Since the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen was opened in February of 1923, people have speculated that the “curse of the mummy” could be responsible for the deaths of those who were present at that time. The death of Lord Carnarvon (the financier of the expedition) soon after the tomb was opened lead to the widespread belief that the curse of the mummy had killed him. This notion was propagated in the international media and even in the scientific community, as some speculated the mystical exposure could have been an ancient bacteria, virus, or any number of toxic chemicals released during the opening of the pharaoh’s sarcophagus, other coffins, or the tomb itself.

Until now, modern epidemiologic methods had not been used to investigate the reality of the “mummy’s curse.” Research highlighted in the December 21, 2002 issue of the British Medical Journal found no link between potential exposure to the mummy’s curse during the excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb and the death of those present within 10 years, the amount of time estimated to reveal a negative effect of exposure.

About the Study

For the purposes of this analysis, Mark Nelson of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Australia assumed that the “exposed” were only those present at the breach of sacred seals in a previously undisturbed area of the pharaoh’s tomb, or those who visited and entered the tomb on the same day. He compared the death rates of these 25 people to the rates of 11 Westerners who were presumably not exposed to the “mummy’s curse.” These 36 people had all been in Egypt at the time according to the writings of Howard Carter who lead the dig. Dates of birth and death were obtained from biographical texts, newspaper obituaries, and an Internet search. Comparisons were then made by age, sex, and exposure.

The Findings

There was no significant difference in the death rates of those who were exposed to the “mummy’s curse” when compared with those who were not exposed, thus there is no evidence to support the existence of a lethal mummy’s curse. Adjusting for age and sex, any exposure, or the number of times exposed did not change these results.

The main limitations to this study are its small sample size and potential inaccuracies of the birth and death data. Also, the researcher did not attempt to measure other adversities that may have befallen the mummy’s disturbers. Death may not have been the only manifestation of the curse.

How Does This Affect You?

Though this study suggests that archaeologists and those working on dig sites have no need to fear dying from “the mummies curse,” there are some real dangers and injuries that can occur on archeological digs. Here are some safety tips from the Archaeological Institute of America:

Before the dig

  • Vaccinations—Check into necessary vaccinations.
  • Medical Checkup—Have a thorough physical and dental exam to make sure you are physically healthy.
  • Boots—Make sure you have a good pair of study boots to protect against twisted ankles and other foot injuries, waterproof, steel toe capped boots are preferred.
  • Clothing—Most digs take place during the summer, so protect yourself from sunburn with a hat and plenty of sunscreen or loose clothing that covers your skin. Many people also wear jeans to protect the knees. Make sure whatever you wear is comfortable and safe, and keep some waterproof clothing close by.
  • Water—make sure you pack plenty of water to prevent dehydration. 
  • Medical Kit—Bring a small medical kit with assorted bandages, disinfectants, and ointments.

On the dig

  • Familiarize yourself with the sites health and safety regulations and follow all of the rules of those in charge of the dig.
  • Ask questions. Some digs that claim to be 'training' digs may not train you unless you specifically ask or show an interest.
  • Enjoy yourself and don’t be too concerned if you encounter a mummy.