We’re headed WAY back in time to Ancient Egypt to discuss the life and death of the most famous Egyptian pharaoh, King Tutankhamen. Despite the fact that the “Boy King” was in power for a mere decade, the finding of his burial site influenced modern culture in ways you can only imagine. But this isn’t really a history podcast…

What we’re really doing hanging out with the major players in the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt is because of the alleged Mummy’s Curse. In the 1920s when archaeologists and Egypt enthusiasts, Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, and the people present mysteriously started dying, word of the Curse of the Pharaohs spread like wildfire.

On this episode of The Lady Dicks, the #DickSquad is digging into life in King Tut’s crew, inscriptions written on the tombs of Egyptian royals, who died from the alleged curse and whether or not it’s real. Oh, and we’re also travelling to the Valley of the Kings and telling you about a few of the ghosts that lurk around the area. Don’t miss the bad travel reviews, terrible name pronunciations and lots of incest talk (#SorryNotSorry, it’s Ancient Egypt…).

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King Tutankhamun

King Tutankhamun is the most famous of all of the Egyptian pharaohs, which is ironic because his tomb was rather small and his time as Egypt’s ruler was short. Nonetheless, almost everyone in the world has heard the name King Tut.

He was born Tutankhaten which means “living image of Aten” but changed his name to Tutankhamun which means “living image of Amun” during his reign. He was the 12th pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian dynasty and was the son of Akhenaten (referred to as Amenhotep IV before the fifth year of his reign) the 11the pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian dynasty. While his mother remains unknown, most historians suspect that she was one of King Akhenaten’s sisters. 

Ancient Egyptian royals were real big on incest—god forbid they taint their royal bloodline with that of peasants—so there were a lot of brother-sister, father-daughter, occasionally grandfather-granddaughter marriages that took place. Which naturally means there were a ton of genetic issues. For King Tut, historians found evidence of a clubbed foot (though, honestly, this doesn’t mean incest) and congenital health issues (this does mean incest)—which is what makes historians believe his parents were FULL siblings.

King Tut became the ruler of Egypt in roughly 1332 BC when he was 9 years old, and was in power for about ten years until his death in 1323 BC. His main claim-to-ruling-fame was the restoration of the ancient Egyptian religion. His father, sometimes called the “Heretic King” banned the worship of many of the gods and allowed only the worship of Aten the “sun disk.” During King Akhenaten’s 17-year reign he became increasingly autocratic and built a very corrupt regime which resulted in his removal from the throne. Historians believe that he was ultimately forced to abdicate and died shortly after.

The Boy King as Tut is often referred to and his advisors restored the old gods, repaired holy sites that his father had presumably desecrated, moved the court back to Thebes, and tried to restore relationships with Egypt’s neighbouring countries. The beginning of his reign was largely controlled by Ay, an elder who might or might not have been his grandfather. During the restoration of the gods was when the suffix of his name changed from “aten” to “amun.”

The same year that King Tut came into power, at the age of nine, he married his teenage half-sister, Ankhesenamun.

King Tut’s Wife, Ankhesenamun

Ankhesenamun was born in 1350 BC to King Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, the third of their six daughters. Historians believe that her marriage to Tut was not her first or last. There is “compelling evidence” to suggest that after the death of Queen Nefertiti, she might have been taken as a bride by her father. That is after her father had tried to further his family line with BOTH of her older sisters first. However, stories on the family tombs suggest that all of these ended in miscarriage. 

When she married her brother she was around 18 years old. Alongside him, she also changed her name from her given name to the “amun” suffix with the return to the old gods. Tut’s tomb where she was also suspected of being laid to rest holds evidence that the pair tried to further their family line. The mummies of two fetuses between the ages of five and eight months were found. The older of which would have “suffered from Sprengel’s deformity, spina bifida and scoliosis.”

The death of King Tut was likely an uncertain and scary time for her as a young woman with no heirs to take the throne. An undated letter that is suspected of being sent by her to Suppiluliumas I, King of Hittites, contains a “desperate plea” for him to send her a new husband because hers had recently died and she had no new children. Considering Hittites was Egypt’s chief military rival, she must have been desperate to save her country. He agreed and sent Zannanza, Prince of Hittite, but he was killed by Egyptian forces when he tried to cross the border.  

