Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Five by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

The Curse of the Mummy

On April 5th 1923, five months after opening the tomb, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning caused by an infected mosquito bite that had progressed to pneumonia. According to popular legend, the moment he died all the lights when out in Cairo (though power outages were not uncommon at the time) and Carnarvon’s dog howled mournfully at the exact same moment before dying itself. This account was given by Carnarvon’s son, though it is worth noting that he was far away in India at the time of his father’s and the dog’s deaths.

Lord Carnarvon (from Wikipedia)

Speculation about what might have been the exact cause of his death was fueled by newspapers, some of which had been denied exclusive coverage of the tomb, threw more fuel on the fire by claiming it was the “Mummy’s Curse.” Depending on who you talk to, anywhere from four to eight deaths were attributed to Tut’s curse.

The idea of a “mummy’s curse” or a “curse of the Pharaohs” wasn’t a new one and its origins could be traced back to the mid-19th century and Victorian fiction writers, such as Louisa May Alcott, who drew upon this idea that Egypt was a mysterious and mystical place, which went back all the way to antiquity. In 1903 Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, published a book called The Jewel of the Seven Stars which told the story of an archaeologist suffering from the curse of a disturbed mummy.

When the Titanic sank in 1912, rumors of a mummy of an Egyptian priestess being the cause of the sinking resulted in the British Museum publishing flyers for the general public stating that no such mummy had even been on the Titanic. 

So, by the time Tut was discovered in 1922, the general public were more than primed to expect supernatural experiences with anything associated with Ancient Egypt. 

While Egyptian tombs and sarcophagi were covered in protective spells and prayers to ensure a successful journey to the afterlife, curses such as we think of them did not exist in Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians thought it was bad luck to even write down the possibility of tomb robberies and so these formulaic sayings were more along the lines of, “the robber will suffer from a disease that no doctor can diagnose” than “death floats on silent wings to those who disturb the pharaoh’s rest.”

Sarcophagus (British Museum)

Carter himself thought the whole business of “the mummy’s curse” was “tommy-rot” and of almost 58 people who were at the tomb at the time of its opening, its documentation, and the opening of the sarcophagus, only eight or nine deaths were attributed to the mummy’s curse and none hold up under further inspection.

Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Four by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

At the turn of the century, the world was changing. The Victorian era had just ended and Edward VII now ruled the British Empire, on which the sun never set. By 1901 Egypt was a de-facto British protectorate under nominal Ottoman control and there was a growing nationalist movement. In 1914 the British government established the Sultanate of Egypt and a growing interest in preserving Egypt’s pharaonic past grew among native Egyptians.

In 1908, American lawyer turned Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis, who had been excavating in the Valley of the Kings for years, announced that he feared “The Valley of the Tombs is completely exhausted.”

Oh, how wrong he was.

Carter with sarcophagus (from Wikicommons)

The Tomb of the Century

While many feared the Valley of the Kings had been exhausted of its tombs and treasures and that nothing more could learned from it, British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his financial backer George Herbert, the 5th Lord of Carnarvon, were not so convinced.

Since 1894 Carter had worked and studied under some of the greats of Egyptology including our friend Flinders Petrie.

Carter started working for Lord Carnarvon in 1907 and in 1922 Lord Carnarvon, who was dissatisfied by the lack of results, agreed to fund one more season of excavation.

In November of that same year, Carter returned and began excavating near some abandoned huts. Not long after that, a water boy named Hussein Abdel Rasoul stumbled upon what later turned out to be part of a stairway. Immediately Carter sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon and by the time Lord Carnarvon and his daughter arrived two weeks later, the stairway was clear, revealing the still sealed door stamped with the cartouche of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Hussein Abdek Rasoul (from Pectorial,

The Young King

Tutankhamen came to the throne circa 1332 BCE at the tender age of nine, and reigned until circa 1323 BCE, after the turbulent reigns of his father Akhenaten and his immediate successors, Smenkhkare and Neferneferaten.

Akhenaten, whom most Egyptologists agree was likely Tut’s father, turned away from the traditional worship of the Egyptian pantheon, attempting to wrest power from the powerful high priests at the temple of Karnak and moving the capital to an isolated region, now known as Amarna, away from Egypt’s traditional religious and economic centers.

