Tutankhamun: Pharoah Curses & Fake News
In this weeks episode, Sally and I don our sceptic hats and delve into 1920s Egypt to dig up the story of Tutankhamun and the crazy publicity storm that followed Howard Carter after his uncovering of the tomb.
Wikipedia – Wiki on tomb KV62, the designation for Tutankhamun’s tomb site.
The Mummy’s Curse: The True Story of a Dark Fantasy – Written by Roger Luckhurst and published by Oxford University Press (2012) a solid book about the cultural history of Egyptian pharaoh curses. Starts with Tutankhamun and then delves much deeper into the cultural aspects of it all.
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In November of 1922, Howard Carter peered through a small hole, broken in the ancient brick wall. He shone a flickering candle flame that cast a glittering light around a small, dark underground chamber, untouched for thousands of years. “What do you see”? He was asked, to which he gave the now infamous reply, “Wonderful things”. Treasures and precious artefacts were not all that would be unearthed that day, however, as the tomb of Tutankhamen was gradually opened, rumours of something much more sinister seeped from the sands of Egypt to the far corners of the world, helped along by a voracious press, hungry for a story. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
A Brief History of Egyptology
Ancient Egypt has long held a deep fascination among civilisations throughout history. In fact, one of the often more surprising facts concerning the history of Egyptology is that it was the ancient Egyptians themselves that first documented and worked on the tombs, temples and artefacts of their elder generations. Pharaoh Thutmose IV restored the Sphinx in 1401BC and there are theories that Ramesses the second made further restorations almost 200 years later. The great pyramids too, along with several other temples and important artefacts were both restored and documented by the latter-day Ancient Egyptians.
When the Roman Empire was in full swing, their armies swept into Egypt, along with many scholars who undertook documentation work of the ancient sites and made some attempts at restoration work. This further continued into the middle ages, when Pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land made detours into Egypt and wrote of the infamous sites. Muslim Scholars went further, writing detailed descriptions and extensively documented Egyptian antiquities. In the 13th Century, Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, a teacher and Muslim scholar at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, wrote a two-volume account of ancient Egypt, complete with descriptions of the ancient sites, historical analysis of famines and the Nile along with graphical depictions of historical sites.
Continuing in the 13th Century and with the expansion of European exploration, the world of the Ancient Egyptians became more widely known throughout Europe. As a result, the concept of Egyptology as a science sprouted and the fledgeling discipline grew over the following 400 years as Scholars and men of learning took to understanding the Ancient structures in more depth. In the 17th Century, the Great Pyramids were documented and measured by the English mathematician John Greaves who would later go on to publish “Pyramidographia: Or a description of the Pyramids in Egypt” in 1646 and later, published in 1652 by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, “Oedipus Aegyptiacus” saw translated works of Hieroglyphs placed into a modern tongue understandable to Europeans. Whilst his translations were absolutely incorrect and fundamentally flawed, it was Kircher who put forth the idea that the glyphs were a phonetic alphabet, a concept that would later prove a useful starting point in the legitimate translation of the pictographic writing system.
Though the previous 400 years saw greater exposure of Ancient Egypt throughout Europe, It was with the French invasion by Napoleon Bonaparte that this long and ancient history would become truly popularised and the pace towards Modern Egyptology sped up, as the discipline gained greater accessibility, global exposure and rapid maturation.
Along with naval and land warfare, Bonaparte brought to Egypt a band of 167 Scholars, scientists and learned men, promoting Enlightenment and scientific discovery as both a form of propaganda and a tool to implement power over the region. One of these so-called “Savants” of Bonaparte’s Army, an Engineer named Pierre Francois Bouchard was placed in charge of rebuilding Fort Julien, near the port city of Rashid, though at the time it had been renamed by the French as the city of Rosetta. It was during these rebuilding efforts that the discovery of the Rosetta Stone was made in July of 1799, giving birth to and remaining forever as, one of the key discoveries of Modern Egyptology.
The importance of the stone as key to deciphering Ancient Egyptian text was recognised early on after the discovery by the French, but it wasn’t until the French surrender and the capture of the Stone by the British in 1801 that work on understanding and eventual translations could be undertaken. The British appropriation of the stone saw the artefact carted off eventually in 1802, to the British Museum, with copies submitted to Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh University and Trinity College Dublin. Over the next few decades, a fad spread throughout Europe, seeing amateur archaeologists flock to Egypt and the fashionable past-time of the rich to collect “Objets Orientales” surged, with it exposing much of Europe to the Ancient history.
