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.