“Death shall come on swift wings to he who disturbs the peace of the King”

In a celebration of both procrastination and the fact that next semester I have enrolled in a class entitled “Ancient Egyptian Religion and Culture”, I decided to forego studying and do a little research on the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, just because.

A decent chunk of my childhood was spent reading about mythology and archaeology on the premise that I would one day discover the Loch Ness monster. While I’m not sure how that will pan out in the future, the curse of the tomb of Tutankhamen still interests me from a scientist’s point of view.

Tutankhamen was an Egyptian Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty (if you are like me and have no idea what that means, it means he ruled around 1330s BCE). His name means “living image of Amun”, a deity whose cult worship he renewed during his reign. Tutankhamen is a famously short-lived pharaoh, living only to be about 18 or 19 years old. He was the product of a long line of royal familial incest and had a host of genetic abnormalities such as a short stature, overbite, cleft palate, and potentially scoliosis. He married a sister and they were never able to have children, probably again as a result of severe birth defects stemming from inbreeding. He didn’t do anything particularly great during his reign and died at a young age. Overall, he was a pretty unimportant and forgettable pharaoh. So forgettable in fact, that his tomb was forgotten about – which ironically led to his dramatic claim to fame centuries later.

Perhaps a reason why Tutankhamen has become one of the most widely known of the Egyptian pharaohs is the imagery of the treasures found within his burial chamber, such as his Death Mask, a popular image in the study of Ancient Egypt.

Perhaps a reason why Tutankhamen has become one of the most widely known of the Egyptian pharaohs is the popularity of the imagery of treasures found within his burial chamber, such as his golden Death Mask.

Several theories have been proposed about how he died – murder, a gangrenous leg injury, sickle-cell disease, and simply general bad health have all been proposed. No matter the true cause of death, we can assume he probably died somewhat unexpectedly because he was buried in a smaller-than-normal tomb for someone of his status – meaning his intended tomb probably was not complete or he was buried in another tomb not meant for him. (And his body is still there by the way, though most of the other treasures have been removed for a variety of museum exhibits around the world). His lack of fame meant this tomb was forgotten about pretty quickly, aided by a purge of his name and image during the wars and civil unrest that followed his reign. And it remained unknown until his burial chamber was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter and his patron George Herbert, also known as the Lord Carnarvon.

Howard Carter and an assistant on his team examine the mummy’s sarcophagus.

The tomb, found in the Valley of the Kings, became instantly famous because it was the most complete tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh ever found – though it had been robbed twice, the actual burial chamber was untouched. The excavation proceeded slowly at first, until the diggers found a sealed room that held the promise of still containing its original treasures. Carter made a small hole in the wall to peer into the sealed room and Carnarvon famously asked him “can you see anything?” and Carter replied “yes, wonderful things”.

A reproduction of the state of the burial chamber, upon discovery by Howard Carter in 1922.

A reproduction of the state of the burial chamber, upon discovery by Howard Carter in 1922.

The opening of the tomb led to instant international fame for Carter and the Lord Carnarvon, and also supposedly set upon them the “Curse of the Pharaohs”, the famous curse that threatens any person, no matter grave-robber or well-intending archaeologist, who disturbs the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. And after the opening of the tomb and revealing the sarcophagus, there were a series of strange events and deaths surrounding the individuals who were present:

  1. Carter’s canary was eaten by a cobra, the symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, very soon after the discovery of the tomb.
  2. Carter also reported seeing jackals, symbolic guardians of the dead, for the first time after working in the desert for 35 years (but there are few sources that confirm this statement)
  3. Lord Carnarvon died strangely as the result of an infected mosquito bite, then his dog died, then all the lights in Cairo supposedly went out (I’m hard-pressed to believe the last of these occurrences, but it makes for an interesting story nonetheless). There was also a report that the cut on his face was in the same location as a lesion that was on the face of the boy king’s mummified remains.
  4. Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid died of a mysterious illness after completing x-ray analysis on the mummy of Tutankhamen.

All in all, the death of 8+ people associated with the excavation was attributed to an ancient curse of the pharaohs.

However, contrary to popular belief, there was never actually a written curse surrounding Tutankhamen’s tomb. Though it was not uncommon for tombs or sarcophagi to be protected by curses engrave upon them, this myth was propagated by journalists of the time, who probably succeeded in selling more copies of their newspapers to the mystified and curious masses than they would have with straight fact-reporting. Though Carter and his team obviously benefited from the increased public interest in mummies and archaeology, he despised the superstitious stories.

Recent statistical analysis of the age and cause of death of those involved in the excavation reveals that there was no statistical anomaly regarding the deaths – of the 58 people who entered the tomb, only 8 died within the first 12 years, not an unexpected outcome considering the ages of the individuals and the state of healthcare systems of the time.

So, perhaps somewhat anticlimactically, the Pharaoh’s curse seems to be proven nonexistent – at least regarding any supernatural explanation. There may still be some scientific merit to a “curse” however, in that tombs are by their nature full of dead things potentially carrying diseases. Ancient offerings of food and the presence of bat feces, called guano, could promote the growth of harmful mold and fungi, which could be dangerous to anyone inhaling the air. Unopened tombs also tend to have a build-up of ammonia, formaldehyde, and other noxious gases from centuries of un-ventilated decomposition. And tombs may have remains of pathogenic bacteria, especially strains that modern immune systems are not prepared to battle.

Bobby traps aren't needed when bats, bacteria, and noxious gases await the careless archaeologist.

Bobby traps aren’t needed when bats, bacteria, and noxious gases await the careless archaeologist.

So, to make a long story short (perhaps a bit late), it is entirely probable that there were dangers awaiting archaeologists entering the ancient tombs – but this affliction did not come from supernatural curses, but rather biological threats to the respiratory and immune systems of the workers. Which is maybe not quite as glamorous or dramatic, but equally exciting for researchers seeking answers to seemingly impossible questions.