October 07, 2022

Article at Jason on Authory

The Science Behind "King Tut's Curse"

photo by Mark Fischer
photo by Mark Fischer

Amateur archaeologist Howard Carter had spent five years digging in the Valley of the Kings, looking for an intact tomb that hadn't been looted by grave-robbers. In November of 1922, as the money and the patience of his patron Lord Carnarvon was running out, Carter made the find of the century: the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Journalists flocked to the site, but in an attempt to maintain order -- and make himself some money -- he sold the exclusive rights to the story, and its photographs to the Times of London.

Egyptologist and journalist Arthur Weigall was there, reporting for the Daily Mail. Without firsthand access to the excavation, he cast about for any angle. Noting how Carnarvon joked and laughed before entering what Weigall considered a sacred place, he said to a fellow reporter, "I give him six weeks to live."

Lord Carnarvon (left), his wife, and Howard Carter
Lord Carnarvon (left), his wife, and Howard Carter

It actually took closer to six months, but Weigall turned out to be right: Lord Carnarvon died of what doctors then described as pneumonia caused by blood poisoning. Carter's patron had been bitten by a mosquito in Egypt, then accidentally cut the wound while shaving, leading to an infection.

Weigall announced this was the curse of King Tut, striking down any who dared to disturb his tomb. The public, already fascinated by the "exotic" Middle East, ate it up. But the story would have been forgotten if more people involved in the dig hadn't actually started dying in mysterious ways.

There was financier George Jay Gould, who died a month after Carnarvon from a fever he caught in Egypt. Then came Arthur Mace, a member of Carter's crew, who died five years later of pneumonia at the relatively young age of 53. Carter's secretary, Richard Bethell, died in 1929 from an apparent murder. But most frightening of all was Hugh Evelyn-White, an Egyptologist and one of the first to enter the tomb alongside Carter. Less than two years later, he wrote in his own blood "I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear," before hanging himself. Other deaths, including Lord Carnarvon's brother, provided further fuel.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But a new investigation by paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi hints there may have been a scientific cause. Recent studies of samples from other mummy's bandages found two dangerous species of mold: Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus. These can cause allergic reactions that include bleeding in the lungs and skin lesions -- particularly in people with weakened immune systems. Lord Carnarvon, for one, had suffered lung infections throughout his life.

But it wasn't just the mummy that may have proven lethal. The walls of the tomb may have contained bacteria that cause respiratory problems. Orpiment, used for yellow paint within the tomb, contained arsenic that's highly toxic.

Howard Carter inspect Tut's sarcophagus
Howard Carter inspect Tut's sarcophagus

These toxins, particularly Aspergillus, could easily have been the causes or contributing factors in the death of Carnarvon, Mace, and Gould. We don't what mental issues may have afflicted Evelyn-White, but it's quite possible that a fragile psyche, when confronted with hysteria about a deadly curse, could turn to self-harm.

So it looks like one newspaper article, from one disgruntled journalist, combined with toxins that were largely unknown to the science of the time, helped create one of the most popular superstitions in Western culture.

And what about Carter himself? As the central figure in the tomb's opening, he should have been the curse's first victim. But he lived another 16 years, dying at age 64 from cancer, which is not known to be connected to any tomb toxins.

In addition, Carter always expressed frustration at the idea of a curse. He said "The sentiment of the Egyptologist...is entirely opposed to foolish superstitions." He found such fabulist stories a distraction from the remarkable true story of King Tut himself. And through his passionate devotion to archaeology, he secured a kind of immortality alongside the famous pharaoh.

Jason Ginsburg is a member of the Archaeological Institute of America. He manages the adventure, science, and history content for the Discovery+ streaming service.