Much Ado About Nothing: Examining the Curse of Tutankhamun

By Sujay Kulshrestha
2012, Vol. 4 No. 06 | pg. 1/2 |

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.

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