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Monday, June 27, 2022

Oxford exhibit to dispel “curse of pharaohs” myth

Many school children know the ominous tale well. When Howard Carter, a British archaeologist, ventured to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt and rediscovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, a curse lying dormant for millenia awoke. Some members of Carter’s team died in short order, lending credence to the haunting story known as the ‘curse of the pharaohs’. 

Long derided by archaeologists and historians as a silly work of fiction, the myth is finally set to be dispelled by a Bodleian Library exhibit coming on April 13. The exhibit will show that rumours of such a curse spread long before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s curse, and were trafficked by shady mystics sceptical of Egyptology. 

After Lord Carnarvon, one of Carter’s associates who entered the tomb with him, died in 1923 from a blood infection, the media in the West sensationalised stories of the pharaonic curse, drawn from the claims of mystics. Major newspapers, such as the New York World and the New York Times, published stories about the curse. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, famously endorsed the curse, suggesting that “elementals” had taken Carnarvon’s life. 

Egyptology was met with scepticism in the early twentieth century, as fears of the unknown mixed with an appetite for Gothic horror gave way to openness to the rumour. The exhibit will show that the curse was propagated by a frustrated archaeologist excluded from the original discovery team by Carter. 

A string of deaths that shortly followed Carnarvon’s fueled those rumours. A man who X-rayed the mummy fell victim to a mysterious illness. Another succumbed to arsenic poisoning, and it was believed that an affluent American died shortly after setting foot in the tomb. These deaths, the exhibit will show, were simply coincidences that did not even occur in close succession. 

Sceptical historians have pointed out that the vast majority of people who entered the tomb with Carter went on to live long, healthy lives. 

Although Carter dispelled such rumours as “tommy rot” at the time, he also indulged them in his own writings. He published a semi-fictional account of the discovery that includes a story of his canary dying from a cobra bite at the moment he entered the tomb. 

The exhibit will include fascinating primary source documents. It has hand-written correspondences between members of the discovery team and a telegram from a mystic warning of a curse. That mystic, later identified as Ella Young, an Irish poet, claimed that sandstorms in the desert and Carnarvon’s death were the works of the pharaohs. 

The exhibit has been curated by Richard Bruce Parkinson, Oxford professor of Egyptology, and Dr. Daniela Rosenow, who works at the Griffith Institute, Oxford’s Egyptology centre. It will launch on April 13, alongside a new book titled Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive. 

Image credit: Roland Unger, CC BY-SA 3.0

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