After that, there is some evidence to suggest that she married Ay, their advisor and possibly her grandfather. Ankhesenamun then disappears from records sometime between 1325 and 1321 BC, which is when historians believe she died. Because of this, she is often called Egypt’s Lost Princess. 

The Death of King Tut

The jury is out on how King Tut actually died. It’s possible that he died of murder—due to the condition of his skull when they unwrapped him the original belief was that he was murdered by a rival with a blow to the head. But a 2006 scan of his remains found that the damage to his skull was actually the result of “bad handling of his mummy.”

It’s more likely that he died of gangrene resulting from a broken leg. Some believe that this happened in a chariot accident, but a 2010 study of his DNA found malaria and concluded that he likely would have walked with a cane. It’s believed this could have also been the cause of his broken leg, and the malaria would have made it harder for his body to recover.  

King Tut ultimately died at the age of 19, though some sources say 18. As his death was unexpected and creating a massive monument like we see with the great pyramids, takes decades he was “hastily buried” in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings that would have likely been meant for someone less noble and was much smaller than the other pharaohs you find there. He was laid to rest 70 days after his death, which is when they believe that his tomb was sealed.

After his death there is virtually no record of him so he remained unknown for years. And the location of his tomb was lost, the entrance had been hidden under debris near the entrance of the nearby tomb of King Ramses VI.

Discovery of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb

King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922, and for the next 10 to 17 years (seriously, the records vary) archeologists working on the project unearthed the four-room structure. 

The dig was financed by Lord Carnavron (AKA George Herbert the 5th Earl of Carnarvon), an English banker and archeologist. Part of the money came from a deal with The Times newspaper who agreed to give him cash in exchange for exclusive world-wide rights to supply the world with images and news of the discovery. Lord Carnavron was joined by Howard Carter an Egyptologist and archeologist. 

Carter arrived in Egypt in 1891. At the time most of the ancient tombs had been discovered save for the lost tomb of King Tut. After an “extensive search” they uncovered the steps of the burial room of his tomb hidden under debris near the entrance of the Tomb of King Ramses VI in the Valley of the Kings on November 4, 1922. Carter and Carnarvon first entered the tomb on November 26, and found the inner chambers of the room miraculously intact and untouched. It was a small, 4-room tomb that took several years to explore. The biggest find during the discovery was a “stone sarcophagus containing three coffins nested within each other”, the final of which was a coffin made out of solid gold that held the young pharaoh himself. They also uncovered his death mask which was made of over 22 lbs of gold and gemstones, and bore a likeness to Osiris the Egyptian god of the afterlife.  

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb was one of the richest discoveries ever made. Many tombs at the time had been robbed, but because of the loss of knowledge on Tut and his tomb’s location, his had not. That coupled with the complete mystery of the young pharaoh captivated the world. 

Inside the tomb they found over 5,000 objects including golden statues, jewellery, decorated boxes, boats and a dismasted chariot, along with food offerings like loaves of bread, baskets of chickpeas, lentils, dates, meats and even flowers. The four corners of Tut’s “canopic shrine”—which is the case where his internal organs that were removed during the mummification process are stored—were guarded by four statues of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of the moon, life and magic. She was said to protect women, children and heal the sick. Tut’s body was unwrapped in 1925, which is when they discovered that he was so young and identified that his body “carried multiple injuries.”

The opening of King Tut’s tomb made a serious imprint on the culture of the time (and decades afterwards). The treasure and aesthetics found inside the tomb played a big role in inspiring the fashion of the 1920s. And John Balderson, who was the first journalist to see the face of the boy king, went on to write the script for The Mummy which was released in 1932. That script was then loosely remade in 1999 with, again, The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. And Carter and Carnavron became the inspiration for heroes like those seen in the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Laura Croft: Tomb Raider.

The Curse of the Pharaohs

The idea of the Mummy’s Curse or the Curse of the Pharaohs is something straight out of the movies—the idea that simply cracking the door on an ancient tomb will condemn you to death. But as bizarre and Hollywood as it might seem, there is some weird coincidence that leads some to believe that it might be a real thing. 

The so-called “Mummy’s Curse” is largely associated with the opening of King Tut’s tomb and most-likely stems from our lack of knowledge and understanding of ancient Egyptian society and a handful of strange deaths that took place after his tomb was open.  

