On November 26, 1922, in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of Tutankhamen, the boy king of Egypt, was discovered. After three thousand years, four burial chambers were uncovered with nearly five thousand objects of gold, alabaster, lapis lazuli, and onyx, in addition to the mummy of the king and his gold mask. These treasures have expanded modern understanding of the art, life, religion, and history of ancient Egypt.
Two men were responsible for this discovery—Howard Carter, a British painter-archaeologist, and George E. S. M. Herbert, fifth Earl of Carnarvon. A few weeks after the excavation, Lord Carnarvon died suddenly, and this event, together with the deaths of various other individuals associated with the Tutankhamen tomb, started the story of a "Curse of the Pharaohs." One writer claimed the curse was responsible for the lives of some three dozen scientists, archaeologists, and scholars.
Who Was Tutankhamen?
It has been claimed that Tutankhamen was a great king because his tomb contained such treasures. Others have suggested he was the pharaoh of Exodus and it was his wife, Ankhesenpa-Aten, who found Moses in the bulrushes and raised him. In fact, both claims are incorrect. Tutankhamen reigned during the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom. He was a boy of nine when he came to the throne and his reign lasted nine years, from about 1334 to 1325 B.C.E. He was not the ruler of Egypt during the exodus described in the Bible.
It is believed Tutankhamen's name was originally Tutankhaten ("perfect life of Aten"). He married Ankhesenpa-Aten when a child. He wife was a daughter of King Amenhotep IV (1372-1334 B.C.E.) who had earlier attempted to supplant the god Amun by the Aten, in the process changing his name to Akhenaten ("pleasing to the Aten"). At that time, the priests of Amun had more power than the ruler, so as Akhenaten he reinforced his rule and suppressed worship of Amun.
During the reign of Tutankhamen, the priesthoods dissolved by Akhenaten were partially reinstated and new images installed in temples. However, in giving pride to Amun, there was no attempt to destroy the worship of Aten, only a displacement of Aten's former status as principal or sole god. Many of the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen indicate tolerance toward former gods. One inscription on a golden throne calls Tutankhamen "image of Ra, beloved of the gods," and a cabinet inscription states "eldest son of Aten in heaven." The memory of Akhenaten is also preserved in tomb objects such as a box bearing the name of Akhenaten, and an artist's palette that belonged to Akhenaten's eldest daughter Meritaten.
Tutankhamen died before a grand burial tomb could be prepared. Its importance lies in its contents—chariot bodies, state chairs, gilded couches, royal apparel, trinkets, cosmetics, statues, alabaster vessels, even food, and the golden mask of Tutankhamen himself. Most of the other royal tombs had been ravaged by robbers over the centuries.
Credit for discovery of the tomb was given to Howard Carter. Born May 9, 1873, in Swaffham, Norfolk, England, he was the son of a watercolor painter. At the age of 17, he was hired by Percy E. Newberry of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities to work at the British Museum, London, to make finished drawings of Egyptian inscriptions. Carter later became assistant to Sir William Flinders Petrie, an Egyptologist, traveling in Egypt and recording in watercolors the paintings and inscriptions in temples.
In 1899, at the age of 25, Carter became inspector of monuments in Upper Egypt and Nubia, employed by the Antiquities Service, which was then administered by the French authorities. In 1904, Britain and France partitioned North Africa, the French assuming control of Morocco, and the British of Egypt. But French rights in archaeology continued, and authorization to excavate tombs required the investigator be accompanied by an inspector of antiquities and share the finds with the Antiquities Service on behalf of the Egyptians.
While Carter was an inspector of monuments, he worked for several seasons excavating the Valley of the Kings with American millionaire Theodore M. Davis. After opposition from the Egyptians, the French, and the newspapers, Carter lost his position as an inspector in 1903 due to an incident in a tomb at Saqqara.
For a time, Carter sold watercolor paintings to tourists and made paintings for Theodore Davis. In 1907, he stated working for the amateur archaeologist Carnarvon. George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert became fifth Earl of Carnarvon on the death of his father in 1890. After an automobile accident he was advised by physicians to avoid the damp English winter and spent a year in Egypt, where he first became attracted to archaeological excavation.
The joint explorations of Carnarvon and Carter began in the winter of 1907-08, with excavations in the Valley of Der al-Bahari in Western Thebes. In 1910-11, they discovered an unfinished temple of Hatshepsut and other remains. In 1911-12, new ground was broken with excavations of Xois near the Nile delta. It was thought by 1922 that there were no more royal tombs in the Valley of Kings, but Carter persisted, and in December 1922 discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.
On November 6, Carter sent a telegram to Carnarvon in England: "AT LAST HAVE MADE WONDERFUL DISCOVERY IN VALLEY. A MAGNIFICENT TOMB WITH SEALS INTACT. RE-COVERED SAME FOR YOUR ARRIVAL. CONGRATULATIONS." Carnarvon went to Egypt and 20 days later the entrance to the tomb was finally excavated and Carter entered, accompanied by Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert (Carnarvon's sister), and an assistant.
On February 17, 1923, Carter and Carnarvon entered the main burial chamber of Tutankhamen and found a wall of gold. The work of describing, classifying, and removing the shrine contents, including the mummy of the pharaoh himself, could not take place for another season. There were also disputes between Carter and the Egyptian authorities, notably with the Frenchman Pierre Lacau, appointed head of the Antiquities Service in Cairo in 1917. These disputes concerned the ownership of the antiquities in the Tutankhamen tomb— Carnarvon and Carter claiming rights to a proportion of them and Lacau maintaining all the contents were the property of the Antiquities Service and the Cairo Museum.
