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

So – according to journalists of the time – read the inscription above the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, when it was unearthed in 1922.

Shortly thereafter, several of the archaeologists and workers who desecrated the tomb of Tutankhamun were reported to have died horrible and early deaths.

The Discovery

By November 1922, the archaeologist Howard Carter had spent seven frustrating years looking for King Tut’s tomb in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.

Eventually, his workers dug down 4 meters beneath the tomb of Rameses VI, where they found an entrance in the rock that led to a passageway 3 meters high and 2 meters wide. They cleaned out the rubble, and at the twelfth step, found the top of a sealed stone doorway.

Howard Carter immediately invited his financier, Lord Carnarvon, to come to the site to be present for the opening of the tomb.

On the evening of November 24, Carter and Carnarvon were present when all the rubble was removed to reveal the stone door with the seal of King Tutankhamun in the plaster. This door was opened.

It took a further two days of hard work to clear another descending stairway full of rubble. This time they found a second door, which had the seals of both the Royal Necropolis and Tutankhamun. The workers made a hole through the stone door and Carter looked in with the light of a candle.

There was magnificent treasure in the anteroom – and even more in the inner room, which took them another three months to get to. Lord Carnarvon himself opened this inner door on February 17th, 1923.

King Tut’s mummified remains were located inside three coffins. The outer two coffins were made of hammered gold fitted to wooden frames, while the innermost coffin was made of solid gold.

To remove the objects from the body (which in many cases were stuck fast by the hardened embalming resins used) Carter’s team cut up the mummy into various pieces. The arms and legs were detached, the torso cut in half, and the head was severed. Hot knives were used to remove it from the golden mask to which it was cemented by resin.

Desecration enough, you might say.

Death, On Swift Wings

The tomb was opened on November 29, 1922.

*Lord Carnarvon, financial backer of the excavation team who was present at the tomb’s opening, died on April 5, 1923 after a mosquito bite became infected. He died 4 months, and 7 days after the opening of the tomb.
*George Jay Gould I, a visitor to the tomb, died in the French Riviera on May 16, 1923 after he developed a fever following his visit.
*Egypt’s Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey died July 10, 1923: shot dead by his wife.
*Colonel The Hon. Aubrey Herbert, MP, Carnarvon’s half-brother, became completely blind and died 26 September 1923 from blood poisoning related to a dental procedure intended to restore his eyesight.
*Woolf Joel, a South African millionaire and visitor to the tomb, died November 13, 1923. He was shot dead in Johannesburg by blackmailer Baron Kurt von Veltheim whose real name was Karl Frederic Moritz Kurtze.
*Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, a radiologist who x-rayed Tutankhamun’s mummy, died January 15, 1924 from a mysterious illness.
*Sir Lee Stack, Governor-General of Sudan, died November 19, 1924: assassinated while driving through Cairo.
*A. C. Mace, a member of Carter’s excavation team, died in 1928 from arsenic poisoning
*The Hon. Mervyn Herbert, Carnarvon’s half brother and the aforementioned Aubrey Herbert’s full brother, died May 26, 1929, reportedly from “malarial pneumonia”.
*Captain The Hon. Richard Bethell, Carter’s personal secretary, died November 15, 1929: found smothered in his bed.
*Richard Luttrell Pilkington Bethell, 3rd Baron Westbury, father of the above, died February 20, 1930. He supposedly threw himself off his seventh floor apartment.
*Howard Carter opened the tomb on February 16, 1923, and died well over a decade later on March 2, 1939. However, some have still attributed his death to the ‘curse’.

No disputing the fact; they all died.

The question is: What killed them?

Tomb Curses?

Curses relating to tombs are extremely rare – perhaps because the idea of such desecration was unthinkable, and dangerous to record in writing.
They most frequently occur in private tombs of the Old Kingdom era.

The tomb of Ankhtifi (9–10th dynasty) contains the warning: “any ruler who… shall do evil or wickedness to this coffin… may Hemen [a local deity] not accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit”.

The tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi (9–10th dynasty) contains an inscription: “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb… impure… there will be judgment… an end shall be made for him… I shall seize his neck like a bird… I shall cast the fear of myself into him”.

