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Curses! Mummy Tale Not True

Researcher puts to rest legend surrounding opening of pharoah's tomb

FRIDAY, Dec. 20, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Tut tut to those who believe in the mummy's curse.

According to a study reported in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, there is no mummy's curse associated with the opening of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen in Egypt.

The study confirms what other experts have long suspected.

"I've never had any weird experience with a mummy, and I've worked with them for 30 years," says Bob Brier, an Egyptologist at Long Island University's C.W. Post Campus who is considered a modern-day Indiana Jones and renowned mummy expert (his students call him "Mr. Mummy").

"I've never been sick a day in my life and I've really worked closely with mummies," Brier adds, including a dozen visits to the most famous tomb of all.

Most of the tombs of Egypt's ancient pharaohs had been picked over by grave robbers way before the dawn of the 20th century. The tomb of King Tutankhamen, however, was an exception: It remained remarkably undisturbed when British archaeologist Howard Carter arrived with shovel and pick in November of 1922.

When Carter discovered unbroken seals on the tomb door, he immediately cabled his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, so he, too, could be present at the grand unveiling.

Lord Carnarvon hotfooted it to Egypt, presided at the opening and, six weeks later, developed a skin infection at the site of a mosquito bite. This then led to septicemia, pneumonia and his death.

Rumor has it that Lord Carnarvon's three-legged dog expired at the exact same moment his master took his last, tremulous breath, although it wasn't clear if the dog's demise was related to being exposed to a mummy or having too many Egyptian leftovers at his master's table.

Exclusive rights to the archaeological find of the century were given to The Times of London, which is probably why news of the death spread like the plague through the rival newspapers: LORD CARNARVON SUCCUMBS TO MUMMY'S CURSE.

The legend, which never specified what exactly was going to happen to whom, persisted. So much so that, nine years later, the director of the Egyptian Section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City actually issued a statement denying the existence of a curse. Only six of the original 24 people who had been present when the tomb was first opened had died in the intervening years, he said. And samples of air taken from the tomb's sarcophagus had turned out to be "absolutely sterile."

Dr. Mark Nelson, author of the latest study and a fellow in the department of epidemiology and preventive medicine at Monash University in Prahran, Victoria, Australia, was not going to let it rest at that.

Using statistical analysis, Nelson investigated the survival patterns of Westerners who had and had not potentially been exposed to the mummy's curse between February 1923 and November 1926.

"I have just finished a Ph.D. in clinical epidemiology and thought it would be fun to use the scientific methods employed in this discipline to investigate/dispel an urban myth," Nelson explains.

Carter's records indicated that there were 44 Westerners in Egypt at the time of the discovery. Twenty five were present when previously undisturbed areas were entered and were therefore potentially exposed to the curse. The other 19 people were not at the tomb and were therefore not exposed.

Nelson identifies four possible places where the 25 individuals might have come into contact with the curse: the breaking of the seals and the opening of the third door on Feb. 17, 1923, the opening of the sarcophagus on Feb. 3, 1926, the opening of the coffins on Oct. 10, 1926, and the examination of the mummy on Nov. 11, 1926.

The people who might have been exposed to the curse lived to a mean age of 70 years, versus 75 years for those who were not exposed. Survival after the date of exposure was 20.8 years for those who might have been exposed compared with 28.9 years for those who were not.

The differences, however, are not statistically significant, Nelson says. "The exposed group was older and more likely to be male. Both of these factors are predictors of an earlier death and when you take this into consideration, the differences were not significant," he says.

There are actually three or four tombs in Egypt that have curses written in hieroglyphics on the exterior of tombs which were meant to dissuade ancient (as opposed to modern) grave robbers. "They'll say things like, 'Anyone who disturbs these tombs, I will ring his neck like a bird," Brier says. If the latest research is any indication, these ancient home protection devices don't work. (King Tut's final resting place had no such message. "There's no real origin in either King Tut's tomb or any artifact that says there's a curse. Nor is there anything in ancient Egyptian literature," Brier says.)

With this mystery finally unraveled, study author Nelson is moving on to other things.

"I have started to look at the appearance of comets and whether these have foretold the death of tyrants through the ages," he says.

Stay tuned.

What To Do

For more on King Tut and Carter's discovery of his tomb, visit the Egypt State Information Service.

For more on Bob Brier's work, especially his documentaries, visit TLC Discovery.

SOURCES: Mark Nelson, M.D., Ph.D, NHMRC Fellow, department of epidemiology and preventive medicine, Monash University, Alfred Hospital, Prahran, Australia; Bob Brier, Ph.D., Egyptologist, Long Island University's C.W. Post campus, and author, Encyclopedia of Mummies, The Murder of Tutankhamen, Egyptian Mummies and Ancient Egyptian Magic; Dec. 21/28, 2002, British Medical Journal
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