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

Could you really get sick from an ancient tomb?

Lord Carnarvon was dead long before archaeologists reached Tut's mummy.
Lord Carnarvon was dead long before archaeologists reached Tut's mummy.
Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty Images

Supernatural explanations for the mummy's curse may have been discredited by careful translations of protective formulas, study of Egyptian death rituals and even modern investigations, but the myth of the curse refuses to quit. Some still believe that there may be a scientific explanation for Lord Carnarvon's death that links it to Tutankhamen's tomb. The financier died from erysipelas, a bacterial infection that was brought on by a mosquito bite. This led to septicaemia, or blood poisoning, and pneumonia. Could exposure to toxic pathogens in the tomb have killed the already ailing man?

Carter maintained that the tomb was free from "bacillary agents," but modern studies show that respiratory-attacking bacteria are sometimes present in ancient tombs [source: Ceram]. Sarcophagi can also contain formaldehyde, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia gas -- all agents that assault the lungs. Ancient meat, vegetable and fruit funerary offerings, not to mention preserved human bodies, can attract dangerous molds like Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus while bat droppings can grow fungus.

But regardless of the potential for nasty microorganisms, experts don't think Lord Carnarvon's death was tomb-related. He died in the excavation's off-season, the time of year when it's too hot to dig in Egypt. He had been exposed to any potential bacteria, fungus or mold months before his illness.

Carter also maintained that the conditions of the tomb were more sanitary than most of 1920s Egypt -- that essentially, Lord Carnarvon was more likely to pick up a bacterial infection in modern Cairo, where he died, than in Tutankhamen's sequestered tomb. And even if a person were to catch an infection from a tomb, it would be nearly impossible to tell whether the agents that caused the infection were, in fact, ancient.

But regardless of the tomb's bacillary contents, any ancient grave undoubtedly lends itself to a good ghost story.

For more information on mummies, ghosts and other spooky topics, be sure to visit the next page.

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  • Ceram, C.W. "Gods, Graves and Scholars." Alfred A. Knopf. New York: 1968.
  • Handwerk, Brian. "Egypt's 'King Tut Curse' Caused by Tomb Toxins?" National Geographic News. May 6, 2005. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/05/0506_050506_mummycurse.html
  • Lawler, Andrew. "A Mystery Fit for a Pharaoh." Smithsonian Magazine. July 2006.
  • Nelson, Mark R. "The mummy's curse: historical cohort study." British Medical Journal. December 21, 2002. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/325/7378/1482
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  • Wilford, John Noble. "Malaria Is a Likely Killer in King Tut’s Post-Mortem." The New York Times.  Feb. 16, 2010.http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/17/science/17tut.html
  • Wilford, John Noble. "World Briefing: Middle East: Egypt: A Tut Mystery is Solved." The New York Times. March 9, 2005. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E07E7DD163CF93AA35750C0A9639C8B63&scp=17&sq=king+tut&st=nyt