A serialised French volume published between 1809-1829, named “Description De’ L’Egypte” played a huge role in popularising Egyptian history that garnered this fad by making much of the information widely available for the first time. Throughout this same period, John -Francois Champollion and Englishman Thomas Young were embroiled in a fierce rivalry to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, eventually leading to an academic announcement in September of 1822 by Champollion, of his successful unlocking of the writing system. This point in history is now seen as the birth-proper of modern Archeology in Egypt.
Following the early breakthroughs, a flurry of discoveries were made, documents were published and information disseminated, culminating in a 12 volume work by Prussian pioneer Karl Lapesius named “Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien” from 1849-1856. This massive work detailed much of the known landmarks, writings and historical sites of Ancient Egypt. The field of Egyptology continued to grow and accessibility to the ancient world flourished throughout the 1800s. As the century strolled forwards into its latter stages, in May 1874, in.a small house in Kensington, London, Marthur Joyce Carter gave birth to her son, Howard. His early years were uninspiring, he was a sickly and homeschooled child. From a relatively early age, he turned his hand to painting and drawing, learning from his father Samuel John Carter who was an accomplished Victorian painter. It was his skill in painting that would lead Howard Carter to both the discipline of Egyptology and finally, his own discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
As the final decade of the 19th Century dawned, Howard Carter set foot in Egypt for the first time. From a young age, he had been interested in the lands ancient history, spawned after a visit to the estate of Lord Amherst who owned his own large collection of Egyptian antiquities. By his teenage years and following the years of tuition under his father’s eye, Carter had become an accomplished painter himself. Amherst put him in touch with Percy Edward Newberry, a London based member of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Newberry was looking to employ an artist to copy artwork uncovered in tombs throughout Egypt on behalf of the fund and in 1891, at the age of 17, Carter embarked on his first journey to Egypt to work in the tombs of Beni-Hasan. He worked diligently and it wasn’t long before he picked up many skills valuable in excavation and archaeology from another member of the Fund, English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie.
Carters reputation as an Egyptologist went from strength to strength under Petrie, who was himself, famed for his methodical take on Archeology and preservation. By the age of 25, Carter was appointed Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt in the Bulak Museum by Gaston Maspero. This position was not to last, however, as, after a complicated dispute, he resigned and instead took to supporting himself using his artistic talents once again. Maspero, however, had taken to Carter and in 1907, he introduced Carter to George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a racehorse owner and automobile enthusiast who, after suffering illness, had discovered a further interest in Ancient Egypt when his doctor had prescribed warmer climbs as an aid to recuperation and he had chosen, like many wealthy British of the time, to venture forth to Egypt. Lord Carnarvon was looking to sponsor an Archaeologist and Carter was looking for funding to once again get involved in the work of excavating. This fortuitous working relationship between Carter and Lord Carnarvon was to be long and eventually, hugely successful.
The pairing of Carter and Lord Carnarvon was not the only significant happening in the early years of the 1900s, however, as in 1905, American Egyptologist Theodore Davis discovered a small Golden cup. Inscribed at the base was the name of a young pharaoh king no one had previously heard of. His name was Tutankhamen. Davis was already sure he had found the tomb of the boy king when he unearthed this small cache of gold, despite there being no body. Carter, however, had differing ideas.
Carter, Lord Carnarvon & Tutankhamun
Over the next six years, Carter worked tirelessly under the sponsorship of Lord Carnarvon, uncovering artefacts destined for his personal collection. Together they uncovered the tomb of Tetiky, 18th Dynasty Mayor of Thebes, along with the tombs and temples of Hatshepsut and Ramses IV. For Carter, this was small fry, his real dream and the dream he sold to Lord Carnarvon was to find the real tomb of Tutankhamun. Carter was convinced it still existed, intact and un-looted and he spent season after season digging in the desert, looking for any clue that could lead him to the discovery of the elusive tomb. Lord Carnarvon’s patience was profound, as discoveries that could lead the pair to the tomb dried up like a puddle in the hot Egyptian sand. Their searches were further complicated by the outbreak of WW1, with both men serving until 1917 when they resumed their work in Egypt. Unfortunately for both men, the wealthy Lords finances were not as deep as his patience and eventually, he returned to England, empty-handed. Carter was desperate and after much persuasion, netted himself one final season in Egypt. Carter returned to Egypt alone and once again began his search. Just three days later, on November 1st, 1922, he found himself standing on a stone slab, sunken slightly into the sand. He had recently cleared the area of debris, left from a collection of workmen’s huts that had been abandoned after the construction of an ancient tomb. Carter had once before, several seasons earlier discovered the huts and felt they lacked significance, this time, however, he was desperate. The stone slab was suspicious enough for Carter to order the site to be excavated and after employing his usual slow, methodical process, he uncovered a sunken staircase that led down into wall with a doorway, and above, in mud plaster were stamped two cartouches. Though they were unreadable and indistinct Carter ordered the stairway to be refilled and in high spirits sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon back in England. It read:
“At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulation.”
