Monday, June 11, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing: Examining the Curse of Tutankhamun


In the early part of the 20th century, the world experienced tumultuous change. At the turn of the century, advances in technology linked humans around the world like never before, political borders changed in the aftermath of one of the deadliest wars known, and the world began to settle into a period of prosperity. In the Valley of the Kings, the early part of the 1920’s brought immeasurable fame with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Howard Carter’s opening of a nearly intact tomb in 1922 revived the popular appeal of ancient Egypt and the history it contained. However, with this fame came notoriety; within four months, Lord Carnarvon, one of the benefactors of the excavations, passed away. News of his death instigated rumors and discussion of a possible curse on the tomb, and subsequent deaths of those involved in the project, whether explained or not, became fodder for curse enthusiasts. Popular depictions of ancient Egypt only added fuel to the fire, with the relationship between ancient Egypt and the occult becoming cemented in the eye of public opinion.

Tutankhamun, more popularly known as King Tut, represents one of the most sensational archaeological finds of the 20th century. The discovery and subsequent research into the tomb’s origins and background have fascinated many, electrified the field of Egyptian Archaeology, and provided as many questions as answers. Tutankhamun’s tomb was unique in that it was unlike any other discovery; the archetypal Egyptian tomb is, of course, the noble Pyramid. Carter’s discovery of a tomb underneath the level of the desert baffled even him. In his own reflections upon the discovery, he details his confusion on the structure of the tomb, stating that the “smallness of the opening in comparison with the ordinary Valley tombs” baffled him1. Further, the tomb remained relatively untouched−Carter found all the artifacts in the tomb intact, making the tomb a very exciting find. From the very beginning, Tutankhamun’s tomb provided a unique air of mystery; in the subsequent excavations, archaeologists began to get a clearer picture of who Tutankhamun was and the reasons for his tomb’s bizarre structure. It is now known that Tutankhamun ruled in politically turbulent period of Ancient Egypt. Born in about 1343 B.C. as Tutankhaten, he ascended to the throne at the age of nine, after the death of his father Akhenaten.2 Akhenaten attempted to change the religion of ancient Egypt to monotheism, following Aten as its sole god−the Egyptian people did not take kindly to this change, which archaeologists believe explains Akhenaten’s untimely death and Tutankhamun’s ascension to the throne at the age of nine. Tutankhaten reversed monotheism during his short rule, and took the name Tutankhamun to signify this reversal.3 Other than his restoration of Amun as chief religious figure, very few details exist on what went on during Tutankhamun’s brief nine year reign. Archaeologists accept that due to Tutankhamun’s age, other individuals held most of the ruling power, but it remains uncertain the extent to which Tutankhamun actually participated in day to day affairs.4 Tutankhamun’s mystique has some basis in the limited information that we have on his life and times, undoubtedly contributing to the emergence of the curse.

Before delving directly into the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb, one needs to understand the origin and basic guidelines for a curse. Many believe that the curse on King Tutankhamun’s tomb remains the definitive curse of Egyptology and fewer believe that the curse represents the capitalization of charlatans on the public imagination. However, one should note that the curse has some basis in fact and goes back further than the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Archaeologists have found inscriptions on clay pieces inside many of the tombs, referred to as “Execration Texts.” The pieces have names of enemies carved on them and are ceremoniously shattered to ward off enemies.5 It is plain that the modern notion that the Egyptians cursed their tombs to prevent robbers and looters from harming the bodies at rest stems from the very fact that Egyptian high priests figuratively cursed the enemies of the king. By smashing the clay figures upon which the names of the Pharaoh’s enemies were inscribed, the high priest could protect them from harm and ensure the prosperity of the tomb.

