Was there really a curse on King Tutankhamen's tomb?

The Mummy's Curse
Archaeologist Howard Carter and an assistant examine the coffin of Tutankhamen with little regard for the "curse."
Archaeologist Howard Carter and an assistant examine the coffin of Tutankhamen with little regard for the "curse."
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The European and American public, already stricken by Egyptomania, seized upon the idea of the curse. Newspapers sensationalized the deaths of people connected with the expedition or its principles. Richard Bethell, Howard Carter's assistant; Bethell's father, Lord Westbury; A.C. Mace, Carter's partner and Lady Elizabeth Carnarvon were all victims of the so-called "Revenge of the Pharaohs" [source: Ceram]. Judging by the list of victims, native Egyptians were not affected by the curse.

Carter, as famous for surviving the mummy's curse (at least until his death in 1939) as he is for discovering Tutankhamen's tomb, hated the sensationalism that surrounded the excavation. He was deeply disturbed by the public's willingness to be taken in by superstition. Carter even tried to argue that Pharaonic curses had no place in Egyptian death rituals. Tomb inscriptions sometimes contained protective formulas, messages meant to frighten off enemies from this world or beyond, but usually just wished the dead well.

Tutankhamen's golden coffin looks as good today as it did more than 3,000 years ago.
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

In 1933, a German Egyptologist, Professor Georg Steindorff, wrote a pamphlet on Pharaonic curses, attempting to debunk the myth -- while also riding on its coattails. He studied the lives and deaths of the "victims," determining that many had never been near the dig and had only tenuous connections to the principle archaeologists or financiers.

But like all good curses, that of Tutankhamen's tomb stuck around in the public's imagination. Eighty years after the tomb's discovery, the British Medical Journal published a scientific study of the mummy's curse. Mark R. Nelson of Monash University, Australia, examined the survival rates of 44 Westerners identified by Carter as being in Egypt during the examination of the tomb.

Nelson assumed that because the curse was a "physical entity," it had power over only those physically present during the opening of a chamber or coffin (thus removing Lord Carnarvon's dog from the roster of victims) [source: BMJ]. Nelson defined several specific dates of exposure: the Feb. 17, 1923, opening of the third door, the Feb. 3, 1926, opening of the sarcophagus, the Oct. 10, 1926, opening of the coffins and the Nov. 11, 1926, examination of the mummy. For people who were present at more than one opening or examination, Nelson accounted for their increased exposure.

Out of 44 identified Westerners, 25 were present during an opening or examination. These 25 lived an average of 20.8 years after exposure, while the unexposed lived 28.9 years. The mean age at death for the exposed was 70 years and 75 for the unexposed. Nelson determined that the results proved there was no curse [source: BMJ].

But what if there's a scientific explanation for the phenomena some mistook as a curse? Can a tomb make an already sick person sick enough to die? Find out on the next page.