The chilling lore of mummy curses continues to captivate archaeologists, treasure hunters, and history enthusiasts alike — but is there any possible logical explanation behind the legend? Travel with us back in time as we venture “behind the veil” to try to expose the real curse of the pharaohs.
While mummy curses aren’t new, it wasn’t until the discovery and opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen in the early 1900s that their popularity exploded.
It was 1922 when British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter stumbled upon the best-preserved and most important Egyptian tomb ever found. Carter had been working with Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor of the expedition, for many years, though Carnarvon was growing somewhat impatient at the amount of money spent in excavation efforts without any results.
Then in November 1922, everything changed. Carter reached the sealed doorways into what would later prove to be Tutankhamen’s tomb — and from the beginning, the discovery did seem to be cursed.
On the day the tomb was opened, Carter’s beloved canary was eaten by a cobra (which happened to be the symbol Pharaohs wore on their forehead). Then Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito, which became infected and resulted in blood poisoning and pneumonia. He died four months after stepping into the tomb.
While Carter (who was the first to look into the tomb through an opening in the wall) didn’t die until 1939, other people connected to the discovery died under mysterious circumstances over the few years following the opening of the tomb. These included the person who performed the X-ray on the mummy in 1924 and a member of Carter’s team in 1928. Other mysterious deaths followed over the years, inspiring the belief that supernatural forces were behind the happenings.
Scientists might now have an answer to the curse
Scientists now believe it’s possible the first person to die after opening the tomb, Lord Carnarvon, succumbed to a more “scientific form” of the dreaded mummy curse.
Rather than supernatural forces, research over the past couple of decades seems to suggest toxic pathogens living in the sealed tomb could have been to blame.
Recent studies have provided additional evidence to support this theory. For example, a 2013 study led by a team of scientists from Harvard University and the Getty Conservation Institute analyzed brown spots found on the walls of Tutankhamen’s tomb and found them to be pore-forming bacteria — meaning, the kind you could breath in and would make you very sick.
Scientists could not determine if the particularly toxic fungus Aspergillus niger was present in the tomb, and the bodies of those who died in the 1920s are long gone and not available for autopsies — but the possibility that the fungus was present and responsible for some of the deaths at the time is now a very credible hypothesis.
So could an ancient fungal infection really be to blame for the death of those involved in the 1922 excavation?
There’s a LOT of stuff waiting to kill you inside a mummy’s tomb
Archaeological dig sites are often perfect breeding grounds for nasty biological surprises. When a tomb has been closed for 5,000 years, there’s potential for microbial organisms, different types of fungi, traces of disease, and many other unpleasant things to continue growing. Then when a team of archaeologists arrives and opens the door, all the organic deposits that have been “sleeping” for thousands of years suddenly wake up and infect humans — or at least that’s a possibility, according to experts.
The biggest danger lurking in ancient tombs? Recent laboratory studies show it’s fungi and mold, especially the very dangerous Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus. While these usually just cause allergic reactions, in people with weakened immune systems it can lead to bleeding in the lungs. According to Mayo Clinic, some people may develop something known as invasive aspergillosis after exposure, where the infection spreads to different organs, the heart, or the brain. Left untreated, this infection can be fatal.
Scientists have also detected a myriad of other scary toxins inside ancient tombs. These include bacteria like Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus (which can cause everything from pneumonia to shock), ammonia gas, and formaldehyde. Scientists have also found hydrogen sulfide inside tombs, a compound that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes as potentially causing apnea, coma, and convulsions. In very extreme cases, any or a combination of these toxins can result in death.
Another theory that has become popular over the past twenty years is that Lord Carnavon might have died from histoplasmosis, an infection caused by a fungus found in bat droppings.
A study conducted in 2002 pointed out that Lord Carnavon and many of the scientists working in Tutankhamen’s tomb were likely exposed to this fungus. There’s record of a large colony of bats living in the tomb in 1922 and, according to scientists connected to the study, it’s very possible anybody walking into the tomb could have inhaled spores of the fungus mixed in with the desert dust.
This could have caused “histoplasmosis with fever, enlarged glands and pneumonia which may lead to death.” And these just happened to be the same symptoms Lord Carnavon experienced before dying.
And Tutankhamen wasn’t the only one
While the “King Tut curse” might be the best known, the curse seems to extend beyond ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
In 1973, a group of 12 scientists opened the tomb of 15th-century King Casimir IV Jagiellon in Poland. Casimir was a beloved and progressive king until his death in 1492, after which he was draped in silk, covered with calcium salt, and laid to rest in a sealed wooden coffin. It wasn’t a restful sleep by any means – his coffin was moved here and there and here again – over the centuries. But his coffin remained nonetheless sealed until archaeologists got to it in 1970.
And then, over the following few weeks, 10 of the 12 scientists involved were dead.
The culprit? Despite rumors of a “Jagiellonian curse,” turns out the killer here was a combination of 13 different types of fungi, including the deadly Aspergillus flavus fungus, which had infested the coffin and the remains of the king.
Some mummies in Mexico could be the next ones to continue the “curse”
In April 2023, a group of experts from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History expressed public concern about The Mummies of Guanajuato, a group of six mummies in glass cases that appear to be covered in fungi.
These aren’t your average mummies, though – there’s no ancient curse brought on by disturbing a king’s resting place. These Mexican mummies are actually 19th or 20th-century corpses that were unintentionally mummified when their bodies were deposited in air-tight crypts. Once removed from that environment, the bodies –which still retain some of their hair and skin– almost immediately started to deteriorate and fungi soon took over.
The main problem, according to experts, is that the glass cases they’re being held in aren’t air-tight, and it’s likely fungi spores are sipping out and possibly already infecting humans.
Don’t be too disappointed about the curse being explained away — turns out mold spores can be just as terrifying!
By Diana Bocco, contributor for Ripleys.com
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