While scholars still debate to what extent Akhenaten’s attempt at monotheism really disrupted the lives of every day ancient Egyptians, it was enough that Tut and his advisors had to issue several declarations re-establishing the old traditions, restoring several temples, and re-asserting Egyptian military power.

When Tut died after reigning a mere ten years he was buried in a small tomb that was not meant to be his. His cause of death was likely a combination of malaria and a broken leg. His short reign after years of turmoil, followed by the succession of a new Dynasty, helped ensure his tomb remained relatively undisturbed until 1922.

Face reconstruction of what King Tut may have looked like (with a modern rendition on the right) by @royalty_now_ (Left Image: © reconstruction Elisabeth Daynes, Right Image pieces: iStock Photo &

In the middle of the night before the official opening of the tomb Carter, Carnarvon, and Lady Evelyn sneaked to the tomb and chiseled a small opening in the door and after putting a candle through, Carnarvon asked Carter “Can you see anything?” And Carter replied, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

The tomb was crammed with artifacts that the Ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh would need in the afterlife – chariots, bows, jewelry, and offerings of food. His tomb also contained a favorite tunic he had worn as a child, embroidered with ducks, and the small remains of Tutankhamen’s two daughters.

Tut Death Mask (from Wikicommons)

Carter and the Egyptologists he recruited to help catalogue all the artifacts in the tomb were very meticulous even for the standards of the day, but even so it would take them another ten years to fully clear the tomb of all its contents!

If you’d like to read Howard Carter’s notes on the excavation check out the Griffith Institute’s website below.

Victorians and Egyptomania – Part Three – By Sara Taylor

Sara is back with three of her “Victorians and Egyptomania” blog post. Enjoy!

Sara Taylor

In the popular Mind

As the field of Egyptology changed, ancient Egypt (and Egypt in general) was fast becoming synonymous in the western mind with everything exotic, sexy, and mysterious.

Egyptomania continued in other areas and the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 kept Egypt on everyone’s mind. Prince Albert, the consort to Queen Victoria, died in 1861, plunging the Queen into mourning with the nation following her. The Victorians had incredibly complex rituals and rules for mourning and so it’s probably no real surprise that they perhaps saw themselves in the ancient Egyptians and incorporated their symbols and motifs into their practices.

Victorians in mourning (from

Egyptian revival mourning jewelry was quite popular among women and Egyptian revival style saw a resurgence, making its way into mortuary architecture and memorials. The famous Highgate Cemetery in London had its own Egyptian Avenue and was a tourist attraction even in the 19th century. The trend even made its way to the United States where an Obelisk was chosen as the memorial to George Washington, complete with Egyptian sun-disk!

The rising spiritualist movement in Europe and America incorporated ancient myths and ‘magic’ into their performances and even secret societies formed around various interpretations of the Book of the Dead. The Hermetic Order of the Dawn being one, with high-ranking members dressing in complete Egyptian priestly vestments.

Egypt was the setting of the successful Italian opera, Aida, which opened in 1871, a love story of a captured Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian military commander torn between love and duty. It even had an Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette, designing the costumes, staging, and even suggesting the plot! Hollywood could maybe learn a thing or two!

Radamès and Aida in act 4, scene 2 of the 1872 production (from Wikipedia) 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, wrote a short story titled Lot. No. 249 about a mummy, which was just one in the growing number of popular horror and mystery stories featuring a mummy terrorizing the living. It was at this time that the idea of a “mummy’s curse” started to arise in popular fiction. Oscar Wilde published a poem in 1894 called ‘The Sphinx’ in which the narrator questions the Sphinx about what she has seen through the centuries before ultimately rejecting the sphinx and turning to his crucifix.

A New Century and A New Science

As the 19th century came to an end, what had begun as a side project for Napoleon had blossomed a whole new art style and scientific field. Egyptology had grown by leaps and bounds, as had the public’s interest in Egypt and its history. Egypt became increasingly under the influence of European powers such as England and France. The turn of the 20th century resulted in the waning of Egyptomania at least for a time, until one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time occurred within the first two decades.

(Stay tuned for more.)

Victorians and Egyptomania – Part One – By Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor is back in part one of “Victorians and Egyptomania.” Why did our great-great grandparents many times over LOVE everything and anything Egyptian? Read on and find out!

Sara Taylor

While Napoleon and his contemporaries were content to incorporate Egyptian motifs and architecture into everyday buildings, décor, jewelry, and even clothes, the Victorians were at a completely different level!