Curses after the Old Kingdom era are less common though more severe in expression, sometimes invoking the ire of Thoth or the destruction of Sekhemet. Zahi Hawass quotes an example of a curse: “Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.”

Modern Accounts of Curses

Zahi Hawass recalled that as a young archaeologist excavating at Kom Abu-Bellou he had to transport a number of artifacts from the Greco-Roman site. On the day he did so his cousin died, on the anniversary of that day his uncle died, and on the third anniversary his aunt died.

Years later when he excavated the tombs of the builders of the pyramids at Giza he encountered the curse: “All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it may the crocodile be against them in water, and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion against them on land.”

Though not superstitious, he decided not to disturb the mummies.

Hawass was later involved in the removal of two child mummies from Bahariya Oasis to a museum, and subsequently reported how he was haunted by the children in his dreams. These phenomena did not stop until the mummy of the father was re-united with the children in the museum. He came to the conclusion that mummies should not be displayed – though it was a lesser evil than allowing the general public into the tombs.

The Death of Carnarvon

The famous Egyptologist James Henry Breasted worked with Howard Carter soon after the first opening of King Tut’s tomb.

He reported how Carter sent a messenger on an errand to his house. On approaching his home he thought he heard a “faint, almost human cry”. Reaching the entrance, he saw the bird cage occupied by a cobra, the symbol of Egyptian monarchy.

Carter’s canary had died in the cobra’s mouth – and this fueled local rumors of a curse.

Arthur Weigall, a previous Inspector-General of Antiquities to the Egyptian Government, reported that this was interpreted as Carter’s house being broken into by the Royal Cobra (the same as that worn on the King’s head to strike enemies) on the very day the King’s tomb was being broken into.

The death of Lord Carnarvon six weeks after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb resulted in many more curse stories in the press

He had been bitten by a mosquito, and later slashed the bite accidentally while shaving. It became infected and blood poisoning resulted

Supposedly, at the time of his death, all the lights of Cairo went out. At his estate back in England, Carnarvon’s dog is said to have howled and then died at the exact moment that its master did.

Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) suggested at the time that Lord Carnarvon’s death had been caused by “elementals” created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb, and this further fueled the media interest.

The first autopsy carried out on the body of Tutankhamun found a healed lesion on the left cheek, but as Carnarvon had been buried six months previously it was not possible to determine if the location of the wound on the King corresponded with the location of the fatal mosquito bite on Carnarvon.

Possible Explanations

Some have speculated that deadly fungus could have grown in the enclosed tombs and been released when they were open to the air. Arthur Conan Doyle favored this idea, and speculated that the mold had been placed deliberately to punish grave robbers.

Others have theorized that radioactive isotopes were incorporated into the adornments of the tomb, and that deaths may have occurred through radiation poisoning.

Recent studies of newly opened ancient Egyptian tombs that had not been exposed to modern contaminants found pathogenic bacteria of the Staphylococcus and Pseudomonas genera, and the molds Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus. Additionally, newly opened tombs often become roosts for bats, and bat guano may harbor histoplasmosis. However, at the concentrations typically found, these pathogens are generally only dangerous to persons with weakened immune systems.

Air samples taken from inside an unopened sarcophagus through a drilled hole showed high levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide; these gases are all toxic, but are easily detected by their strong odors. Hydrogen sulfide is detectable at low concentrations (up to 100PPM) beyond which it acts as a nerve agent. At 1000ppm it will kill with a single inhalation.

The novelist Tracy S. Morris offers a more prosaic theory:

“Here’s a recipe for a curse: Take one coffin filled with human remains. Add in enough food and drink to sustain a person in the afterlife. Bury it in a tomb and let it sit for several thousand years. The result? Deadly, toxic mold and bacteria.”

Morris argues that:

“while the toxic mold and bacteria might not be in levels that would harm most humans, they pose a threat to someone with a compromised immune system – such as someone who may have an infected mosquito bite.”

Food for thought.

I’ll let you chew on it, for a while.

Till next time.