Photograph by Kenneth Garrett
Movie mummies are known for two things: fabulous riches and a nasty curse that brings treasure hunters to a bad end. But Hollywood didn't invent the curse concept.
The "mummy's curse" first enjoyed a worldwide vogue after the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt.
When Howard Carter opened a small hole to peer inside the tomb at treasures hidden for 3,000 years, he also unleashed a global passion for ancient Egypt.
Tut's glittering treasures made great headlines—and so did sensationalistic accounts of the subsequent death of expedition sponsor Lord Carnarvon.
In reality, Carnarvon died of blood poisoning and only six of the 26 people present when the tomb was opened died within a decade. Carter, surely any curse's prime target, lived until 1939.
But while the pharaoh's curse may lack bite, it hasn't lost the ability to fascinate audiences—which may be how it originated in the first place.
Birth of the Curse
The late Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat conducted a comprehensive search and concluded that the concept began with a strange "striptease" in 19th-century London.
"My work shows quite clearly that the mummy's curse concept predates Carnarvon's Tutankhamen discovery and his death by a hundred years," Montserrat told the Independent (U.K.) in an interview some years before his own death.
Montserrat believed that a lively stage show in which real Egyptian mummies were unwrapped inspired first one writer, and subsequently several others, to pen tales of mummy revenge.
The thread was even picked up by Little Women author Louisa May Alcott in her nearly unknown volume Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse.
"My research has not only confirmed that there is, of course, no ancient Egyptian origin of the mummy's curse concept, but, more importantly, it also reveals that it didn't originate in the 1923 press publicity about the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb either," Montserrat stressed to the Independent.
But Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo and a National Geographic Society grantee, believes the curse concept did exist in ancient Egypt as part of a primitive security system.
She notes that some mastaba (early non-pyramid tomb) walls in Giza and Saqqara were actually inscribed with "curses" meant to terrify those who would desecrate or rob the royal resting place.
"They tend to threaten desecrators with divine retribution by the council of the gods," Ikram said. "Or a death by crocodiles, or lions, or scorpions, or snakes."
Tomb Toxin Threat?
In recent years some have suggested that the pharaoh's curse was biological in nature.
Could sealed tombs house pathogens that can be dangerous or even deadly to those who open them after thousands of years—especially people like Lord Carnarvon with weakened immune systems?
The mausoleums house not only the dead bodies of humans and animals but foods to provision them for the afterlife.
Lab studies have shown some ancient mummies carried mold, including Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus, which can cause congestion or bleeding in the lungs. Lung-assaulting bacteria such as Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus may also grow on tomb walls.
These substances may make tombs sound dangerous, but scientists seem to agree that they are not.
F. DeWolfe Miller, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, concurs with Howard Carter's original opinion: Given the local conditions, Lord Carnarvon was probably safer inside Tut's tomb than outside.
"Upper Egypt in the 1920s was hardly what you'd call sanitary," Miller said. "The idea that an underground tomb, after 3,000 years, would have some kind of bizarre microorganism in it that's going to kill somebody six weeks later and make it look exactly like [blood poisoning] is very hard to believe."
In fact, Miller said, he knows of no archaeologist—or a single tourist, for that matter—who has experienced any afflictions caused by tomb toxins.
But like the movie mummies who invoke the malediction, the legend of the mummy's curse seems destined never to die.
Follow along as Fred Hiebert and his team search for a sunken palace in Kyrgyzstan.
Under a remote Maya palace in the ruined city of Uxul, archaeologists in Mexico have uncovered an ancient burial—and a rare royal cup.
Below street level in Mexico City, archaeologists have found a jumble of bones dating to the 1480s.
Researchers have uncovered a remarkably well-preserved Maya mural and calendar markings.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
Explore Nat Geo
Investigate a murder in Cleopatra's palace.
Use forensic archaeology to solve the death of China's first emperor.
How much do you know about the ancient Mesoamerican Maya civilization?
National Geographic Magazine
Rome’s border walls were the beginning of its end.
How did the Easter Island statues move? That question puzzles archaeologists—and modern-day islanders.
Archaeologists and artists, armed with the latest tools and techniques, are bringing the life-size army of painted clay soldiers back to life.
Shop Our Space Collection
The National Geographic initiative is a call to action to become actively involved, to learn more and do more—to change how we think about and consume energy so that we can all help tackle the big energy questions.