The idea of Tutankhamun’s curse, however, grasped the public imagination as a literal warning to avoid disturbance of the tombs of the pharaohs. Dominic Montserrat, a prominent Egyptologist, determined while studying the curse that one of the earliest references to a Mummy’s curse exists in an English children’s book published in 1827. The book, written by Jane Loudon Webb, seems to have been inspired by the author’s firsthand observation of a mummy unwrapping.6 Further references exist, this time at the British Museum, where the museum supposedly possessed a cursed Mummy Board after a number of related individuals were injured or died shortly after its acquisition.7 More recently, an Internet search will turn up a conspiracy involving a mummy on the RMS Titanic, which supposedly led to its tragic sinking; an examination of the ship’s cargo manifest has yielded these claims to be entirely untrue, though the legend lingers.8 Curses related to Egyptian archaeology seem to invent themselves from circumstantial evidence−deaths, injuries, illnesses that may accompany an excavation−the tomb of Tutankhamun is no exception.

The idea of the curse of King Tutankhamun’s tomb originates with the death of its financial backer, George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. As an aristocrat, Lord Carnarvon possessed a considerable amount of wealth with which he chose to spearhead Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Upon Carter’s discovery and opening of the tomb, Carnarvon immediately decided to depart for Egypt to handle press relations at the site.9 Carnarvon died within four months in April 1923. His death is the central event that led to the establishment of a Mummy’s Curse at Tutankhamun’s tomb, setting off a curse frenzy, where rumors swirled and individuals related to the tomb had every injury, illness, and death in their extended family foolishly connected to the curse. Rumors abounded about ‘supernatural’ occurrences on the day of the tomb’s opening, including the death of Howard Carter’s canary at the hands of a cobra, an inexplicable simultaneous blackout of Cairo and England, and the death of Carnarvon’s pet dog Susie in England.10 Adding Carnarvon’s death to this mix led skepticism to be left behind in favor of rampant speculation; now every slightly unfortunate occurrence became fuel for the curse: natural deaths of old Egyptologists, explained deaths of friends of tourists who visited the tomb, deaths of individuals who were remotely connected to Carnarvon.11 Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, labeled the phenomenon as a curse, claiming that Carnarvon’s death resulted from “elementals−not souls, not spirits−created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the tomb.” 12 With Conan Doyle’s explicit labeling of the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb, a new era in Egyptological pseudoscience began.

In order to fully understand why the idea of a Pharaoh’s curse existing is foolish, there must be scientific explanations to the seemingly unnatural occurrences that are attributed to the curse. Furthermore, if there is a curse, then logically it should act either indiscriminately on all the individuals associated with the tomb, regardless of importance, or selectively against the individuals that were most responsible for disturbing the tomb. To disprove the theories of the Pharaoh’s curse, a simple examination of both these tenets yields sufficient proof to demonstrate the absurdity of the curse and refute it entirely.

Perhaps the most cited occurrences that supposedly give direct evidence to the curse is the death of Lord Carnarvon. Curse supporters cite his death for two key reasons. First, Carnarvon died within a few months of the tomb’s opening and his own visit to the tomb. The proximity of his death to the opening of the tomb opens up speculation that the tomb was the cause of his untimely demises. Second, he was a central figure, important to the excavation of the tomb. As mentioned, Lord Carnarvon footed the bill for the entire excavation and handled the press relations for the site. His prominence makes him an easy target for a potential Pharaoh’s curse, as curse supporters have taken advantage of in explaining their theories. The juncture of these two key reasons for attributing deaths to the curse, proximity and prominence, makes Carnarvon a very attractive candidate when tallying victims of the curse; however, in a skeptical fashion, he also becomes an attractive candidate to demonstrate the curses’ ludicrousness.
Lord Carnarvon was born into the English Aristocracy the late 1800’s. His life remained seemingly uneventful as well as unproductive until 1901; Thomas Hoving notes in his book on Tutankhamun that “if [he] had not been titled, wealth and living in...English aristocracy, he would perhaps have been a drifter.”13 In 1901, however, Lord Carnarvon’s life took turn when he became involved in a a serious automobile accident that deeply affected his life− had this accident never occurred, it is possible that Carnarvon would never have turned his attention and wealth towards archaeology. The accident left his body battered: reports state that his heart had stopped at the scene, he suffered a concussion, sever burns, and crush injuries. His injuries left him severely disabled and in pain, a fact that takes greater importance later in his life.14

