King Tut's Curse!

A look at the tale, the popular explanation, and the real science behind it.

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Paranormal, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #106
June 24, 2008
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Bookmark and Share

King Tut
King Tut
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

We've all heard the story of the mummy's curse, and we've all heard the popular explanation — but you may not know the numbers behind the story. Today we're going to point our skeptical eye at King Tut's curse, and find out exactly how the story goes, explore the scientific-sounding explanation proposed by the media, and finally, we're going to look at what really happened.

In 1922 Howard Carter was exploring the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, with his friend and financial backer George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. After a 15 year search, they opened the fabulous tomb of King Tutankhamun, the most spectacular tomb found to date, and now known as KV62. Carter poked a hole through the seal and peered inside, and when Lord Carnarvon asked if he could see anything, Carter famously replied "Yes, wonderful things."

But things got less wonderful rather quickly, so the story goes. Front and center in the antechamber was a clay tablet, deciphered by one of Carter's colleagues, that read:

Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh.

None of them seemed too concerned about Death's wings, because the archaeologists immediately proceeded to apply their early 20th century archaeological ignorance to King Tut and his goodies. Items were collected and broken, and even King Tut's mummy itself was said to have been chopped into pieces and set out in the sun where it quickly deteriorated. According to legend, Lord Carnarvon soon died from a mosquito bite; and simultaneously, his three-legged dog howled and dropped dead, and all the lights in the city of Cairo suddenly went out.

And then others of Carter's party began to die of mysterious causes. In fact, more than two dozen men were said to have fallen to the curse. Carter himself, it appears, had to suffer the fate of watching all his friends and associates drop off like flies all around him. Even his beloved pet canary was killed by a cobra in a freak incident. The newspapers trumpeted the terrors of the mummy's curse to all the world. Carter bore these miseries until he finally died himself, sixteen years after unleashing the curse.

Now the critical mind can easily find many causes for skepticism with this story:

One of the first people to present a serious scientific explanation for the deaths associated with King Tut's curse was Dr. Caroline Stenger-Phillip, who proposed in 1986 that ancient mold in the tomb could have caused potentially fatal allergic reactions. Since fruits and vegetables and other organic items were buried in tombs, and since the tombs were completely hermetically sealed, it is plausible that mold spores could have existed and remained viable through the millennia.

This proposal has become known as "tomb toxins", and has been broadened to include other compounds, such as two molds that are found on ancient mummies, Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus, and that can be potentially harmful to people with weakened immune systems. Bacteria are also found in tombs, including Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus. And don't forget the chemicals used in embalming the mummies: ammonia, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide. Tomb toxins do sound like a plausible explanation for the mummy's curse. Most of us have heard this explanation at one time or another and thought "Ah, that explains it quite neatly."

But unfortunately, tomb toxins do not explain the deaths from Carter's group very well at all. Even in the unlikely event that members of Carter's party received lethal doses of any or all of the above, such death would have followed quite quickly; it wouldn't have been delayed by the months or years reported among the victims of King Tut's curse. Even Lord Carnarvon's death, the one most closely associated with the curse, occurred six months after he entered the tomb.

Another problem with the tomb toxin explanation is that it sounds good to a layperson, but it is, in fact, armchair science. It's a reasonably plausible idea, but one that has never actually happened in the real world. National Geographic is among those who have delved into this subject in detail, and found that working Egyptologists are not concerned about the possibility of tomb toxins. They've never heard of any colleagues suffering from it; thousands of tourists go in and out of the tombs every day with no ill effects, and even when Egyptologists do wear masks during excavations it's because of dust, not tomb toxins. F. DeWolfe Miller, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii said "Given the sanitary conditions of the time in general, and those within Egypt in particular, Lord Carnarvon would likely have been safer inside the tomb than outside."

