just waiting to infect the first person to open them, but scientists seem to agree that they are not. Howard Carter had the opinion that Lord Carnarvon was probably safer inside King Tut’s tomb than outside of it, and epidemiology professor F. DeWolfe Miller from the University of Hawaii at Manoa agrees. Egypt in the 1920s wasn’t the most sanitary of places, and Miller said that the idea of a 3,000 year old tomb housing a pathogen that would kill someone six weeks later and make it look like blood poisoning is, well… hard to believe.

If Carnarvon was exposed to some sort of deadly fungus when the tomb was open, he would have gotten sick a lot sooner.

To be honest, the real curse of the mummy’s tomb, is the destruction brought on by tomb robbers, early Antiquarian Egyptologists and tourists. People are so eager to make a discovery that they just blast through walls without any thought or fore planning into conservation. This exposes these tombs to crazy amounts of damage.

Apart from structural damage and literally invading someone’s final resting place, the addition of moisture into the environment invited mould growth on walls that destroy wall paintings and any other organic materials that are left inside. This happens a lot from mass tourism and everyone… breathing moistly in a confined space. Moisture in the air is literally an agent of deterioration for cultural heritage and if you haven’t seen that series, I’ve linked the playlist for you here.

So remember that friends, next time you think about the curse of the mummy’s tomb. The real culprit, could be you.

Looking to find out more?

Bonhoeffer, S., Lenski, R. E., & Ebert, D. (1996). The Curse of the Pharaoh: The Evolution of Virulence in Pathogens with Long Living Propagules. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 263(1371), 715–721.

Roche, B., Drake, J. M., & Rohani, P. (2011). The curse of the Pharaoh revisited: evolutionary bi-stability in environmentally transmitted pathogens. Ecology Letters, 14(6), 569–575.

Kamo, M., & Boots, M. (2004). The curse of the pharaoh in space: free-living infectious stages and the evolution of virulence in spatially explicit populations. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 231(3)

Gandon, S. (1998). The curse of the pharaoh hypothesis. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 265(1405), 1545–1552. doi:10.1098/rspb.1998.0470

Silverman, .David"Some Non-Royal Curses" Expedition Magazine 29.2 (1987): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 1987 Web. 26 Jul 2020

Gee, H. The curse of the pharaoh. Nature (1998)

Nelson, M. R. (2002). The mummy’s curse: historical cohort study. BMJ, 325(7378), 1482–1484.

Luckhurst, R. (2012), The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy, Oxford

Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy's Curse by Louisa May Aloctt

Sir Archibald Douglas Reid, K.B.E., C.M.G., M.R C.S.Eng. (1924). British Journal of Radiology: BARP Section, 29(283), 33–35. doi:10.1259/bar.1924.0012 Aaron ember Jewish Daily bulletin


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