The ancient Egyptian boy-king’s tomb was excavated in 1923, then people started dropping like flies. A new exhibition explores the greatest archaeology story ever told
The curse of Tutankhamun first struck in February 1923. The previous November, the intrepid archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon discovered the burial chamber of a forgotten boy-king hidden in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, untouched by robbers and stuffed with treasures.
They were soaking up the press attention as Tutankhamun, forgotten for millennia, suddenly became world famous – and so did his discoverers.
Then Lord Carnarvon got bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. He accidentally made the bite worse while shaving, and died in a delirious fever.
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and ardent believer in the supernatural, said it must be the “curse” of the mummy. Death was decreed on anyone who disturbed the young pharaoh, reported newspapers.
With an exhibition about Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamun opening on 24 July at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, should the university city be worried? Is King Tut’s curse about to strike Oxford?
The media in the 1920s found plenty of evidence that something was punishing the excavators of the most perfect ancient Egyptian burial chamber ever found. Lord Carnarvon’s pet bird was eaten by a snake, his dog died back in England almost the exact moment he kicked the bucket in Egypt, and a radiologist who supposedly x-rayed the mummy died of a mysterious illness. A rich American died of pneumonia after visiting the tomb, and a member of Carter’s excavation team was said to have died of arsenic poisoning.
But of course there was no curse. If Tutankhamun wanted revenge, why spare Howard Carter, the man who actually found him and lived to tell the tale? The expedition mortality rate was no higher than you’d expect among the imperial British at the time – Lord Carnarvon should have been more wary of mosquito bites.
Even without the beguiling legend of the curse, the tale of how Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered is a thrilling encounter with archaeology at its most spectacular. Today’s archaeologists stress patient analysis of small pieces of pottery from carefully measured trenches, a scientific approach pioneered in Egypt by the Victorian great, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie. By Petrie’s modern scientific standards, Carter and Carnarvon were naive and out of touch, looking for lost treasure like characters in some Boy’s Own story.
Yet anyone lucky enough to see Tutankhamun and his burial objects in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo wonders in awe at the sheer richness of this panoply of exquisite art and design. From his chairs and games to his golden mask, the young pharaoh and his lifestyle survive as miraculously as the ash-imprisoned people of Pompeii.
The Ashmolean’s exhibition revisits the greatest archaeological story ever told. Even the true bits of it are amazing.