We’ve seen tons of movies and read so many stories about cursed Egyptian tombs. But what’s the real deal behind all of this?
After a long day of work down in the tomb, where two impressive golden crowns with serpents carved on them were found, the team of archaeologists decided to celebrate the discovery at the chief’s house. As the drinks and food kept coming, a sudden shriek interrupted the party. The guests ran to the veranda only to find that the chief archaeologist’s beloved pet canary was about to be devoured by a big serpent, similar to the ones carved on the crowns they had discovered that day. The incident was considered irrelevant by the team, but some locals were sure it was the spirit of the King, warning the intruders not to keep desecrating his resting place.
(Adapted from “Times Man Views Splendors of Tomb of Tutankhamen.” The New York Times, 22 December 1922)
This story sounds like the beginning of basically every single action or horror movie about mummies and curses. They all begin the same way: a group of explorers and archaeologists discover a majestic tomb, and the moment they enter, a terrible curse falls upon them.
But the truth is that the mini-story above was one of many tales that spread when Howard Carter discovered and opened the famous tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The little canary actually belonged to Carter, and there were other stories like this one, including the one about the “sudden” death, terrible diseases, and general misfortune befalling people working at the tomb.
So, was there really a curse or is there a scientific explanation for these stories? More importantly, how did the story about the curse come to be, and why do we still believe them?
Stories about mummy curses have been around since the eighteenth century, when Europe was swept by an Egypt craze. However, it was only in the nineteenth century, when the field of Egyptology was established, that these stories became really popular. It was also in that century that hieroglyphs were deciphered thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. This allowed specialists to really understand aspects of this ancient civilization that until then had been mere suppositions.
This newfound knowledge also led to the discovery of what’s known as the “execration texts,” or in other words, the famous tomb curses. Execration texts were made on clay tablets and contained lists of the Pharaoh’s enemies. When they died, priests would break the tablets in a ritual, and the moment the pieces touched the floor, a curse would fall on the people listed.
In the case of King Tut’s curse, there weren’t any execration texts in any of the tomb’s chambers, but the craze over the young Pharaoh gave birth to a series of myths and legends that are thought of as facts to this day. So, what were the facts that made people believe there was a curse?
The biggest one is the fact that only six weeks after the opening of the tomb Lord Carnarvon (the project’s sponsor) died in Cairo from “mysterious causes.” However, the real cause of death was anything but mysterious. Carnarvon died of a mosquito bite that got infected after he cut it with his razor. It’s also believed that he already had certain conditions that worsened due to this incident.
We could say that the whole explanation behind the famous pharaoh’s curse lies on Carnarvon’s death. Shortly after the announcement of his death, several stories about the curse began to be published in England. One of the most popular ones was actually by the one and only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who claimed it had been the "elementals created by Tutankhamun's priests to guard the royal tomb”.
This story, along with the dozens that appeared on newspapers all over Europe, only added to the legend that had intrigued so many in the nineteenth century. After Carnarvon's death, tons of stories about people who worked at the excavation site started to appear. Some of them kind of made sense, while others sounded really forced, like the one about Prince Ali Fahmy Bey (who had visited the tomb in the Valley of the Kings) being shot by his own wife.
Many have tried to explain the alleged curse with science, claiming that it must’ve been all the bacteria, fungus, and other elements inside the tomb. Nevertheless, that’s actually impossible. While it’s true that we’re talking about tons of raw materials (not only the human remains but also the fruit and meat buried with the body) trapped in a small, unventilated space for thousands of years, they’re not that aggressive, generally speaking.
As a matter of fact, of all the deaths associated with the curse, none of them presented signs of intoxication or anything related to these pathogens. Considering the actual conditions of the country in those days, as F. DeWolfe Miller (epidemiologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa) said, “Given the sanitary conditions of the time in general, and those within Egypt in particular, Lord Carnarvon would likely have been safer in the tomb than outside.”
The truth is that of the 58 people who were registered to be working in the original excavation only eight died within a lapse of a dozen years, and most of them died of old age. All in all, we can safely say that this is just a legend that turned into a gold mine of stories and conspiracy theories. There’s neither a scientific explanation nor a superstitious one, it’s just a very appealing story that reduced the greatness of an ancient civilization to a simple horror story.
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