Ancient History & Civilisation


The main hall of the Egyptian Museum.

THE REAL CURSE OF TUT’S TOMB WAS THAT CARTER DID NOT die at the moment of discovery.

After decades of working in solitude and silence, suddenly Carter found himself in the midst of a circus. His old enemy Arthur Weigall, now reporting for the Daily Mail, described the scene: “There were soldiers springing to the salute; officers with clanking swords shouting orders; Cinema operators running up the hillsides, while native boys climbed behind them carrying their apparatus; crowds of European and American visitors in every kind of costume from equestrian to regatta; Egyptian notables looking very hot in western clothes and red tarboushes; tall black eunuchs in frock coats; and dragomans [guides] in bright silken robes….”

The world’s spotlight was suddenly turned on Carter—and at the worst possible moment. For as the ancient air rushed out of the tomb and the modern air entered, the process of decay and destruction began—and would have to be countered as soon as possible. James Breasted recorded that as he sat deciphering seals in the tomb, “strange rustling murmuring whispering sounds rose and fell and died away…. The outside air had altered the temperature and quality of atmosphere, causing the wood to adjust to new strains. Hence the audible snapping and fracturing [of the antiquities].”

Huge amounts of preservatives and packing material had to be brought from Cairo—along with a solid steel door. A laboratory needed to be set up in a neighboring tomb, a photographic record made, and a darkroom established in an empty tomb nearby; draftsmen were necessary to work on a careful plan to scale—a team had to be put together, a chemist found, an engineer, a photographer, and so on, before Carter could take the first steps in clearing the tomb. (The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, excavating nearby, stepped in right away with generous offers of help.)

But if Carter was in the middle of an archaeological crisis, he was also engulfed by a political one. From day one of the tomb’s discovery, nationalists raised the cry: Everything must remain in Egypt! The struggle for independence was at its height now, after World War I, with assassinations, demonstrations, strikes, and the like. British gentlemen could be seen checking their guns as they entered the Gezira Sporting Club—it was unsafe even in Cairo for them to go about unarmed. If the foreign crowds gathered above the tomb oohed and aahed the overnight celebrities being brought up the tomb’s sixteen steps—Anubis, Isis, & Co.—the nationalists claimed the gilded images as their own. These treasures became the symbol of Egypt’s reawakening.

The nationalists’ demands were echoed by the new director of the Antiquities Service, Pierre Lacau, who also wanted the tomb’s contents to remain in Egypt, though for reasons of his own. He called for an end to the old rule of “partage,” or division. A scattering of Egypt’s treasures on the art markets and in private collections impeded scientific study, he claimed with some justice. But his motives were mixed, with jealousy and ambition playing their part in his intrigues against Carter.

He was quick to use a legal argument against the excavators: The contents of an intact royal tomb belonged entirely to the Egyptian government, according to the never before invoked terms of Carnarvon’s concession. Carnarvon pointed out that Tut’s tomb had been robbed in antiquity and thus was not intact. “Rifled” was a better word for it, Lacau countered. True, unguents, perfumes, and jewelry had been stolen—but Tut’s mummy had been left undisturbed, Lacau insisted.

From the beginning, this fact had been more or less certain. At the grand opening of the burial chamber, a huge gilded wooden shrine was seen to take up most of the room. When its doors were slowly folded back, the seals on a second, inner shrine were found intact. As it turned out, there were four gilded shrines covering the royal sarcophagus, and as soon as the unbroken seals on the second shrine were noted, it was understood that the body of the boy-king had not been touched.

Later, when the shrines were finally dismantled and the two-ton sarcophagus cover was lifted, this surmise was proven correct: Tut was found lying in a nest of three “anthropoid,” or portrait, coffins, each one more exquisite than the last. The inner one was of solid gold and contained yet another amazing image of Tut, a gold portrait mask of unsurpassed beauty.

Carnarvon had no intention of letting the matter rest at this. He had laid out huge sums during the unprofitable sixteen years of financing Carter’s digs (the last six years alone had cost him over forty-five thousand English pounds). If he had to, he would subpoena Tut himself to win his case.

His share of the find in question, Carnarvon devoted the last six weeks of his life to figuring out how to make back some of his money. He negotiated with both Cinema Pathé and MGM for film rights, delighted with an MGM scenario starring a heroic earl. He sold exclusive photos to newspapers, journals, and collectors and advised Carter to paint “some really good piece” from the tomb, telling him that he would be able to sell it at a very high price. (Another irritating suggestion from his oblivious lordship, who, unlike Carter, had no sense of the difficulty and delicacy of the work ahead.)

Of all Carnarvon’s moneymaking schemes, though, the one that would hang like an albatross around Carter’s neck was the exclusive (for a hefty sum) the earl granted the London Times. From the beginning, the needy nobleman saw that the three-thousand-year-old pharaoh was hot news. The story made headlines right away and stayed on the first page as day by day the hysteria grew: KING’S


The world could not get enough of Tut—even before Carnarvon’s death created absolute pandemonium—the curse!—with psychics and necromancers of every sort grabbing the limelight. The earl was laid to rest amid a chorus of dire predictions about those still working in the tomb, the foremost being, of course, the unbelieving, “arrogant” Howard Carter.