In November 1922, upon the tomb’s discovery, a hesitant Carter sent a telegram to his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, stating that he had “made [a] wonderful discovery in Valley.”15 With news of success in Egypt, Lord Carnarvon hastened to come down for the opening, arriving in Egypt on November 20 to handle the spectacle that would become the opening of the tomb.16 In the five short months that Lord Carnarvon stayed in Egypt, the environment took a drastic toll on his health and sanity. Wrestling with the media frenzy that surrounded the find, his stress levels increased and he began to argue with Carter; seemingly insignificant details now turned into full out battles between the two men, indicating a change in Carnarvon’s mental status. Furthermore, the Egyptian climate exerted its effects on the already sickly body of Lord Carnarvon as temperatures routinely reached 100 degrees and sand storms rocked the excavation site. Thomas Hoving noted that Carnarvon’s body began to quickly worsen−his teeth began to constantly chip or fall out.17 Combining these details of Egypt with the fact that Carnarvon had already sustained chronic life-threatening injuries, it becomes plain that Carnarvon’s health was severely jeopardized to begin with and going to Egypt to assist in the excavations only made things worse.

His death came in April of 1923, which the New York Times reported resulted from “blood poisoning through the bite of an insect.”18 Curse enthusiasts cite this insect as the divine providence sent by the pharaohs to curse Carnarvon, although it is unknown when or where the bite occurred.19 While we may never know the origins of the insect, we can speculate on the blood poisoning. Mark Nelson, Professor of Epidemiology at Monash University in Australia, performed a case study in 2002 in which he examined the deaths of those related to the curse; he found that Carnarvon most likely died due to development of erysipelas, an acute infection at the site of an injury, that lead to sepsis and pneumonia.20 This information combined with the fact that as Carnarvon began to feel a little better, he immediately started working again only to suffer a relapse, is indicative of Carnarvon having succumbed to the infection. He returned to work too soon, before his battered body successfully fought off the infection.21 Nicholas Reeves, in his book on Tutankhamun’s tomb, notes that “the public chose to ignore the fact that Lord Carnarvon’s constitution had never been strong,”22 explaining the immediate temptation to jump to theories of a curse. In consolidating biographical data as well as medical data from post-mortem case analysis, it becomes clear that Carnarvon’s death remained a product of his own physical condition and the stress of the Egyptian desert, not the work of some supernatural Egyptian curse.

While Lord Carnarvon’s death serves as the most high profile death that curse enthusiasts proclaim as directly related, there are two logical routes that a curse may take for the rest of the individuals that worked or were otherwise present at the tomb. Supporters of the curse tend to fall into one of these two camps, making vast generalizations that either support the fact that the curse acted indiscriminately on all of the people involved with the tomb’s discovery and excavation or that the curse acted solely upon those who were most prominent in disturbing the tomb. Although the reasoning behind these two possibilities makes sense, analysis of the lives of the individuals related to the tomb easily disproves both theories and, by extension, the overall notion of the curse.

Disproving the notion that the curse acted indiscriminately requires research into the lives of individuals related to the site. While contemporary studies can take advantage of death records and biographies on the more prominent individuals involved in the tomb’s excavations to determine a cause of death, such analysis is much harder to accomplish for the workers on the ground, the Egyptian peasants that served as hard labor for the site. Few records exist on who was employed, their activity after working at Tutankhamun’s tomb, and their deaths making it much harder for one to research the outcomes of their lives. Fortunately, skeptics existed at the time and kept track of this information, preserving it for future analysis. The most prominent skeptic regarding the Pharaoh’s curse at the time was Herbert Winlock. Winlock, a distinguished Egyptologist in his own right, served as a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, establishing and fostering the improvement of their department on Egyptian Archaeology.23

