The Curse of Tutankhamun? The persistent tales of king Tut’s curse

The idea of a pharaoh’s curse or the curse of Tutankhamun in particular has captured the imagination of millions. Such ideas existed before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, but that discovery in 1922, and events surrounding it, meant the idea exploded. It has been the subject of novels, films, television, video games and endless speculation. The idea of the Mummy, a dead pharaoh brought back to life, has penetrated many cultures and genres (whether associated with a curse or not). Regardless of the perceived merits of or truth of such theories, stories of the pharaoh’s curse, and especially of Tutankhamun’s curse will not go away.

The seal on Tutankhamun's tomb

Curses have been found on Egyptian tombs (although they are rare), but none was found on the nearly intact tomb of Tutankhamun. This has not stopped the ascription to Tutankhamun of one of the most powerful curses, stories of the lasting effects of which simply will not disappear.

Lord Carnarvon and his wife, Amlina Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon

Lord Carnarvon, sponsor of Carter’s excavations in the Valley of the Kings for seven years, was among the first to suffer from the ‘curse’ and his death probably gave it life. Having travelled to Egypt in November 1922 to be with Carter to see inside the tomb for the first time, he returned to Egypt for the opening of the burial chamber in February 1923. On March 19, Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito (according to some reports, at the tomb, more probably at Aswan where he was staying); the bite festered and was infected by a razor cut, resulting in blood poisoning. He died in Cairo on April 5 at the age of only fifty-six, and only six weeks after the burial chamber was opened. Contemporary accounts gave the cause of death as blood poisoning progressing to pneumonia. The Lord’s health had been fragile since a car accident in 1903 (the reason he began spending English winters in Egypt in the first place) and he was probably susceptible to any condition; the infection of the mosquito bite overwhelmed his system. Stories of the Curse of Tutankhamun, however, soon took over the narrative.

There was a media frenzy following Carnarvon’s death (and probably led publicity hungry archaeologists such as Arthur Weigall and James Henry Breasted to invent, or at least amplify their own stories which they connected to the curse). This media circus was not helped by a sensationalist story by the English novelist Marie Corelli circulated some weeks before Carnarvon’s death in New York’s New World Magazine of a curse befalling anyone who broke into an unsealed tomb. Carnarvon’s death soon after only spurred speculation. Arthur Conan Doyle speculated that Carnarvon had been killed by an “elemental” spirit set as a guard to the tomb in antiquity. When an autopsy on Tutankhamun’s mummy revealed a wound on the left cheek, it was not able to be established if Carnarvon’s mosquito bite had been in the same place.

Carter's House

Stories were recounted that Carter had sent a runner with a message to his house and, there, they had discovered Carter’s canary dead in its cage in the mouth of a cobra. That story was recounted by the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted. Others only fuelled such stories. Arthur Weigall (who had been appointed to replace Carter as chief inspector of antiquities in 1905) said that it was a Royal Cobra, or Uraeus, which had killed the canary, the serpent seen on royal headdress and which was also a protective god. Weigall also claimed that this event happened on the very day the tomb was broken into. He also claimed that in February 1923, when the tomb was opened, and when he saw Lord Carnarvon was all smiles, laughing and joking, that he said to a reporter: “I give him six weeks to live.”

The Egyptian Cobra (or Royal Cobra) or Ureus

There were other victims of the curse, too. Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt, was shot dead by his wife, Marguerite Alibert, a former French socialite and courtesan in July 1923 in London. They had only married in December 1922, and they argued frequently. She was acquitted of his murder and all charges.

Marguerite Alibert                       Sir Oliver Lee Stack

Sir Oliver Lee Stack, Governor-General of the Sudan since 1917 and Sirdar of the Egyptian Army, was assassinated by a group of students in Cairo on November 19, 1924 (the assassins' weapons were identified by a pioneering and early use of forensic examination of the bullets). Neither Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy or Stack seem to have been present at the opening of the tomb, however, as Carter made a list of those present in his diary (both men may have visited later (and probably did)). The Queen of the Belgians, Elisabeth of Bavaria, who visited on February 18 was unaffected by any curse and lived until 1965, dying at the age of eighty-nine.

Other Victims

Tasmanian-born (though England-educated) Arthur Mace, a member of Carter’s excavation team, had chosen Egyptology through his cousin, Flinders Petrie, who he joined in Egypt in 1897. He worked with the Metropolitan Museum in New York on Egyptian antiquities after World War One but was lent to Carter’s dig in December 1922 to help clear the contents of the tomb. This was a small team – consisting of Carter, Callender, Alfred Lucas and photographer Henry Burton. Mace left Egypt for health reasons (pleurisy) in 1924 but died on April 6, 1928, at a nursing home in Sussex. One of the suspected causes was Arsenic poisoning.  

Arthur Mace

Carter’s secretary Richard Bethell, was found dead in bed in 1929, apparently smothered at a Mayfair club. His father, Lord Westbury then fell seven floors to his death in 1930 (apparently from the room in which he kept Tutankhamun tomb artefacts given to him by his son).  

