The Curse of Tutankhamun

The possibility of a King Tut curse is never far from the conversation when discussing the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb, but should the so-called Curse of Tutankhamun be taken seriously?

In this article, we consider how local superstitions and a disgruntled press contributed to the idea of a King Tut curse and then take a closer look at the deaths of Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter and some of the other people involved in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The King Tut Curse

Local Superstitions

Ancient tombs have always been associated with curses. The pharaohs of Egypt knew from history that there was a good chance that their tomb would be broken into and plundered at some point in the future, and so it is possible that some may have tried to protect their tomb in this way. However, the truth is that curses were very rarely found in tombs, and certainly no such curse was found inscribed in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

There were many rumours that Carter did actually find a tablet with a curse on it in the tomb, but immediately hid it from the Egyptian workers. Although this is highly unlikely, the superstitious locals would already have been wary of disturbing the dead, and so it would not take much for them to believe such rumours.

Howard Carter’s Thoughts on a King Tut Curse

Although Carter himself was always quick to dismiss talks of any King Tut curse, he too had reservations about disturbing the dead pharaoh.

I think at that moment we did not even want to break the seal, for a feeling of intrusion had descended heavily upon us… We felt that we were in the presence of the dead King and we must do him reverence…
Howard Carter
King Tut Curse - Howard Carter opens the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamun's tomb
Howard Carter opens the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamun’s tomb

Despite these misgivings, as an archaeologist Carter felt duty bound to process the findings in the tomb, including Tutankhamun’s mummy. And although Carter always paid due respect and reverence to the task in hand, it is easy to see why the local Egyptians may have been concerned about a possible curse. What is less understandable is why there was suddenly a media frenzy about the curse of Tutankhamun.

Exclusivity to the Times

A possible explanation for why the press were so quick to pounce on the idea of a King Tut curse was the fact that Lord Carnarvon had made the decision to give exclusivity of the story to the Times newspaper. Needless to say, this did not go down at all well with any of the other newspapers, who had gathered like vultures to report on the story that the whole world was awaiting to read about, and who now had little or nothing to print.

Tourists and Press Outside the Tomb of Tutankhamun

If the disgruntled press were unable to report directly on the greatest archaeological discovery of all time, then they would have to find other stories surrounding the find to appease their hungry readers. 

And just such a story was about to unfold.

The Death of Lord Carnarvon

On the 5th April 1923, only a few months after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Lord Carnarvon died at the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo, aged 56.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923)

Supposedly, at the moment of Carnarvon’s death, the lights went off in the city of Cairo, and back home in England, his faithful dog, Susie, began to howl. Straight away, rumours spread that it was the King Tut curse that had killed the earl, a story, which the press greedily pounced upon.

Fuel was added to the fire, when shortly after Carnarvon’s death, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speculated to the press that the earl’s death had been caused by “elementals”, created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb.

In actual fact, Carnarvon had died from pneumonia, which was almost certainly a result of a blood infection caused by the cutting of a mosquito bite while shaving. Not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, Carnarvon’s death was the first in a series of ‘suspicious’ deaths, which would help build the notion of a mummy’s curse.

Other Deaths Attributed to the King Tut Curse

All in all, about a dozen deaths have been attributed to the so-called King Tut curse, most notably the deaths of Arthur Mace and Howard Carter himself. However, a study showed that of the 58 people present, either when the tomb or the sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a twelve-year period.

Howard Carter (1874-1939)

The rest were still alive, including Howard Carter, who actually died of lymphoma in 1939, at the age of 64, some seventeen years after the opening of the tomb. Furthermore, statistically speaking, the rates of death were not particularly unusual for that period.

Possible Pathogen from the Tomb?

Although speculation about an actual curse has died down over the years, many scholars believe that some of the aforementioned eight may well still have died as a direct response to being at the opening of the tomb. However, rather than dying from a curse, they point to a possible pathogen or fungi being the cause of death.

In his book, “The Discovery Of The Tomb Of Tutankhamun”, Howard Carter states that extensive testing for pathogens took place and none were found. However, the fact that there were food stuffs and flowers present in Tutankhamun’s tomb means that the possibility of early deaths caused by fungi cannot be completely ruled out.