But while the psychics might give interviews free of charge, any news given to the reporters descending on Luxor would have to be bought from the Times—an arrangement that included the Egyptian press, who were treated as foreigners in their own land. The reporting was, accordingly, hostile to Carnarvon and Carter, with Weigall in the front of the hunting pack, inventing freely, maliciously, stirring up as much animosity toward the “monopolists” as possible.

Even under the best of circumstances, Carter was not a man to shrug off such attacks. But now they were magnified times ten, Carter being in the midst of delicate archaeological work. As temperatures climbed toward the end of the work season—100 degrees, 105, 110, 120—Carter was to be found working on his knees in the airless tomb, or hanging from a sling over the treasures in the annex, a room packed so solidly that it was impossible to walk safely among its vases and chests.

With Carnarvon dead, Carter was shouldering the full burden of public relations as well as the delicate, all-consuming archaeological work: His nerves were on edge, and he was particularly vulnerable to Lacau, who had been carrying on a campaign of petty annoyances and restrictions all along. Finally, Lacau made his move. Informed that Carter planned on inviting the wives of his collaborators to view the tomb, Lacau sent an order from Cairo forbidding this.

Not considering that he was walking into a trap, Carter closed the tomb in a rage and posted Lacau’s letter at the Winter Palace Hotel as a public denunciation of Lacau and the Egyptian government’s discourtesy, incompetence, and interference. Lacau immediately canceled the Carnarvon concession and sent in government officials to change the locks, claiming that Carter had abandoned his duty at a critical moment and thus no longer had a right to work in the tomb.

Thus began the saga of lawsuits and political wrangling that would end some two years later in defeat—inevitably, for Lacau and the Egyptian government held all the cards.

After losing his case in the mixed courts (so called from its makeup of both European and Egyptian officials), Carter appealed. While fruitless negotiations were carried on, locked out of “his” tomb, he left for a speaking tour in the United States and Canada.

If there is one image that sums up Carter during this time, it is a scene that took place on the Canadian Pacific Railway, in the dining car of the Montreal-Ottawa train. The steward handed the world-famous explorer the menu, and according to Lee Keedick, his speaker’s agent, Carter frantically filled in the “patron’s comments” section with sarcastic, biting criticisms, going on to cover the entire bill of fare in his fine, precise handwriting.

But this was typical of Carter’s last phase: embattled, bitter, futile. When he finally returned to spend a decade in the tomb, it was after signing an apology and humbly accepting the new terms imposed by the Antiquities Service and Egyptian government. Apart from renouncing (for the Carnarvon estate) any share in the tomb’s contents and accepting government supervision, he would be forced to wait every morning for a government official to hand him the keys to the tomb—he was no longer allowed to hold them.

A colleague, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, wrote of a visit made during the last decade of clearing: “We found him [Carter] repairing some of the coffin cases; he showed us the multitude of things still awaiting attention and I pitied him cooped up for years in the electrified darkness of the tomb.”

During these last years, Carter, walking in the desert, peered through his binoculars and caught a glimpse of an unusual sight: “a pair of jackals … making their way towards the cultivated land.”

He described them in his journal: “They probably had cubs in the hills as otherwise it was early for them to descend to inhabited and cultivated quarters. But the great interest was, while one of them was of normal size and colouring, the other … was totally black, much taller and attenuated, resembling … the type found upon the monuments. This is the first example of that colouring and that type of jackal I have seen in Egypt in over thirty five years experience in the desert and it suggested to me the old and original Egyptian jackal, known to us as Anubis, god of the dead.”

It was fitting that at the end of his career, these divine zoological throwbacks appeared to Carter. For during the course of his life, he had become just as much a part of Egypt’s past as they were. The era that had begun in the early 1800s with adventurers of every imaginable sort pillaging Egypt’s ruins ended with the tortured, sensitive, moody Carter. During his lifetime, Egyptology began to take its place among the scientific disciplines, leaving behind its “unrespectable” piratical origins.

The study of Egypt’s past has since become more specialized. DNA testing of a lock of hair and a more accurate understanding of the ancient language have taken the place of the search for treasure.

But who knows? There is no ruling out what still may be found! For as Carter wrote, in archaeology it is generally the unexpected that happens.

The same divine jackals that Carter met still circle in the Valley of the Kings—they must, for the gods are eternal, are they not? Possibly they have their own plans for some student setting out to study Egypt’s past—from a strictly scientific point of view, mind you. Conceivably, it will be one of you reading this book. For though you may be no lady or gent, jackals have their own way of judging such matters and may decide to lead you to the tomb of some nobleman or noblewoman, some Mitannian or Hittite princess come to Egypt long ago.

Or perhaps they will bless (and damn!) you with an even greater find. The tomb of Ramesses VIII, say—at this moment still lying beneath the shifting sands, waiting to be discovered.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!