Tutankhamun's Curse?

The archaeologist Howard Carter died on March 2nd, 1939.

Rash intruders? Howard Carter and an Egyptian assistant examine the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. Bridgeman/Leemage

Late in 1922 the British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, who died in 1323 BC aged about 18, in the Valley of the Kings, across the Nile from Luxor in Egypt. Pharaohs had been buried there from the 16th to the 11th centuries BC. Most of the tombs had been plundered from early times and Tutankhamun’s was the first to be found almost entirely undisturbed. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a keen amateur Egyptologist who was financing the project, joined Carter and his team to enter the burial chambers, where they found the young pharaoh’s mummified body and a wealth of religious objects, wall paintings and inscriptions as well as equipment he would need in the afterlife.

The discovery created a worldwide press sensation and stories spread about a curse on anyone who dared to break into a pharaoh’s tomb. The Times in London and New York World magazine published the best-selling novelist Marie Corelli’s speculations that ‘the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb’. It was not long before Lord Carnarvon died in Cairo aged 56 and the lights in the city went out, which set off a frenzy of speculation. Arthur Conan Doyle told the American press that ‘an evil elemental’ spirit created by priests to protect the mummy could have caused Carnarvon’s death.

No curse had actually been found in the tomb, but deaths in succeeding years of various members of Carter’s team and real or supposed visitors to the site kept the story alive, especially in cases of death by violence or in odd circumstances. Alleged victims of the curse included Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt, shot dead by his wife in 1923; Sir Archibald Douglas Reid, who supposedly X-rayed the mummy and died mysteriously in 1924; Sir Lee Stack, the governor-general of the Sudan, who was assassinated in Cairo in 1924; Arthur Mace of Carter’s excavation team, said to have died of arsenic poisoning in 1928; Carter’s secretary Richard Bethell, who supposedly died smothered in his bed in 1929; and his father, who committed suicide in 1930.

Most people who worked in or visited the tomb lived long lives, but this did not undermine belief in the curse by those who wanted to believe it. Carter himself angrily dismissed the whole curse idea as ‘tommy rot’, but when he died solitary and miserably unhappy of Hodgkin’s disease in his London flat in March 1939 at the age of 64, the story of the mummy’s curse sprang back to life in his obituaries and it has persisted to this day.

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