In March 1933, Carnarvon and Evelyn left for Cairo so that Carnarvon could negotiate for a "proper division" of the tomb antiquities. However, Carnarvon did not live to see the conclusion of the dispute or even the removal of the golden funerary mask of the Tutankhamen mummy. In April, he became seriously ill after his razor nicked a mosquito bite. Infection set in, followed by pneumonia. He died on April 6. The newspapers printed a story that he was a victim of the "Curse of the Pharaohs."
The Legend of the Curse of the Pharaohs
Curses were certainly known in ancient Egypt, usually invoking the wrath of the gods against those seeking to embezzle funds for guards, occasionally against thieves. Many tombs were robbed by grave robbers over the centuries. An inscription of the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, made over five thousand years ago, reads: "As for any people who shall take possession of this tomb as their mortuary property or shall do any evil thing to it, judgment shall be had with them by the great God."
In his book The Curse of the Pharaohs (1975), Philipp Vandenberg states there were 22 other "mysterious" deaths of individuals associated with the tomb. The American archaeologist Arthur Mace, who had assisted Carter in opening the tomb, suffered from exhaustion after the death of Carnarvon and fell into a deep coma, dying in the same hotel as Carnarvon. George J. Gould, son of the financier, visited the tomb and died the next day after a high fever ascribed to bubonic plague. Joel Wood, a British industrialist who visited the tomb, died of a high fever on the ship carrying him back to England. Archibald Douglas Reid, a radiologist who worked on the Tutankhamen mummy, suffered from weakness, and died after returning to England.
Other fatalities associated with the tomb included a Professor Winlock, a Professor Foucraft, and archaeologists Garry Davies, Edward Harkness, and Douglas Derry. Carnarvon's wife, Lady Alimina, died in 1929, apparently from an insect bite, and Carter's secretary Richard Bethell died the same year with a circulatory collapse. When Bethell's father heard the news, he committed suicide, and reportedly his hearse ran over a boy on the way to the cemetery.
Vandenberg further claimed Carter had found a clay tablet in the antechamber with an inscription that Alan Gardiner deciphered as "Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh." However, such a tablet was never cataloged and there is no trace of it.
One newspaper reported there was a hieroglyphic curse on the door of the inner shrine: "They who enter this sacred tomb shall swift be visited by wings of death," but this story is a fabrication. Similarly another report cited an inscription on the mud base of a candle that stated: "It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the deceased and I will kill all those who cross this threshold," but the last phrase was another invention.
"The Curse of the Pharaohs" became a newspaper topic for many years and every death of an individual even distantly associated with the tomb long after the excavation was solemnly recorded as another victim of the curse.
Some of these claims were remote. They included the friend of a tourist who had entered the burial chamber; the friend was knocked down by a Cairo taxicab. An associate curator of Egyptology at the British Museum in London died peacefully in his bed, while an Egyptologist in France died of old age—both were reported as curse victims. A workman in the British Museum was said to have died suddenly while labeling objects from the tomb—although the British Museum did not have any of the Egyptian antiquities. For some time, such stories panicked collectors of Egyptian antiquities, who hurriedly donated their souvenirs to museums.
Carnarvon's son was interviewed on NBC Television in New York on July 14, 1977, and questioned about the "curse." Carnarvon's son stated he "neither believed it nor disbelieved it," but added that he would "not accept a million pounds to enter the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings." A New York Daily News report claimed that the same evening, the younger Lord Carnarvon was attending a dinner in an apartment high above Manhattan and looked out over the city and saw all the lights flicker and black out. After candles were lit, he said to his hosts: "It is again the curse of Tutankhamen." However, Carter lived for 17 years after his great discovery, dying March 2, 1939, in his mid-sixties.
For decades, relics of Tutankhamen remained in the Cairo Museum, limited by space, and many objects were not even displayed. In June 1974, President Richard M. Nixon visited Egypt, where President Anwar Sadat suggested an exhibition of the masterpieces of Tutankhamen in the United States could affirm the friendly accord and goodwill between the two nations.
The subject of "King Tut's Curse" has been raised from time to time and still has believers. The term is also used by travelers in the Middle East to describe the hazard of diarrhea, also known in Mexico as "Montezuma's Revenge."
Budge, E. A. W. Tutankhamen: Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian Monotheism. London: M. Hopkinson, 1923. Reprint, New York: Bell Publishing, 1979.
Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen. 3 vols. London: Cassell, 1923-33. Reprint, New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963.
Gilber, Katherine S., with Joan K. Holt and Sara Hudson, eds. Treasures of Tutankhamen. Catalog of an Exhibition between 1976 and 1979. New York: Ballantine Books; New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.
Herbert, G. E. S. M. (5th Earl of Carnarvon), and Howard Carter. Five Years' Explorations at Thebes, 1907-1911. London:H. Frowde, 1912.
Hoving, Thomas. Tutankhamen: The Untold Story. New York: Simon & Schuster; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Vandenberg, Philipp. Der Fluch der Pharaonen. Scherz Verlag, 1973. English edition as The Curse of the Pharaohs. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1975.
——. Der Vergessene Pharao. C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 1978. English edition as The Golden Pharaoh. New York: Macmillan; London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980.
Wynne, Barry. Behind the Mask of Tutankhamen. New York: Taplinger, 1973.