For Carter, there was now a painstakingly long two weeks of waiting before Lord Carnarvon, accompanied by his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert, would arrive on Egyptian soil. Finally, on November 23rd, the trio were reunited and the staircase once again excavated. Digging deeper this time, Carter uncovered further Cartouches, this time readable, which bore the name of Tutankhamun. Less encouraging, however, was evidence in the form of refilled tunnels, indicating that the tomb had been robbed and refilled in ancient times, long before Carter graced the same doorway and most likely shortly after the Pharaoh’s burial. The team persevered, clearing limestone, to a second door, once again, however, hope dwindled as the rope seal tied around the handle had been broken and resealed. Carter made a small hole in the door and peered through as silence fell in the chamber. Lord Carnarvon asked him finally, “What do you see?”, to which, gratefully for Lord Carnarvon, Carter famously replied, “Wonderful things”. Carter later expanded upon this moment of discovery:
“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold”.
The excavation of the tomb was a slow process, this small hole in the stone door opened on the 26th of November and the fanfare opening of the tomb in front of the press the next day was the beginning of an Archaeological story that would sweep the world with its splendour. It was also the beginning of another story that spread just as rapidly, however, this second story was altogether much more sinister.
The Curse of Tutankhamun
The opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun sparked a huge flurry of press interest. When Carter opened the tomb, they found a small “L” shaped room that was so full of antiquities that they were stacked haphazardly on top of one another from floor to ceiling, cramping the small underground room. Though there had been looting, it was thought to have been shortly after the pharaohs original death and only a few minor objects had been removed, with the inner chambers left entirely intact. After rumours that the valley of the Kings had been entirely exhausted for so long and now, a find so large and rich as this, the press went into overdrive. On December 22nd, the New York Times wrote:
“No finer human interest story, no more thrilling drama, no greater archaeological revelations could be summoned from history or the most vivid imagination than is told by the mute objects in this tomb of King Tutankhamun – mute objects that speak with golden eloquence and whose message is now being revealed to the world.”
The times were wrong though, there was a more thrilling drama emerging from vivid imaginations all around the world. The press on the scene of the excavation was becoming tiresome for Carter, they swarmed the dig site and chased Carter around Egypt. They were becoming so obtrusive that Carter showed concern for the safety of the excavation. He wrote in a journal:
“Archaeology under the limelight is a new experience for most of us. All of a sudden we find the world takes an interest so intense and so avid for details that special correspondents at large salaries have to be sent to interview us, report our every movement and hide around corners to surprise a secret out of us.”
This level of press intrusion unsettled Carter and was in part, one of several reasons that led Lord Carnarvon to strike an exclusivity contract with the London Times on the 9th of January 1923, for £5000 and 75% of all profits of sales from stories to the rest of the world. This deal infuriated the press, who saw the hot topic of the time being taken out of their grasp and monopolised by their rival. As finds continued and interest maintained, they were forced to get creative on their reporting of the situation. One such reporter, Arthur Weigall, an ex-egyptologist who now worked at the Daily Mail was well equipped to deal with such a situation and upon this effective locking out from the tomb itself, instead ran a story focusing on the death of Lord Carnarvon’s Canary, which, on the day the tomb was opened, had been bitten and killed by a cobra. The canary had been brought to Egypt as a symbol of good luck. The story told of how upon their return to the hotel, Carnarvons manservant greeted them at the door, dead canary in hand and hinted heavily at a dark force being the culprit:
“Already in this land of superstition,” Wrote Weigall, “Myths are starting to grow up, out of the canary’s death the most fantastic stories are being manufactured, so it has been easy to weave a legend that brought in the little bird, which in some ways symbolised the modern spirit of civilisation, and the cobra, which stood for the powers of the old dynasties..”
The seed was sown, stories of mummies curses began to slowly spring from Egypt and an inscription from
the base of a statue of Anubis found within the tomb that read:“It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the deceased”
Was embellished further by the press, with the fictional amendment:
“And I will kill all those who cross this threshold into the sacred precincts of the royal king who lives forever”.
