The curse of King Tutankhamun and the mummy's tomb

A Sarcophagus coffin inside an Ancient Egyptian tomb
It's believed by many that whoever disturbs a Pharaoh's final resting place will be cursed | Shutterstock

When Howard Carter stumbled across the half-buried staircase in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, he couldn’t believe what he had found. Eight years earlier, his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon had funded Carter’s expedition to the final resting places of the Kings of Egypt. However, Carter’s excavations in the ancient location had not proved as lucrative as the pair had initially hoped. Dissatisfied with the results, Carnarvon warned Carter that his patience (and money) was beginning to wear thin and that should a discovery not be made soon, then he would withdraw his funding of the expeditions. 

The discovery of the staircase was almost exciting enough, but when the steps were cleared of rubble the entrance to a tomb was revealed. The intact seals suggested that the tomb lay untouched and that the inhabitant of the tomb was someone of great importance. Carter wasted no time in sending a telegram to his benefactor back in England, and two weeks later Carnarvon joined him at the dig site. Together they unearthed one of the world’s largest and most impressive archaeological finds in the history of Egyptology: the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. 

Over 5,000 artefacts that had lain undisturbed for over 3,000 years were recovered, unrivalled in their quality and insight. However, despite the successes of the find, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb unearthed more than just buried treasure.

The archaeological discovery has since become synonymous with a series of strange coincidences and mysterious deaths. Some commentators believe the purported curse has claimed more than 25 lives. Here are just a few of the strangest deaths linked to the discovery of the Tomb of King Tutankhamun.

Carter’s Canary

The deaths surrounding the alleged ‘Curse of the Pharaohs’ began before the tomb was even unsealed. Having telegraphed Carnarvon to let him know that the expedition might have found something, Carter returned home to find one of his staff out to greet him. In his hand he held a bundle of yellow feathers - Carter’s beloved pet canary was dead.

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a pet can die at any moment. However, it was the manner of the bird’s death that led many to believe it was an ill omen of what was to come.

Hearing an odd rustling sound in Carter’s office, one of his staff went in to check on the bird. They found a gruesome sight. Inside the cage, curled around the bird, was a cobra - a creature synonymous with the wrath of the Pharaohs. Concerned for its significance, Carter’s staff told him that the snake had been sent as a warning to leave the tomb untouched. He apparently laughed off the superstitions, simply telling them to make sure the snake was removed from the house.

Lord Carnarvon

A few short months after the successful excavation of the tomb, Lord Carnarvon met his sorry end. After being bitten by a mosquito, Carnarvon nicked the bite with his razor while shaving. Unbeknownst to him, this small cut would lead to a severe blood infection. Following an intense fever, Carnarvon died. 

It’s reported that at the time of his death, a power cut swept through Cairo killing all the lights. Meanwhile, back in England, his servant claimed that at the reported time of Carnarvon’s death his beloved terrier, Susy, awoke in the night to howl mournfully, before dropping down dead.

Richard Bethell

Richard Bethell was Lord Carnarvon’s secretary who had travelled with Carnarvon to the dig site. He was the second person to enter the tomb (following closely behind Carter himself). In 1929 Bethell’s body was found in his room at an elite gentleman’s club in London. He had been smothered to death, and his murder remains unsolved.

Sir Archibald Douglas Reid

Not presently at the site himself, Reid was the radiologist that x-rayed the mummy before it was given to the specialists at the museum. The next day he fell ill, and three days later he was dead following abdominal surgery.

Stories about the apparent ‘Curse of the Pharaohs’ have been circulated for centuries, but they really started to gain momentum after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. It’s claimed that the sprits of ancient priests guard burial sites to preserve their purity and protect their treasures from robbers. Critics say that Carter’s archaeological plights were no different to those of a robber and that’s why his party experienced several fatalities.

However, science has been used on a number of occasions to explain the deaths. The exhumation of corpses that were left untouched for thousands of years can actually cause serious health conditions without the need for curses and hexes. Several casualties have been known to die from respiratory failures caused by ‘Aspergillus Niger’, a fungus and form of black mould that could be toxic if inhaled. It is not unreasonable to assume that the lingering bacteria inside these tombs would not be suitable for modern lungs.

Some theories have even tried to attribute Carter’s eventual death to the curse, despite it occurring more than 15 years later. Whether you believe in the curse or not, it has served as inspiration for many great tales and works of horror fiction.