Old legend dies hard

Despite the legendary curse of the mummy, archaeologists and aristocrats who entered King Tutankhamen’s tomb over 7 decades ago lived about as long as their peers, according to an unusual historical study.

Mark R. Nelson of Monash University in Prahran, Australia, pored over the diaries of early-20th-century archaeologist Howard Carter and obituary records to learn what became of Westerners who entered the tomb between 1923 and 1926. Nelson compared the individuals’ lifespans with those of other, mostly wealthy Westerners who traveled to Egypt with the expedition team but didn’t enter the tomb. His results appear in the Dec. 21-28, 2002 British Medical Journal.

Nelson found that, on average, the 24 men who entered the tomb lived to be 70 years old. This doesn’t amount to a statistically significant difference from the average lifespan of 75 for the seven male bystanders on the trip, Nelson says.

Nelson notes that he left the handful of women travelers out of his final analysis because he couldn’t find birth or death dates for most of them. But he did discover that Lady Evelyn Herbert, the only woman to enter the tomb, outlived all the men who did so. She died in 1980 at age 79.

Overall, the findings don’t surprise Nelson, who says that competing newspapers probably started the rumor of a mummy’s curse soon after the sudden death in 1923 of expedition backer and tomb explorer Lord George Carnarvon. He was Lady Herbert’s father.

David P. Silverman, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, agrees that newspapers probably started the rumor. This doesn’t rule out the possibility of a mummy’s curse, he quips. The ancient Egyptians left written curses on the outside of several tombs, but not on King Tut’s, he notes.


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