The Victorians or the Victorian Age, gets its name from Queen Victoria, who reigned as Queen of the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and Ireland from June 1837 to her death in January 1901. Her reign saw the expansion of the British Empire and was a time marked by great social, political, and scientific changes. Not just in the British Empire, but all over the world. 

Victorians on a tour of Egypt’s wonders (source Pinterest)

The Victorians were responsible for or were the origin for many things that we enjoy in our everyday life (including our favorite house, Villa Finale!). While Napoleon re-introduced the splendor of Ancient Egypt to Europe on a scale never seen before, the Victorians took Egyptomania to a whole new level!

The Roots of Egyptology

After the French were expelled from Egypt in 1801, Egypt remained nominally part of the Ottoman empire, ruled by Muhammad Ali Pasha, a former commander in the Ottoman army, who would establish a dynasty which would rule Egypt until the 1952 revolution. It was from Pasha that our old friend Giovanni Belzoni, an explorer and early archaeologist, received permission to explore and excavate many ancient Egyptian tombs. While by modern archaeological standards he is considered little above a looter, he is still considered a pioneer in what was the early stages of archaeology and Egyptology. 

As the years went on, the European interest in Egypt grew, not only due to its fascinating history, but also for its resources and strategic location.

A New Science

This was the time where archaeology truly began to become a science. Prior to the late 19th century, archaeology focused on more on finding artifacts that were artistically beautiful, or strange to the European eye, than on what they could realistically tell about the people who created the object.

Excavations also tended to be haphazard and finds that did not meet the excavator’s criteria were overlooked or tossed away as insignificant. 

This all began to change in around 1840.

The dashing Karl Richard Lepsius (source Wikipedia)

In 1842, Karl Lepsius led a Prussian team of scientists and specialist to record the remains of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Lepsius who had studied under one of Jean Champollion’s disciples, based his expedition much on Napoleon’s own. They carried out some of the first truly scientific studies of the pyramids of Giza as well as Saqqara, Dashur, and Abusir. The expedition lasted four years, before the group returned to Europe to publish their findings.

Lepsius discovered a Ptolemaic manuscript in 1842 and dubbed the text, “The Book of the Dead,” mistakenly believing it to be a holy book, much like the Bible or the Qur’an.

The Book of the Dead was in fact a collections of spells and prayers meant to help guide and protect the deceased person’s soul on its journey to the afterlife. These books were never codified and so no two were exactly alike. They were customized to a person’s wishes and could be bought pre-made with blanks where a person’s name could be filled in by a scribe for a small fee.

Auguste Mariette (source Wikimedia Commons)

Auguste Mariette, an early French archaeologist in connection with the Louvre, began excavating the ancient burial ground of Saqqara, unearthing the avenue of Sphinxes and the Serapum in 1848. Ten years later he accepted a position with the Egyptian government and began to eliminate illegal excavations as well as limit the sale and export of archaeological artifacts. A year later he convinced the Ottoman Viceroy to establish a museum which would become one of the most famous museums in the world, the Cairo Museum.

In 1880 Flinders Petrie led an expedition to Egypt that would truly change the face of Archaeology and Egyptology as we know it!

Petrie can almost certainly be called “the father of modern archaeology.” His expedition in 1880 conducted the most complete and accurate surveys of the Giza plateau to date. He was also the first to try and reason how the pyramids were built based on scientific evidence.

Petrie introduced to archeology the idea of taking methodical measurements and records of the site and all artifacts and in the process uncovered many artifacts and ruins that would have been lost or other overlooked.  Petrie was also a mentor to Howard Carter who in the early 20th uncovered the famous tomb of Tutankhamun.

He was friends with Amelia Edwards a writer turned Egyptologist, who championed preserving the ancient moments of Egypt, which at the time were at risk from modern development and over-tourism. Many sites had already been lost by the time their efforts began and they were determined not to lose more.

Amelia Edwards (source Wikipedia)

In 1884 Petrie led an excavation of the ancient city of Tanis of Indiana Jones fame (yes it really exists!). Here he took leadership of the dig away from the overseers and workers. Prior to Petrie, in what is called the “old system”, the overseers and local diggers were heavily pressured to dig incredibly fast to find large and impressive artifacts quickly, and thus a lot of smaller, but still significant artifacts were overlooked or lost.

(Look for part two of this story where Sara will “unwrap” the subject of mummies!)