So we have two things at this point in our investigation: First, really weak and primarily anecdotal evidence that anything unusual happened; and second, a hypothesized cause that turns out to be quite a poor fit for the observed data. King Tut's curse is beginning to look about as withered up as he looks himself.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

In 2002, the British Medical Journal published a study by Dr. Mark Nelson from Monash University in Australia. He decided to take a statistical look at the people who were actually there, and see if their dates of death actually were accelerated as a result of exposure to any possible curse. He performed a retrospective cohort study, which is a specific type of analysis based on medical records of certain groups of people. Nelson considered only the Westerners in Carter's party, since there was a difference in life expectancy between Westerners and Egyptians. He defined "exposure to the curse" as participation in any of four specific events where sacred seals were breached in the tomb, the sarcophagus, and the mummy itself. And then the number crunching began.

To better understand these results, it's necessary to comprehend what's meant by a "p-value". It's a term used by statisticians, and it refers to the probability that your test results could be due to normal random variations. A p-value of 0, the lowest possible, means there's a 0% chance that your test results are due to normal random variances, so low p-values generally mean that your results are significant. A p-value of 1, the highest possible, means that your results are 100% consistent with what we'd expect to see from normal random variations, therefore your results are quite probably insignificant.

Of 44 Westerners present, 25 were exposed to the curse. Those 25 lived to an average age of 70, while those not exposed lived to 75. The p-value of this difference was .87, so there's an 87% chance that this difference was merely due to chance. Average survival after the date of exposure was 20.8 years for the exposed group, and 28.9 years for the unexposed group. While this sounds like a large difference, the p-value was .95, meaning there's a 95% chance that you'd have such a difference anyway due to random variation. Nelson's conclusion: "There was no significant association between exposure to the mummy's curse and survival and thus no evidence to support the existence of a mummy's curse."

So, we end up with one piece of hard, testable evidence: Statistically speaking, nothing unusual happened in the Valley of the Kings; but pop culture gained one more rich layer of adventure fiction.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Handwerk, B. "Egypt's "King Tut Curse" Caused by Tomb Toxins?" National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 6 May 2005. Web. 10 Jun. 2008. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/05/0506_050506_mummycurse.html>

Mace, A., Carter, H. The Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen: Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter. London: Cassell and Company Ltd., 1923. 93-96.

McSherry, J. "King Tut's Curse, Take 2." Canadian Medical Association Journal. 4 May 1999, Volume 160, Number 9: 1289.

Nelson, M. "The Mummy's Curse: Historical Cohort Study." British Medical Journal. 21 Dec. 2002, Volume 325, Number 7378: 1482-1485.

OSE. "Tragedy of the Ninth Victim of "The Curse of King Tut's Tomb"." The Ogden Standard-Examiner. 1 Dec. 1929, Vol 60, Number 136: 27.

Sherman, J. "What Killed Carnarvon? -Tut-Ankh-Amen's Curse?" The Pointer. 13 Apr. 1923, Volume 16, Number 47: 6.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "King Tut's Curse!" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 24 Jun 2008. Web. 17 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4106>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 92 comments

It depends on what you think happened. I personally believe if someone messed with the forces of life and death, it could have unleashed a curse. This tale talks about 'Death' who is a god. Death has 3 siblings, just read the story on the 4 gods.

Kayla Hackworth, Conroe, Texas
January 22, 2013 9:13am

was king tut born in 1341 or 1443 i think he was born in 1341 i want every body's idea it dosent have yto be 1341 or 1343 you can post your own idea search it up at www.when was king tut born.com

benjamin brown, campbellford ontario
January 23, 2013 9:13am

but,may be i think who are greedy on the treassure may be cursed by the mumy that is KING TUT.

sunil, chennai
February 06, 2013 5:38pm

well...no one can actually be so sure that it was a curse or it was just a coincidence.People who faced it or are related with it wil be the best one to say that,but unfortunately we cant ask them...so we are just left with our own imagination and curosity.

carol, delhi,india
March 26, 2013 2:20pm

the curse is real peeps

emerson, vineland NJ
April 16, 2013 10:28am

i'm not really shure if the curse is real or not,my mom told me if anything sounds dumb don't belive it, but it is interesting stuff, got it:) 5th grade rock peeps! yea

Riley, brookings
April 30, 2013 12:02pm

king tuts curse is very real he will curse u if u keep talking like that

bramin, cork
May 13, 2013 8:56am

> To better understand these results, it's necessary to comprehend what's meant by a "p-value".