To the delight of the press, the public found these stories just as fascinating as the find itself and the stories ran well. This was helped along when, on March 19th Lord Carnarvon was taken ill, after infecting a mosquito bite to his neck by nicking it with a razor whilst shaving. His health failing, he suffered from blood poisoning that further developed into pneumonia and during his illness, writer Marie Corelli wrote to the New York World with a dire warning:
“I cannot but think some risks are run by breaking into the last resting place of a King of Egypt, whose tomb is specially and solemnly guarded, and robbing him of his possessions. According to a rare book I possess entitled The Egyptian History of the Pyramids, the most dire punishment follows and rash intruded into the sealed tomb. The book names ‘secret poisons enclosed in boxes in such wise that those who touch them shall not know how they come to suffer’. That is why I ask, Was it a mosquito bite that was so seriously infected Lord Carnarvon?”
Corelli was a famous and influential novelist of the time, counting Queen Victoria among her readers and the press knew that her words would help give credence to such stories. On the 5th April, Lord Carnarvon passed away in the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo. He had lost his battle with blood poisoning and Pneumonia and with his death, the warming story of an ancient curse on the tomb of Tutankhamun boiled over. Reports of the lights failing across Cairo for twenty minutes following Carnarvons death circulated along with the news that his beloved Fox Terrier dog had keeled over and died back home on the English estate at the exact moment of his master’s death. Both stories had elements of truth and that, as far as the press were concerned was all that was necessary.
Speaking to the Western Daily Press in New York on the 6th April, Writer Arthur Conan-Doyle further weighed in on the subject of curses. Most famously known for his character Sherlock Holmes, Conan-Doyle had in latter days, turned to spiritualism and developed a keen interest in esoterica and the world of the fringe. He had famously backed the Cottingley fairies, a series of photographs depicting a young girl surrounded by “fairies” which could only be explained as positively 2D paper cutouts. Nevertheless, Conan-Doyle was a household name and following the news of Lord Carnarvon’s death, the press association gladly distributed Conan Doyle’s quotes, attributing his illness to “elementals” across the globe. Conan -Doyle went further than just the death of Lord Carnarvon, stating that:
“There was once a mummy in the British Museum which it was believed was guarded by one of those elementals, for everyone who came into contact with it came to grief. This was the mummy of a Queen, and even one of my dear friends, a journalist, who investigated the misfortunes that befell those who handled the mummy, was himself stricken with typhoid fever and died.”
When Cart himself spoke out about the curse, denying any possibility outright, the New York Times, simply ran the headline: “Carter ignores curse idea” and followed it with another: “Pharaohs Ka guards the tomb” The story directly addressed the curse of the tomb and read:
“Those most intimately connected with the tomb during the last few months have suffered in some way or other. Even the journalists who covered the story have felt the reaction. Three of them have been ill.”
Western journalists falling ill in a foreign land may not, in isolation, seem very convincing, however, it was not long before the papers had much more fatal stories to run as more people connected with the tomb began passing away and as the excavation drew on, so too did the story of the curse run alongside and with every death, a new reason to run the story and remind the readers of the dramatic curse.
Just six weeks after the death of Lord Carnarvon, George Jay Gould, a visitor to the tomb developed a high fever shortly following his visit and passed away on the French Riviera on the 16th May 1923.
On the 10th July 1923, Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey, the prince of Egypt was shot dead by his wife, Marguerite Alibert.
Colonel, the Hon. Aubrey Herbert MP, Lord Carnarvon’s half-brother had fallen blind and following a dental procedure that was intended to restore his eyesight led to Blood poisoning, he too passed away on the 26th September 1923.
Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, the X-Ray technician present at the tombs unveiling and the man who X-Rayed Tutankhamun’s mummy died on the 15th January 1924, in Switzerland from an undiagnosed illness. Though many had noted he had suffered illness in the past, Douglas-Reid was working until the time of his sudden and unexpected death.
The Governor-General of Sudan, Sir Lee Stack, was assassinated as he drove through the streets of Cairo on 19th November 1924.
In 1926, an entry in Howard Carter’s journal told of how he had seen wild Jackals in the desert for the first time in his 30 years in Egypt. Many saw this as an ill omen, as Jackals had long been associated with the dead and practices of embalming in Ancient Egypt.
Arthur Cruttenden Mace, a Tasmanian born, British Egyptologist and member of Carter’s excavation team left Egypt in 1924 due to poor health and died on the 6th April 1928.
The Honourable Mervyn Herbert, Lord Carnarvons half-brother and Aubrey Herbert’s brother died of Malarial Poisoning on the 26th May 1929.
Captain the Hon. Richard Bethell, Carter’s personal secretary during the time of the excavation died on the 15th November 1929 in a club in Mayfair. His death was suspected foul play and a result of smothering.