In addition to these achievements, Winlock remained a noted skeptic who despised the notions of the Pharaoh’s curse and worked to counter it in popular media. One of Winlock’s successors, Thomas Hoving, noted that Winlock kept a record of “anyone who had been to any of the official openings” and, upon finding erroneous reports in the newspapers, “would send [the newspaper] a correction.”24 Winlock’s tally of individuals related to Tutankhamun’s tomb serves as a contemporary resource in order to ascertain the nature of the curse. In an article published in The New York Times in January 1934, Winlock reveals his tally and his reasoning for why the curse is invalid. Winlock states that in the ten years since the tomb’s opening, all those present, including 30-40 Egyptian workers, were alive and “in good health.”25 Furthermore, the newspaper published the names of the individuals who Winlock had tracked and determined that only six individuals had died in the ten years since the tomb’s opening, and all of these deaths have explanations relating to the poor health of the individuals involved. Winlock’s “death roll” remains invaluable as a timely source of information on those associated with the tomb and his skeptical analysis definitively disprove the curse as having affected these individuals indiscriminately. 26

If the curse did not act indiscriminately, as Herbert Winlock has aptly proven, then it should be selective−choosing individuals to punish for disturbing the tomb of Tutankhamun. It then logically follows, if some supernatural entity intends to discipline individuals responsible for entering the tomb, that the individuals that the curse affects would be individuals of prominence−of central importance to the disturbing of the tomb. At this point, curse supporters would cite Lord Carnarvon as the prime example of a prominent individual upon who the curse struck, but this claim has already been disproven by an examination of the background on Lord Carnarvon’s life. Perhaps, then, the succession in prominence leads to Howard Carter, whom little has been addressed up to this point. Howard Carter, the archaeologist responsible for the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its subsequent excavation, logically seems to be the next important individual that the curse might punish−the one caveat, of course, being that the curse did not punish Carter.

Carter’s importance to the discovery is indisputable. As principal investigator, he would be the likeliest target for a curse to act upon; however, his death occurred in 1939−almost 17 years after the opening of the tomb.27 This long period of time one of the key tenets of evidence for skeptics of the curse, since one would expect that Carter would be its main target. Furthermore, Carter was not only present at the tomb’s opening but at almost every other related event; as the chief archaeologist on the project he attended the opening of the sarcophagus, the unwrapping of the mummy, and conducted excavations at the site for roughly 10 years. If anyone were likely to be in proximity with some sort of supernatural force effecting disastrous events on individuals, it would have to be Howard Carter. In addition, just as information existed on Lord Carnarvon’s background, the same exists for Carter. In The New York Times obituary for Carter, the paper notes that, he remained unhealthy from the days of his youth, as Carnarvon had. The obituary goes on to contend that “Mr. Carter himself...was the best refutation of the curse.”28 Clearly the background on Carter’s health demonstrates the same sort of juncture of a series of events that caused his death; the fact that it occurred almost 17 years after his excavation of the tomb gives evidence to the fact that the curse could not have been the cause of Carter’ s death. Biographer T.G.H. James listed Carter’s death as due to a heart attack secondary to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,29 a cancer that primarily affects the lymphatic system. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is characterized by increase risk to an individual that describes Carter almost perfectly: male, over the age of 55, with a history of infection or a weakened immune system.30 It immediately becomes clear that Carter’s poor health from childhood undoubtedly contributed to increasing his risk for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, not his association with the tomb of Tutankhamun. Given Carter’s survival long after the opening of the tomb and the obvious explanations for his death, skeptics can suitably rule out the curse as an agent of misery in Egypt.

