The Curse of Tutankhamun: Mysteries and Fungi

Howard Carter in Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Photo taken by Harry Burton via Wikimedia Commons.

Last year in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic outstanding archaeological discoveries were being made in Egypt. They mostly occurred in Saqqara, a small village in the Giza Governorate, that once was one of the principal necropolis of Ancient Egypt. In just the past 12 months hundreds of sarcophagi were found: in November 2020 160 sarcophagi – some containing intact mummies – were discovered and ever since others were excavated in January 2021 and April 2021.

The amount of knowledge we were able to obtain on Ancient Egypt, their culture and their attitude towards death are incredibly vast. However, the most common reaction to these findings has been nothing short of begging to close the tombs to avoid unleashing curses. This, this and this are just some of the usual articles and videos on the topic where most of the comments show the same reaction: leave the mummies alone or bad things will happen!

One would say that with the current scientific advancements we are making falling for these superstitions and fears would be naïve, but psychologists say otherwise. Superstitions stem from our inability to control our future. There are things that we cannot understand nor control so we tend to link unrelated events in order to give them sense: it is human nature.

So how come we are so scared of Egyptian tombs though? A bit of research reveals an incredible tale behind this: the Curse of Tutankhamun.

 

Who? What? When?

It is 1922 and archaeologist Howard Carter has been working for 30 years digging in Egypt in search of ancient tombs. The opportunity to excavate the hidden beauties of Ancient Egypt is only possible thanks to the financial assistance of Lord Carnarvon, a rich Englishman who shared Carter’s fascination to Egypt. For three decades Carter had been looking for Tutankhamun’s burial site, a pharaoh who died fairly young and ruled around 3200 years ago. Most tombs that were found around those times were generally already emptied of valuable objects by grave robbers.

It was November of 1922 when a water boy found the steps that led to one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time: the untouched tomb of King Tutankhamun of the 18th dynasty. Never until then a tomb was found in such pristine conditions with all its artefacts still there.

Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Herbert standing in front of the steps of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. Photo taken by Harry Burton via Wikimedia Commons.

Why are we not fully celebrating this discovery?                                     

The news of the discovery coupled with the finding the pharaoh’s mummy in a gold sarcophagus made Carter a celebrity overnight with the media going crazy at this news. Who can blame them? Our inner Indiana Jones would have gone crazy too if they were at the premiere of such an event.

And then the rich benefactor that financed the entire excavation, Lord Carnarvon, dies four months after the discovery in strange circumstances.

 

The birth of a curse                                                                                       

The most common story around his death says that Lord Carnarvon died after being bit on the cheek by a mosquito. While shaving his beard the scab from the bite was removed causing an infection that led to his demise.

Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, the one that wrote Sherlock Holmes!) declared that this was because of the “mummy curse” as he was an ardent believer of the supernatural. Media at the times picked this story immediately and so the legend begins.

 

The mystery continues

In the next ten years following the discovery of the tomb people connected to it seem to keep dying in weird ways: from smothering to assassinations, from fever to pneumonia people are noticing a certain pattern. The fevers and pneumonia cases struck me a bit as Lord Carnarvon’s death was very discussed. The reported cause of death was “pneumonia supervening on [facial] erysipelas” which led many doctors, microbiologists and scientists wonder whether the famous curse was not simply just a very bad case of aspergillosis.

 

The answer is a fungus?

A colony of Aspergillus parasiticus by Medmyco via Wikimedia Commons.

Aspergillus is a type of mold found in both indoors and outdoors environments that in people with weakened immune systems (and Lord Carnarvon was known to have poor health!) can cause severe infection. Symptoms range from shortness of breath and cough to fever and chest pain depending on the type of fungus.

Mummies have been found to carry mold, particularly Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus that can be cause of concern if you have a weak immune system. Indeed ancient tombs seem to be carrying many types of bacteria that could cause respiratory diseases – Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus – or gases that in large quantities could make you very sick.

 

A mystery that will remain unsolved

Unfortunately, the lack of evidence from autopsies or pathology exams will not bring definitive answers. Hold up, is it the Curse of Tutankhamun the source of all this death? While pop culture had really fun with this idea I am afraid that you will not get cursed if you open an ancient tomb. Science sometimes cannot offer the definitive answer, but it can lead us to closest path to destination.

So perhaps not exploring ancient tombs when sick could be a beginning as a bad fungal infection might be the only cursed thing you will get from such experience.

Further reading

On Tutankhamun and the discovery of his tomb:

On curses and fungi:


8 Responses to “The Curse of Tutankhamun: Mysteries and Fungi”

  1. Alexandra-Maria Blejusca says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read this Catherine! It is an interesting question: many researchers have found all sorts of bacteria and fungi in mummies, but with the amount of tombs that have been opened and the fact that in the 16th-17th century Europeans used to crush mummies and make medicines out of them, it seems that we might b actually stronger than the curses themselves! 🙂

  2. Alexandra-Maria Blejusca says:

    Thank you a lot Inez! I am so sorry for ruining the fun, I was sad too to discover that the one of the coolest stories I had ever heard could actually be so anticlimactic in the end.

  3. Alexandra-Maria Blejusca says:

    Thank you so much Rebecca! I am glad you enjoyed this blog, but all the merit goes to the mummies, they always make things interesting. 🙂

  4. Alexandra-Maria Blejusca says:

    Thank you so much Will for the helpful feedback! I updated the blog with the help of your suggestion and I also added a picture to show that Lord Carnarvon had indeed contact with the tomb. Again thank you for reading and appreciating my article and for giving me precious feedback.

  5. Rebecca Super says:

    Well done on writing such an engaging blog post! Having a curse makes the finding of mummies more enthralling. But, I suppose its icing on the cake 😉

  6. Will Hudson says:

    Really interesting story! I’m a little confused – did Lord Carnarvon ever actually make contact with the mummy or attend the tomb, or is the idea that Carter transported the mould back to him somehow?
    Some of the sentences were a little long (especially at the beginning), which made the ideas harder to follow. But overall, a cool topic!

  7. Catherine Muir says:

    I’ve heard of this “curse”, it’s interesting to hear the explanation behind this. Do you think it’s possible one of these excavations will release a dangerous fungus/bacteria/virus that we will not be able to fight off, even with our modern medicine?

  8. Inez Beadell says:

    Hi Alexandra-Maria, this is a great article! I’ve always been fascinated with Ancient Egypt and the Curse of Tutankhamun, though it’s a little disappointing the answer to the ‘curse’ could be so mundane as fungus.