Stories (and the archaeologists who told them) did not abate over time. In 1925 the archaeologist and anthropologist Henry Field (working with Breasted in Egypt at the time) claimed to have seen a paper weight given to Carter’s friend Bruce Ingram which gave evidence of an actual curse. The paperweight consisted of a mummified hand with an inscription: “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water, and pestilence.” Soon after receiving the gift, Ingram’s house burned down and, when it was rebuilt, it was destroyed by flood. Stories circulated that this was the wording of the curse inscribed on the wall of Tutankhamun’s tomb (it was not, no curse was found).

Many victims were associated, not with the original opening of the tomb (whenever we count that to be), but with other peripheral associations with the Tutankhamun remains. Several of the events supposedly caused by any curse are peripheral at best. Sir Archibald Douglas Reid, radiologist at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, and who was invited to x-ray Tutankhamun’s mummy, died ‘mysteriously’ in 1924. He was invited to Egypt by Carter but died before he could go. Unfortunately, Reid was already suffering from one of the common causes of death among early radiographers (x-rays had only been discovered in 1895), namely, over-exposure to radiation. He died in Switzerland seeking a cure in 1924 at the age of only fifty-three, but his death had little to do with Tutankhamun and was no mystery. When the body of Tutankhamun was finally x-rayed in 1968, by Edinburgh radiographer R.G. Harrison …. nothing of note, and certainly nothing related to any kind of curse, happened.

Howard Carter's grave in Putney Vale Cemetery, London

Carter himself did not die until 1939 (of Hodgkin's lymphoma) although he died in relatively obscurity, very different to the celebrity of the pharaoh whose tomb he had discovered. He did not succumb to any earlier iteration of the curse, however, unless relative obscurity is to be considered one of its facets. Carter also remained actively dismissive whenever anyone spoke of the curse to him, calling it “tommy rot.” When he died, however, stories of the curse revived, and they have remained current ever since.

Many of the stories told to make up the curse are also divided as to when the curse was invoked – when the tomb as first disturbed (November 1922) or only when the burial chamber itself was opened (February 1923). These stories also lead back to the tale that the burial chamber was entered (unofficially) in November 1922 rather than at its official opening in February.

There were many people present at the opening of the tomb who remained utterly unaffected by any curse. Fifty-eight people can be found in accounts as present when the sarcophagus was opened; of them only eight died within the following twelve years. Others lived long, healthy lives. Perhaps the most entwined of those was Lady Evelyn Herbert, Lord Carnarvon’s daughter who was present at the opening of the tomb in November 1922, one of the four to enter the tomb surreptitiously that night, and present once more at the opening of the burial chamber in February 1923. Indeed, according to a story she later told to her father’s brother, she entered the ‘second chamber’ (the burial chamber) on the night of November 26, 1922. As she was the smallest person present, she entered the second chamber first. If there were to be a victim of any curse, surely Evelyn should have borne the brunt of it. She died as recently as 1980, at the age of seventy-eight, (almost) the longest-lived of any of those present, and fifty-eight years after the curse was supposedly triggered. Although she did not return to Egypt after her father’s death, she did remain in contact with Howard Carter and she was one of only a very few who attended his funeral in 1939. Evelyn also attended the 50th anniversary exhibition of the discovery of the tomb in in 1972 where no reiteration of the curse affected her.

Lady Evelyn Herbert in 1923 

The record for the longest-lived of those present in 1922 or 1923 was Sergeant Richard Adamson, one of the police guards who guarded the tomb for seven years. He lived until 1982. In late 1981, he travelled back to Egypt (only his second trip there, after the first in the 1920s) to defy the curse. By that point, the nearly eighty-year-old had lost both legs to diabetes. It was claimed that, by that time, the curse had claimed forty victims. American archaeologist John Ora ‘J.O.’ Kinnaman only died in 1961, at the age of eighty-four. Arthur ‘Pecky’ Callender, Carter’s assistant and the other man present when the tomb was first opened, was also one of the four visitors to the burial chamber. His death is something of a mystery, although it came in 1936. He continued to assist Carter through 1924-6, although they often argued. He was involved in excavations until 1936, such as those in Armant. He died at the age of sixty, probably in Alexandria, in December 1936, or in 1937 although his death was not recorded by the Register Office in England, nor was the British Consulate informed. He died without a will. Arthur Lucas, a chemist who moved to Egypt in 1897 because of tuberculosis, also joined Carter in December 1922 to clear the tomb. He continued to work in Egypt and, during the Second World War, helped protect the contents of the Cairo Museum. He died of heart failure in 1945 at the age of seventy-eight. Photographer Harry Burton, also working with the Metropolitan Museum team in 1922 was, like Mace, loaned to Carter in December that year to photograph the contents of the tomb – he eventually took 3,400 images of items from the tomb as well as learning how to operate a motion picture camera used for the famous film of the tomb shot in 1924. He continued to work in Egypt but in the late 1930s his health declined due to diabetes, to which he succumbed in Egypt in 1940, at the age of sixty.

There was/is no curse of Tutankhamun, all of the deaths of those involved (even peripherally) were unfortunate but not linked to Tutankhamun. Many more who were intimately connected to the discovery and excavation ‘escaped’ any effects of any such curse. To many involved in Egyptology and more widely, however, they have never let such facts get in the way of a good story.

Further Reading

  • G.H. James Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun(London: Kegan Paul ,1992).
  • John Lawton The Last Survivor’ Saudi Aramco World November/December 1981: 10-21.
  • V.F. Winstone Howard Carter: and the Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun (London: Constable, 1991).

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