May 21, 2010

A Hair's Breath From History: Archaeologist Thomas M. Davis, Missing The 'Find' Of A Lifetime, And The Curse Of King Tut's Tomb

Golden funeral mask of king Tutankhamun
Golden funeral mask of king Tutankhamun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In 1907, an archaeological team led by Thomas M. Davis discovered an intriguing pit in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.  The pit was found to contain a number of artifacts, but none were particularly valuable (i.e., were not golden treasures and the like) and were generally regarded as uninteresting.  An example of one such artifact is pictured below:

Image has been removed.

Cloths like this one were inscribed with words which, at the time, did not reveal their importance.  Scientists now know that these linens were used in the process to mummify the most famous Egyptian pharaoh of all, Tutankhamun.  "King Tut" as he is now known to the world, in part, due to the famous burial mask pictured left.

It would not be until 1922 when archaeologist Howard Carter, having worked in Egypt for some 31 years, would insert a candle into a darkened chamber -- found nearby Davis' "uninteresting" site.  When his funders anxiously asked Carter, "Can you see anything?"  Carter replied, "Yes, wonderful things."

What Carter stumbled upon -- and what Davis nearly found -- was an Egyptian tomb of Egypt's powerful and historically significant 18th dynasty.  Unlike many other tombs, Tut's tomb had been largely undisturbed by tomb robbers due, in no small part, to the fact that Tut was a relatively obscure pharaoh during his time.  As a result, the tomb held a treasure-trove of artifacts unlike any the world had seen before.  Many of these artifacts have toured the world, astounding museum-goers of all ages.  Recently, for example, many of the treasures of King Tut's tomb and his family members' tombs were on display at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, CA.

Because this is a blog about myths, legends and folklore, the post simply cannot end there.  And, indeed, the story of Howard Carter does not end there.  As it turns out, Thomas M. Davis may have been lucky to have been "a hair's breath from history."

Legend has it that, inscribed upon the tomb of Tutankhamun, was the following curse:
Death shall come on swift wings to to him who disturbs the peace of the king
So did the "Curse of King Tut's Tomb kill Howard Carter?"  Despite the widespread belief that it did, a belief that persists today, Howard Carter lived to a reasonably old age of 66 before dying of entirely natural causes.  However, many connected with the opening of the tomb did, in fact, die from rather odd circumstances.  Carter's financial backer, a man named Lord Carnarvon, suddenly took ill and was rushed to a hospital in Cairo.  He died a few days later. Although the exact cause remains unknown, it seemed to be from an infection started by an insect bite. When Carnarvon died, legend report a short power failure causing all the lights throughout Cairo to go out.  In addition, when the mummy of Tutankhamun was unwrapped in 1925, it was found to have a wound on the left cheek in the same exact position as the insect bite on Carnarvon that lead to his death.

By 1929, eleven people connected with the discovery of the Tomb had died early and of unnatural causes.  At the time, the press followed the "Curse" phenomenon quite closely, and by 1935, it counted twenty-one early and unnatural deaths of people who were either involved in the dig or the opening of King Tut's tomb.

In more recent years, several scientists have proposed more "rational" explanations for these deaths.  In 1999, for example, a German microbiologist, Gotthard Kramer, from the University of Leipzig, analyzed 40 mummies and identified several potentially dangerous mold spores on each.  In fact, darkened tombs can harbor dangerous fungus and mold spores for thousands of years, many of which can be harmful or fatal to those with weakened immune systems.  When fresh air rushes into these tombs upon their opening, these fungi and spores are blown into the air and, in past years, breathed in or absorbed by the archaeologists and diggers.

So, did a fungus or mold polish off nearly two dozen of Carter's workers and associates?  Or, was it the "Curse of King Tut's Tomb?"  We will never know for sure.  However, one thing remains certain -- the idea of a "mummy's curse" is one of the most enduring legends in modern culture, as shown in this trailer from "The Mummy" (1932), starring Boris Karloff.

For further reading on the subject of King Tut's Curse, you may want to check out the following article.  For a more in-depth treatment of the discovery of King Tut's tomb, check out the following article on About.com.  Finally, for a very interesting read on the "uninteresting" artifacts found by the ill-fated Thomas M. Davis, check out the following article from Discovery.com.

This article was updated on January 8, 2014

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