With the revelation that the curse does not exist, scientists have tried to determine mechanisms by which a sickness may appear as a curse, affecting the individuals who came in contact with the tomb. It is known that Carter had samples from the site tested for evidence of pathogens to ensure the safety of his colleagues, only to find that the samples contained no evidence of any harmful materials. While the accuracy of this testing remains up for debate,31scientists currently consider two theories as being possible suspects for the underlying cause behind what appears as the Pharaoh’s curse. A National Geographic News article from 2005, detailed the first of these theories, that the tomb contained some sort of fungus that could cause individuals to become sick with exposure. Tests of samples obtained from mummies in various tombs reveal the existence of species of the fungi genus Aspergillus and “can be particularly harmful for people with weakened immune systems.”32 The idea of mold existing inside the tomb makes complete sense−closing off the tomb seals any microorganisms in a dark and musty environment, more than ideal for common fungus to proliferate. Further, the presence of a fungus that would have a harsher toll on those with weakened immune systems explains the close deaths of individuals whom Herbert Winlock noted might have been unhealthy before ever visiting the tomb.33

In addition to the possibility of fungus, recent research suggests that evolutionary selection may be responsible for creating the Pharaoh’s curse. Research conducted at the Paris VI University has revealed the possibility of propagating viruses that are “highly virulent and very long-lived.”34 Under this theory, because the viruses that were present in the tomb at the time of its sealing had no hosts upon which to feed, they evolved into organisms with longer lifespans outside of a host and that infected a host more easily and more dangerously. Sylvain Gandon, the primary investigator, speculates that this “extreme exploitation” strategy allowed the virus to survive thousands of years in isolation and increased its effect on humans. As a result, upon the opening of the tomb, the virus fed on those who had first entered it.35 The combination of the virus’s high virulence factor and the weakened constitution of the individuals who entered would prove to be lethal, and possibly explains the phenomenon of the curse.

Upon a reasonable analysis of the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb, it becomes evident that logical analysis refutes the evidence cited in support of the curse. The discovery of the tomb presented itself as unique−the tomb lacked the extravagance of the pyramids and remained largely ignored by grave robbers. As one of the foremost archaeological finds of the last century, born into an era of increased global communication, the media played a larger role in the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb than any other before it. With this increased media presence, however, also came an increased tendency to spread charlatanism. The threat of the curse became infectious−each adverse effect that remotely be related to the tomb served as fuel for the spread of the curse.

Curse enthusiasts typically cited Lord Carnarvon, financial backer for the tomb, as the foremost example of an individual affected by the curse’s powers; a simple examination of Carnarvon’s background finds that he remained in poor health for years leading up to the excavation, and the stress of the excavation led to his eventual death. After disproving this initial claim, application of similar analysis to the rest of the individuals involved with Tutankhamun’s tomb yields a similar conclusion. The evidence for a Pharaoh’s curse becomes weaker when starting from an initial assumption that the curse would either operate indiscriminately against all individuals or operate principally against the most prominent individuals. Herbert Winlock’s tracking of the individuals related the tomb, regardless of prominence, proved invaluable in refuting the indiscriminate notion of the curse; similarly, an investigation into Howard Carter’s background reveals themes comparable to the life of Lord Carnarvon, his benefactor. Disproving the supernatural occurrence of the curse opens up opportunities for speculation on the true nature of the curse, chiefly pathogenic mechanisms that cause widespread illness. Coalescing all of this information leads the skeptic to conclude that the curse is in fact a hoax, as Howard Carter did when questioned about the potential existence of the curse, frequently stating that “the answer is spherical and in the plural…”36