There seems to be this belief that all ancient Egyptian tombs—especially those of pharaohs—contains some sort of curse or inscription warning that those that open the tomb will be cursed. Except this isn’t the case. With a few notable exceptions, few “curses” or warnings were actually found. Notably, the Tomb of Pennut has a warning that “cautions trespassers will end up miserable” and one tomb from around 1295-1069 BC “begs visitors to respect deceases final resting place”, on pharaohs curse exists in Valley of the Golden Mummies (burial site at Bahariya Oasis) which reads: “cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of the tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.” And finally, one of the other most cursiest tombs reads: “Watch out to not even take a pebble from within it outside. If you find this stone you shall not transgress it.”… because apparently the great lords will reproach anyone who disturbs the tomb “very very very very very very very very much” … so, you’ve been warned. But truthfully, even these warnings are rare because the idea that anyone would actually desecrate or open a tomb was unthinkable.

… But it’s important to note that no such curse was found on King Tut’s tomb. And despite the few stories we’re about to share, the majority of people that were involved in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb went on and lived just fine.

Alleged victims of the Mummy’s Curse

Pesky logistics about the fact that tomb curses aren’t actually a thing, let’s talk about some of the people who might or might not have been killed by the curse:

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon

The most famous death associated with the Mummy’s Curse is that of George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who financed the excavation of the tomb. He was also the first who supposedly succumbed to the curse. Carnavron received a mosquito bite in the Nile, six months after Tut’s tomb had been discovered and while he was shaving one day he accidentally tore open said mosquito bite and ended up dying of blood poisoning (though we admit we don’t know the specifics).  

Two weeks earlier he received warnings from novelist Mary Corelli about the consequences of opening King Tut’s tomb and just a six or so weeks before, the press had started reporting about a possible mummy’s curse that would affect anyone associated with disturbing the young king. A rumour that all of the lights mysteriously went out the moment that Lord Carnarvon died only pushed the cause further. 

A descendent of the Lord added more fuel to the fire but sharing additional details a documentary aired in 2020 called, The Curse of King Tut. She said that his dog, Suzy, also died mysteriously after “howling loudly” on that same day. And, apparently, that the day Carter opened the tomb, a falcon was spotted flying over the excavation site. The Egyptian workers there considered it a bad omen.

Aaron Ember

Aaron Ember was an Egyptologist who was close to Lord Carnarvon—no word on whether or not he actually had anything to do with King Tut and his tomb beyond the friendship. In 1926, less than an hour after he and his wife hosted a dinner party a fire broke out in their house.  

While there was plenty of time for Ember to escape the fire, his wife apparently encouraged him to run back and save the manuscript he’d been working on while she got their son. The manuscript’s title? The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Unfortunately, the family’s housekeeper also died in the fire.

Hugh Evelyn White

Hugh Evelyn White was a British archeologist who visited Tut’s tomb and might have helped excavate the site (though it’s unclear why he was there). Allegedly, after seeing about two dozen “fellow excavators” of the tomb dead by 1924, he hanged himself after writing in his own blood “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear.”

Sir Bruce Ingham 

Sir Bruce Ingham was merely a friend of Howard Carter who received a gift from him and was subject to the curse. Granted, the gift was a paperweight that consisted of a mummified hand wearing a bracelet that was alleged inscribed with the phrase “cursed be he who moves my body.”

Shortly after Ingham received the gift his house was burned to the ground. When he tried to rebuild it, it was hit with a flood. It’s valid to point out that he was clearly warned. 

George Jay Gould

George Jay Gould was a wealthy American financier and railroad executive who, for some reason (*cough* money *cough*) was allowed to visit King Tut’s tomb in 1923. He almost immediately fell sick and never recovered. He ultimately died of pneumonia a few months later.

Aubrey Herbert

Aubrey Herbert was Lord Carnarvon’s half-brother, which is his ONLY association with King Tut’s tomb as far as we know—he wasn’t at the opening nor did he possess any treasures from the tomb, though it’s probably safe to say that as a sibling he could have seen or even came in contact with something from the tomb.

In any case, he was born with a degenerative eye condition and went completely blind later in life. He also had “rotten, infected teeth” that a doctor somehow suggested were interfering with his vision and convinced him to have all of his teeth pulled to restore his vision. It didn’t work.

