In 1922, a team led by Howard Carter found and opened King Tut’s tomb, turning a long-forgotten ruler into perhaps the most well-known Egyptian pharaoh. Far from being grateful, Tut’s spirit responded with a fatal vengeance, the legend goes.
In this tale, a clay tablet prominently displayed at the entrance promised death to whoever disturbed Tutankhamen’s blissful eternal rest.
The story further goes that Lord Carnarvon was the first to succumb, being felled by disease brought by a mosquito. Many others followed, of unknown or suspicious causes. While Carter lived to an old age, the explanation is that his curse was to watch those he had led into the crypt perish.
This reeks of ad hoc reasoning, which is when a lame retort is cobbled together to deflect discomfiting information. Proponents of the curse notion would have never attributed an early Carter death to him being blessedly relieved of seeing his associates die because of his vanity. Trying to pass his reasonable life span as curse-related is obviously folly to all but the most fervent believers.
The idea of a curse arose during one of yellow journalism’s heydays and articles from the period were long on spooks and speculation and short on investigation, confirmation, and corroboration. That’s why reports of the putative’s first victim’s death failed to mention Carnarvon’s fragile health or the frequency of succumbing to mosquito-related ailments in that place and time. Nor is there any photo of the curse-laden clay tablet, nor any mention of it in notes from those on the expedition.
Like all alleged curses, Tut’s is unprovable either way, and supporting the notion rests on post hoc and ad hoc hypotheses. But an attempt at a scientific explanation was made by Dr. Caroline Stenger-Phillip, who wondered if ancient mold in the tomb could have caused potentially fatal allergic reactions.
Fruits, vegetables, and other organic items were buried in tombs, and since the tombs were hermetically sealed, mold spores could have existed and remained viable many centuries later. There were also two molds that attach themselves on mummies and can be harmful to persons with weakened immune systems.
But these tomb toxins fail to explain the deaths. If members of the expedition party received a lethal amount, death would have come quick, not months and years later. Egyptologists never suffer this fate nor do the unending string of tourists that visit tombs daily.
Another study reached the conclusion that not only was there no causation between a curse and early deaths, there wasn’t even a correlation. The life spans of those involved matched what would be expected from those in any other field.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Mark Nelson considered only westerners in Carter’s party, since there was a difference in life expectancy between them and Egyptians.
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. Skeptoid‘s Brian Dunning deduced that the p-value of this difference was .87, so there’s an 87 percent 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. Here, the p-value was .95, meaning there’s a 95 percent chance that there would be such a difference because of random variation. In summary, the curse is as dead as the boy pharaoh it is attached to.