Badash, Michelle. “Hodgkin’s Disease−Adult.” The Mount Sinai Hospital. Last reviewed July 2010.
Booth, Charlotte. The Curse of the Mummy and Other Mysteries of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009.
Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tutankhamun. New York: Excalibur Books, 1954.
Cowie, Susan D.. The Mummy in Fact, Fiction and Film. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002.
Edwards, I.E.S.. Tutankhamun, His Tomb and its Treasures. New York: Random House, 1976.
Gandon, Sylvain. “The Curse of the Pharaoh Hypothesis.” Proceedings: Biological Sciences 265, no. 1405 (August 22, 1998): 1545-1552.
Handwerk, Brian. “Egypt’s “King Tut Curse” Caused by Tomb Toxins?” National Geographic News (May 6, 2005). 2005/05/0506_050506_mummycurse.html
Hoving, Thomas. Tutankhamun: the Untold Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
James, T.G.H.. Howard Carter: the Path to Tutankhamun. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001.
Lawler, Andrew. “A Mystery Fit for a Pharaoh.” Smithsonian (July 2006). http://
Montserrat, Dominic. Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Nelson, Mark. “The Mummy’s Curse: Historical Cohort Study.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 325, no. 7378(December 21-28, 2002): 1482-4.
New York Times. “Carnarvon is Dead of an Insect’s Bite at Pharaoh’s Tomb.” April 5, 1923.
New York Times. “Curse of Pharaoh Denied by Winlock.” January 26, 1934.
New York Times. “Howard Carter, 64, Egyptologist, Dies.” March 3, 1939.
Pinch, Geraldine. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press, 1994.
Reeves, C.N.. The Complete Tutankhamun: the King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
Snopes. “Everything But the Egyptian Sinks.” Last modified January 16, 2007.

1.) Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamun (New York: Excalibur Books, 1954), 32.
2.) I.E.S. Edwards, Tutankhamun, His Tomb and its Treasures (New York: Random House, 1976), 2.
3.) Thomas Hoving, Tutankhamun: the Untold Story (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 17.
4.) C.N. Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: the King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 24.
5.) Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1994), 92.
6.) Dominic Montserrat, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient (New York: Routledge, 2000), 154.
7.) Charlotte Booth, The Curse of the Mummy and Other Mysteries of Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), 197.
8.) “Everything But the Egyptian Sinks,” Snopes, last modified January 16, 2008,
9.) Reeves, Complete Tutankhamun, 62.
10.) Ibid., 63.
11.) Hoving, Tutankhamun, 228.
12.) Reeves, Complete Tutankhamun, 63.
13.) Hoving, Tutankhamun, 20.
14.) Ibid., 22.
15.) Carter, Tomb of Tutankhamun, 33.
16.) Ibid., 35.
17.) Hoving, Tutankhamun, 221.
18.) “Carnarvon is Dead of an Insect’s Bite at Pharaoh’s Tomb,” New York Times, April 5, 1923.
19.) Reeves, Complete Tutankhamun, 62.
20.) Mark Nelson, “The Mummy’s Curse: Historical Cohort Study,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 325, no.7378 (December 21-28, 2002), 1482.
21.) Reeves, Complete Tutankhamun, 62.
22.) Ibid.
23.) Andrew Lawler, “A Mystery Fit for a Pharaoh,” Smithsonian (July 2006).
24.) Hoving, Tutankhamun, 229.
25.) “Curse of Pharaoh Denied by Winlock,” New York Times, January 26, 1934.
26.) Susan D. Cowie, The Mummy in Fact, Fiction and Film (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002), 48.
27.) T.G.H. James, Howard Carter: the Path to Tutankhamun (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001), 468.
28.) “Howard Carter, 64, Egyptologist, Dies,” New York Times, March 3, 1939.
29.) James, Howard Carter, 468.
30.) “Hodgkin’s Disease−Adult,” The Mount Sinai Hospital, last reviewed July 2010,
31.) Nelson, “The Mummy’s Curse,” 1482.
32.) Brian Handwerk, “Egypt’s “King Tut Curse” Caused by Tomb Toxins?” National Geographic News (May 6, 2005). 2005/05/0506_050506_mummycurse.html
33.) Cowie, Mummy in Fact, Fiction and Film, 48.
34.) Sylvain Gandon, “The Curse of the Pharaoh Hypothesis,” Proceedings: Biological Sciences 265, no. 1405 (August 22, 1998), 1545.
35.) Ibid.
36.) Cowie, Mummy in Fact, Fiction, and Film, 48.

No comments:

Post a Comment