When Lord Carnarvon died on 5 April 1923, seven weeks after the official opening of pharaoh Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, rumours were rife about a curse. News of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its discoverers had sent the world’s media into a frenzy and the death of Lord Carnarvon added another twist for eager journalists.
All sorts of links were found. The lights of Cairo were said to have gone out at the moment of his death (not an uncommon occurrence back then), while back at Carnarvon’s English estate his dog, Susie, was supposed to have howled and died at the same time.
Carnarvon’s death came just a couple of weeks after a public warning by novelist Mari Corelli that there would be dire consequences for anyone who entered the sealed tomb. The media and public lapped it up. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a believer in the occult, announced that Carnarvon’s death could have been the result of a “Pharaoh’s curse”.
One newspaper even printed a curse supposed to have been written in hieroglyphs at the entrance of the tomb, the translation being:
“They who enter this sacred tomb shall swift be visited by wings of death.”
However, no inscribed curse was found.
One inscription, found on the Anubis shrine (a jackal on a pedestal shown here) in the tomb’s so-called Treasury, did say:
“It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the deceased.”
However, a reporter went on to add his own words to the reported inscription:
“and I will kill all those who cross this threshold into the sacred precincts of the Royal King who lives forever.”
Reporting of the curse was further fuelled by more deaths, many with very stretched associations to Tutankhamun. Five months after Carnarvon died, his younger brother died suddenly.
Closer to the tomb, another “casualty” was the pet canary of the tomb’s discoverer, Howard Carter. The bird was swallowed by a cobra on the day the tomb was opened. This was interpreted as retribution for violation of the tomb, particularly as a cobra was depicted on the brow of the pharaoh from where it would spit fire at the king’s enemies.
According to one list, of the 26 individuals present at the official opening of the tomb, six had died within a decade. In reality, many of the key individuals associated with the discovery and work on the tomb lived to a ripe old age.
Even when some of the treasures of Tutankhamun went on tour overseas in the 1970s, some people were still of the belief that the curse might be at work. One example was from San Francisco where a policeman guarding Tutankhamun’s gold funerary mask tried to claim compensation for a mild stroke based on the effect of the curse. The judge dismissed the claim.
Here is a list of some of the major players involved with the tomb and their fates.
Carnarvon had been in poor health for over 20 years following a motoring accident in Germany. Less than two weeks after the official opening of the burial chamber, Carnarvon received a mosquito bite which became infected after he cut it while shaving. Carnarvon fell ill and, with his resistance lowered, came down with pneumonia and eventually passed away at the age of 57.
As discoverer of the tomb, Carter should have been Number 1 on the curse’s “hit list”, but he survived until March 1939, just short of his 65th birthday and nearly 17 years after entering the tomb – about a decade of which was spent working in the tomb itself.
Lady Evelyn Herbert:
Lady Evelyn, Lord Carnarvon’s daughter and one of the first into the tomb, died in 1980 at the age of about 79.
Burton was the photographer loaned to Carter by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to document the work done in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Many of the magnificent black & white photographs of the time were taken by Burton who died in 1940.
Gardiner studied the tomb’s inscriptions and was still very active working on Egyptian grammar for many decades until his death in 1963.
Dr D. E. Derry:
Derry carried out the original autopsy on Tutankhamun’s mummy. If anyone should have been cursed along with Carter, it probably should have been Derry, but he didn’t die until 1969.
So judge for yourself. Was the curse of Tutankhamun at work?