No, that's not what a p-value means. The p-value means simply that assuming a particular null hypothesis, how often does something like your data or more extreme occur? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P-value#Misunderstandings

Unfortunately, it's not at all obvious what this means in terms of evidence or anything meaningful like that, and certainly one *cannot* say something like

> so there's an 87% chance that this difference was merely due to chance

based on just a p-value. For why this is not so, it might be worthwhile to read carefully http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124 which helps give you an idea of what you need to do to say something like that.

(For other issues with null-hypothesis testing, see http://lesswrong.com/lw/g13/against_nhst/ )

gwern, NYC
May 19, 2013 12:51pm

One need only to click on the hyperlink provided

.........................................
Abstract
Objective: To examine survival of individuals exposed to the “mummy's curse” reputedly associated with the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Luxor, Egypt, between February 1923 and November 1926.

Design: Retrospective cohort study.

Participants: 44 Westerners identified by Howard Carter as present in Egypt at the specified dates, 25 of whom were potentially exposed to the curse.

Main outcome measures: Length of survival after date of potential exposure.

Results: In the 25 people exposed to the curse the mean age at death was 70 years (SD 12) compared with 75 (13) in those not exposed (P=0.87 for difference). Survival after the date of exposure was 20.8 (15.2) v 28.9 (13.6) years respectively (P=0.95 for difference). Female sex was a predictor for survival (P=0.02).

Conclusions: There was no significant association between exposure to the mummy's curse and survival and thus no evidence to support the existence of a mummy's curse

..........................................
Is much clearer and indicates that sometimes folk like Gwern would like things stated a bit more accurately.

But the hyperlink was provided in the skeptoid to clear up rian's brevity on the matter

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 21, 2013 8:34am

The Titanic ship did carry a mummy taken from the King Tut tomb.......
The curse ofthe King Tut was after the sinking of the Titanic......

Sameer, Nabless-Palestine
January 24, 2014 10:31am

Make a comment about this episode of Skeptoid (please try to keep it brief & to the point). Anyone can post:

Your Name:
City/Location:
Comment:
characters left. Discuss the issues - personal attacks against other commenters, posts containing advertisements or links to commercial services, nonsense, and other useless posts will be deleted.
Answer 4 + 5 =

You can also discuss this episode in the Skeptoid Forum, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation, or join the Skeptalk email discussion list.

What's the most important thing about Skeptoid?

Support Skeptoid
 
Skeptoid host, Brian Dunning
Skeptoid is hosted
and produced by
Brian Dunning


Newest
The Black Eyed Kids
Skeptoid #410, Apr 15 2014
Read | Listen (11:18)
 
Oil Pulling
Skeptoid #409, Apr 8 2014
Read | Listen (12:24)
 
Skeptoid Media is a 501(c)(3) Public Charity
Apr 4 2014
Listen (1:13)
 
15 Phreaky Phobias
Skeptoid #408, Apr 1 2014
Read | Listen (12:44)
 
The Death of Mad King Ludwig
Skeptoid #407, Mar 25 2014
Read | Listen (11:49)
 
Newest
#1 -
Listener Feedback: Alternative Medicine
Read | Listen
#2 -
The JFK Assassination
Read | Listen
#3 -
Asking the Socratic Questions
Read | Listen
#4 -
5 False Arguments for Raw Milk
Read | Listen
#5 -
The Vanishing Village of Angikuni Lake
Read | Listen
#6 -
The Riddle of the L-8 Blimp
Read | Listen
#7 -
The Secrets of MKULTRA
Read | Listen
#8 -
Who Discovered the New World?
Read | Listen

Recent Comments...

[Valid RSS]

  Skeptoid PodcastSkeptoid on Facebook   Skeptoid on Twitter   Brian Dunning on Google+   Skeptoid RSS

Members Portal

 
 


"Vaccine Ingredients"
inFact with Brian Dunning


Support Skeptoid