4 November, 1922. British archaeologist Howard Carter and his team discover the steps that are likely to lead to a tomb Carter has spent years trying to find. A few months later, Carter opened the burial chamber and found the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, the boy king.
It is the biggest archaeological discovery of the 20th century, but did Carter unknowingly set up a curse that had been lying inside Tutankhamun’s final resting place for 3,000 years?
Back in the 1920s, when Carter discovered the intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings, people instantly began to believe that meddling with the pharaoh’s belongings for the afterlife would bring nothing but death and pain, and that a curse was set upon them.
This would have remained as an anecdote, were it not for the fact that Lord Carnarvon, the English aristocrat who had financed Carter’s excavation, died in April 1923 of blood poisoning after he accidentally slashed a mosquito bite on his neck while shaving. It was definitely an odd death that could be attributed to mere bad luck, and not necessarily to the curse itself.
Around 60 different people were witnesses of the opening of the tomb and sarcophagus, and while most of them lived long after the discovery, ten of them dying within the first decade were more than enough to fuel the myth of the curse.
A month after Lord Carnarvon’s death, financier George Jay Gould I passed away of a high fever after visiting the tomb. In the same year, other two people died, one shot by his wife and the other with blood poisoning shortly after becoming blind. Quite a streak of bad luck.
The others died for reasons as diverse as suicide, poisoning, pneumonia and even “mysterious illnesses,” but Carter himself got to live until 1939, which didn’t stop theorists from believing his death (of lymphoma) was also due to the curse.
So, was the curse real, or just a load of superstition let loose?
The truth is, King Tut’s tomb, like many tombs of Ancient Egypt pharaohs, could have easily kept bacteria that, trapped inside a sealed tomb, would have survived thousands of years. The pharaohs were prepared for the afterlife with vast amounts of riches, but they also kept with them all sorts of food, which would eventually decay and produce mould, insects and all types of bacterial toxins. These toxins, when the tomb was opened, were in the air. So, for example, Lord Carnarvon, a man in his fifties who already suffered a chronic illness, could have been quickly affected by bacteria that in healthy people, like his young daughter Evelyn, would have no effect at all.
Could these toxins have affected everyone who entered the tomb to a greater or lesser extent? It is entirely possible. Whatever was in the air breathed inside Tut’s final resting place, it might have entered its visitors’ immune system and affected them in the future, whether it was blood poisoning two months later, or pneumonia almost a decade after the discovery.
But even with these facts laid out in front of us, there is always the mystery of whether the deaths were really caused by the “desecration” of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Even after all the contents inside were catalogued and sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Carter decided to keep the mortal remains of the boy king inside the sarcophagus where he was meant to spend eternity. But perhaps the deaths were Tut’s way of getting his revenge on the people who dared interrupt his eternal sleep. It’s up to each one of us to choose what we want to believe.