About the Curse

The Opening of Tutankhamun's Tomb

The belief in a curse was brought to many people's attention due to the deaths of the members of the team of Howard Carter, who opened the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) in 1922, launching the modern era of Egyptology.

Lord Carnarvon walks the excavation site. The famous Egyptologist James Henry Breasted worked with Carter soon after the first opening of the tomb. He reported how Carter sent a messenger on an errand to his house. On approaching his home he thought he heard a "faint, almost human cry". On reaching the entrance he saw the bird cage occupied by a cobra, the symbol of Egyptian monarchy. Carter's canary had died in its mouth and this fueled local rumors of a curse. Arthur Weigall, a previous Inspector-General of Antiquities to the Egyptian Government, reported that this was interpreted as Carter's house being broken into by the Royal Cobra, the same as that worn on the King's head to strike enemies (see Uraeus), on the very day the King's tomb was being broken into. An account of the incident was reported by the New York Times on the 22nd December 1922.

The first of the "mysterious" deaths was that of Lord Carnarvon. He had been bitten by a mosquito, and later slashed the bite accidentally while shaving. It became infected and blood poisoning resulted. Two weeks before Carnarvon died Marie Corelli wrote an imaginative letter which was published in the New York World magazine in which she quoted an obscure book that confidently asserted that "dire punishment" would follow an intrusion into a sealed tomb. A media frenzy followed with reports that a curse had been found in the King's tomb, but this was untrue. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, suggested at the time that Lord Carnarvon's death had been caused by "elementals" created by Tutankhamun's priests to guard the royal tomb and this further fueled the media interest. Arthur Weigall reported that six weeks before Carnarvon's death he had watched the Earl laughing and joking as he entered the King's tomb and his saying to a nearby reporter (H. V. Morton), "I give him six weeks to live." The first autopsy carried out on the body of Tutankhamun by Dr Derry found a healed lesion on the left cheek, but as Carnarvon had been buried six months previously it was not possible to determine if the location of the wound on the King corresponded with the location of the fatal mosquito bite on Carnarvon.

Tutankhamun's burial chamber.

In 1925, the anthropologist Henry Field, accompanied by Breasted, visited the tomb and recalled the kindness and friendliness of Carter. He also reported how a paperweight given to Carter's friend Sir Bruce Ingham was composed of a mummified hand with its wrist adorned with a scarab bracelet marked with, "Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence." Soon after receiving the gift, Ingram's house burned down, followed by a flood when it was rebuilt.

Howard Carter was entirely skeptical of such curses. He did report in his diary a "strange" account that in May 1926 he saw jackals of the same type as Anubis, the guardian of the dead, for the first time in over thirty-five years of working in the desert.

Skeptics have pointed out that many others who visited the tomb or helped to discover it lived long and healthy lives. A study showed that of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a dozen years. All the others were still alive, including Howard Carter, who later died of lymphoma at the age of 64 in 1939.



Possible Causes

Glyphs fortold of the Pharoah's curse.

Some have speculated that deadly fungus could have grown in the enclosed tombs and been released when they were open to the air. Arthur Conan Doyle favoured this idea, and speculated that the mold had been placed deliberately to punish grave robbers.

A newspaper report printed following Carnarvon's death is also believed to have been responsible for the wording of the curse most frequently associated with Tutankhamun, "Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King," a phrase which does not actually appear among the hieroglyphs in KV62, even though it was said to appear in several different places.

While there is no evidence that such pathogens killed Lord Carnarvon, there is no doubt that dangerous materials can accumulate in old tombs. Recent studies of newly opened ancient Egyptian tombs that had not been exposed to modern contaminants found pathogenic bacteria of the Staphylococcus and Pseudomonas genera, and the moulds Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus. Additionally, newly opened tombs often become roosts for bats, and bat guano may harbour histoplasmosis. However, at the concentrations typically found, these pathogens are generally only dangerous to persons with weakened immune systems.

Air samples taken from inside an unopened sarcophagus through a drilled hole showed high levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide; these gases are all toxic, but are easily detected by their strong odours. Hydrogen sulfide is detectable at low concentrations (Up to 100PPM) beyond which it acts as a nerve agent on the olfactory senses. At 1000ppm it will kill with a single inhalation.