He died a mere five months after his cursed brother, due to sepsis as a result of the tooth-pulling surgery. 

Richard Bethell

Richard Bethell was the secretary to Lord Carnarvon, and was the second person to enter the tomb right behind Carter. Bethell ended up dying under suspicious circumstances, he was found “smothered in his room at an elite London gentlemen’s club.”

While this seems more like straight-up murder instead of an occurrence associated with the Curse, the association was brought up after a “series of mysterious fires” took place before his death at his home where he stored some of the “priceless finds” from Tut’s tomb.

Sir Archibald Douglas Reid

Sir Archibald Douglas Reid was a radiologist who “merely xrayed” the mummy of King Tut before it was handed over to museum authorities. It’s alleged that the next day he got sick and died three days later. We couldn’t find any sources to verify this or find the date or cause of his death. 

James Henry Breasted

James Henry Breasted was an American archaeologist, Egyptologist, and historian working with Carter when Tut’s tomb was opened. 

Shortly after the opening, legend says that he returned home to find that his pet canary had been eaten by a cobra who was still occupying the cage. Since the cobra is a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy he thought it was an ominous sign. In fact, cobras were often displayed on the nemes headcloth of pharaohs (think the headpiece that Hollywood associates with ancient egyptian royalty) as a symbol of protection.

Breasted himself didn’t end up dying though. He lived on another few years and died on December 2, 1935. However, he died of a “a streptococcus infection after returning from his last expedition.” Where was his last trip you might ask? Egypt.

Do with that what you will…

One of the only major players who didn’t suffer from something that could be seen or mythically associated with the Curse of the Pharaohs was Howard Carter. Instead, he died of lymphoma at the age of 64.

Visiting the Valley of the Kings

There are a few places that you can visit around Egypt to get a taste of mummies, but for this episode we’re going with the Valley of the Kings AKA the Valley of the Gates of the King or the Valley of the Tombs of Kings. This is NOT where you can find the Great Pyramid—you’ll find that outside of the greater Giza area. Instead, the Valley of the Kings is located in Luxor, Egypt (not to be confused with the Egyptian-themed hotel on the Vegas Strip). It’s west of the Nile river behind Dayr-al-Bahri which is the archeological site in the necropolis of Thebes. Like many of our travel destinations, the Valley of Kings was designated a World Heritage Site in 1979. 

The Valley of the Kings is part of the ancient city of Thebes and is the burial site of almost all of the pharaohs from Thutmose I to Ramesses X, including Tut. We should note that Ramesses X’s tomb was never finished and it’s unclear whether or not he was actually buried there though it’s clear that it was intended he be buried there. In total, there are 62 tombs in the Valley of Kings that are known to exist. The oldest tomb that is open to visitors dates back to 1450 BC, but the most popular is that of King Tut who’s mummy rests there encased in a gilded wooden sarcophagus—which essentially means that the sarcophagus (or coffin-like box) is painted in a thin layer of gold. You can also visit the tombs of Ramesses VI and Thutmose III. However, most of the artifacts and treasure have been removed and are on display at the Egyptian museum in Cairo, which is a 10-hour train ride away. 

So, travel at your own caution… though for the record, there are only 25 one-star reviews. Overall, the Valley of the Kings has a 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.

Ghosts in the Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings is ALSO haunted.

Visitors have reported a spectral pharaoh in a chariot roaming the valley. Strange noises, including footsteps, screams and shuffling without a source have been reported by watchmen in the area, some of whom believe that these sounds are restless spirits who are disappointed their tombs have been desecrated and their treasures removed.

Finally, the Ghost of Akhenaten of the 18th dynasty (none other than Tut’s dad) roams the Egyptian desert in the area.

Did you love this episode? Check these other historic gems out:

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  • Who was Bloody Mary? The #DickSquad have some suspects, but we’ll let you decide.
  • Franklin Castle Ghost Stories: This high-victorian-style “castle” located in Cleaveland, Ohio, has an interesting history that has a few ghost stories attached to it.

The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with the information for The Mummy’s Curse: Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:

The Lady Dicks Podcast was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion, Nikki Kipping and Tae Haahr. “The Mummy’s Curse: Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb” was research, written, edited and produced by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.

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