Richard Luttrell Pilkington Bethell, the Third Baron of Westbury and father of Richard Bethell committed suicide on the 20th February 1930, throwing himself from his seventh-floor apartment.
Arthur Weigall, the reporter whose hand was so integral to the dissemination of the story of the curse passed away in January of 1934, which naturally, the Daily Mail was quick to remind its readers that
“the death of Mr Weigall recalls the story of a curse on the violators of the tomb of King Tutankhamen…”
Finally, after so many deaths came the turn of Howard Carter. Nine years after the last objects were removed from the tomb of Tutankhamun, on the 2nd March 1939 Carter died at the age of 64 from Hodgkin’s Disease in his Kensington flat in London. His Epitaph is taken from the wishing cup of Tutankhamun and reads:
“May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness”
For his part, Carter denied the truth of any such curse on the tomb right up until his death and so too, any evidence remains elusive, though rumours and stories of the curse persist right up to modern day.
Not So Fictional
Whilst no factual evidence for any curse was ever uncovered at the tomb of Tutankhamun, there were several tombs excavated throughout Egypt that did contain writings concerning curses, a fact that Weigall, an ex-Egyptologist knew very well when forming his own narrative for the curse of King Tut.
From the Tomb of the Pharaoh Thutmose I, was the inscription “He shall have no Heir” in regards to anyone who might disturb the tomb. The High Priest Hermeru went a little further, with an inscription that read “
“As for anybody who shall enter this tomb in his impurity: I will ring his neck as a bird.”
A sentiment mirrored in the tomb of Khentika Ikhekki, whose inscription stated:
“As for all men who shall enter this tomb, there will be a 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.”
The high priest Herihor too, spoke of how “His name shall not exist in the land of Egypt, he shall die from hunger and thirst”.
And from the tomb of Pharaoh Kety was the simple but graphically off-putting warning:
“He shall be cooked together with the condemned.”
So we can see that the concept of cursed tombs were not entirely fictional, nor alien to Egypt. These findings go against the idea that Ancient Egyptian curses are a purely modern, western invention, though Western fiction certainly played its role.
The concept of a mummy rising from the dead had been seen in novels almost 100 years prior in a work written by Jane C Loudon and published in 1827 named “The Mummy! Or a tale of the 22nd Century.”, in 1862, 1868 and 1869 came to the horror novels The Mummy’s soul” published anonymously, “After 3000 years, by Jang G Austin and “Lost in a pyramid, by Louisa May Alcott respectively. Further stories by Jane G Austin developed the concept of the full-blown living dead and Mummies curses within fiction well before Weigall had concocted his story for the press.
Proof that the stories of ancient curses had legs, It was over 60 years later in 1999 that German Microbiologist Gothard Kramer sought to rationally explain the existence of such superstitions when he studied mould spores and toxins found in tombs. He found several potentially toxic substances present including, Aspergillus Nigus, Aspergillus Flavus, Staphylococcus, Pseudomonas, Ammonia gas and Hydrogen Sulphide. His theory expounded on the dangers of leaving these to settle and then become disrupted after thousands of years underground, when an excavation brought with it hustle and bustle of an archaeological dig and the fresh breeze of the outside world that it had been sealed away from for so long. The findings have been debated since, however, Carter himself already knew of this danger, as he mentions the potential for toxic gas when he describes the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The curse of Tutankhamun appears to be a series of events that, when reported consecutively offer a level of coincidence, however, remain entirely devoid of any factual evidence. There were without doubt realities mixed with fiction and even the reaction of Carter is debated, with some stating that he found the whole thing ridiculous, others that he may well have found it useful to direct attention away from the dig site and that he may well have even stirred the stories up himself initially. Further still, the conspiracy that if there was any truth to the curse, he may well have been driven to cover it up through fear of further obstructions.
Whilst there may have been truth to inscriptions describing curses throughout the tombs and temples of Ancient Egypt, Carter’s words are perhaps most appropriate as a final point concerning Tutankhamun. Writing in the preface to “The Tomb of Tutankhamun, published in 1923, Carter stated:
“The sentiment of the Egyptologist, however, is not one of fear but of respect and awe. It is entirely opposed to the foolish superstitions which are far too prevalent among emotional people in search of “psychic” excitement […] yet mischievous people have attributed many deaths, illnesses, and disasters to alleged mysterious and noxious influences in the tomb.
Unpardonable and mendacious statements of this nature have been published and repeated in various quarters with the sort of malicious satisfaction. It is indeed difficult to speak of this form of ‘ghostly’ calumny with calm. If it be not actually libellous it points in that spiteful direction, and all sane people should dismiss such inventions with contempt.”