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Out of Time: How Nottingham Estate Owner Lord Carnarvon Supported the Excavation of Tutankhamun’s Tomb

25 May 22 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

There wasn’t anything particularly special about the reign of Tutankhamun. He held the throne for barely a decade, dying before the age of twenty after he succumbed to what has been speculated to be a leg fracture sustained during a chariot accident. So why, more than three millennia after his death, does his name remain arguably the most well-known (rivalled only by Cleopatra) from Ancient Egyptian history? The answer lies in an expedition, funded by Nottingham estate owner Lord Carnarvon, to excavate his tomb in the twenties - an expedition that led to the mysterious deaths of many involved, including Carnarvon himself…

George Herbert was dying. As he lay sweating, feverish and writhing in agony in the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo, Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, must have wondered what he’d done to deserve such a fate. Aged just 56, he was suffering from the effects of blood poisoning – the result of a severe mosquito bite that became infected by a razor cut. It was Thursday 5 April 1923 and, whether he knew it or not, he had only hours to live. And then darkness. All of Cairo was plunged into black, hit by a city-wide power cut. As Carnarvon’s life slipped away in the dark heat of that Cairo hotel room, he would have no idea that his demise would give birth to rumours of an ancient curse, and that he would be just the first of many mysterious, untimely deaths linked to the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun.  

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, was an English peer and aristocrat whose estates included land in Bingham, Shelford and Gedling in Nottinghamshire. Marrying the illegitimate daughter of millionaire banker Alfred de Rothschild in 1895, he was granted a marriage settlement of £500,000 (over £60million in modern money), which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle and obsession with horse racing. After a near-fatal motoring accident in 1903, doctors advised Carnarvon to winter in warmer climates, and it was during a short spell convalescing in Egypt that he first developed his obsession with antiquity. Four years later, he was sponsoring the excavation of nobles’ tombs in Deir el-Bahri, marking the first in a long line of projects undertaken alongside noted Egyptologist Howard Carter. 

Subsequent excavations led the pair to work together again, this time at the famed Valley of the Kings – an area located on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes, and the site where, for nearly 500 years from the sixteenth to eleventh century BC, rock-cut tombs were constructed as the final resting places for the pharaohs and most powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt). Following a First World War-shaped interlude, the pair began anew in 1917, with the mission of finding any and all tombs missed by previous excavations. But by 1922, little of any real significance had been discovered, causing Carnarvon to declare that the following year would be the last he was willing to fund.

Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle told the American press that “an evil elemental spirit” manifested by priests caused Carnarvon’s death

But, on 4 November 1922, Carnarvon received a telegram at his London home. “At last we have made wonderful discovery in Valley,” Carter wrote to his patron. “A magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations.” By the end of the month, Carnarvon was back in Egypt and present when the tomb was finally opened, over 3,000 years after its regal inhabitant had been sealed inside. Clearing the tomb’s stairway, they revealed a door marked by a cartouche – an Egyptian hieroglyph depicting a royal name: Tutankhamun. Breaking the seal and entering the rubble-filled corridor, Carter was able to prise open a tiny breach into the tomb itself – space just large enough for him to peer into by candlelight. “Can you see anything?” Carnarvon asked. “Yes,” came Carter’s reply. “Wonderful things.” The contents were staggering. Entire rooms filled with treasure, statues, gold jewellery, chariots, model boats, canopic jars, paintings and the greatest find of all: a perfectly preserved sarcophagus containing the mummified remains of Tutankhamun himself. It would become one of the largest and most important archaeological discoveries in history, bringing worldwide fame and notoriety to both Carter and Carnarvon. The finds were so extensive that Carter would spend the next decade of his life cataloguing the thousands of items discovered inside the tomb.  But, just five months after he was present for the tomb’s opening, Lord Carnarvon would be dead. 

No sooner was his body cold that Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle told the American press that “an evil elemental spirit” manifested by priests caused Carnarvon’s death, forewarned as it was by the citywide power cut. Rumours of a curse, inscribed at the tomb’s entrance and warning that “Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the Pharoah” began to circulate, and Carnarvon was far from being the first member of the expedition to meet an untimely end. Prince Ali Kamel Fahmey Bey would be shot dead by his wife later that year, aged just 23; Sir Archibald Douglas Reid, supposedly the first man to x-ray the mummy, died mysteriously in 1924; Sir Lee Stack, the governor-general of the Sudan, was assassinated in Cairo the same year; Arthur Mace, another member of Carter’s excavation team, died of arsenic poisoning in 1928; Carter’s secretary Richard Bethell was smothered in his bed in 1929, supposedly killed by Satanist Alastair Crowley (the Nottingham Evening Post mused that “Bethell had come under the ‘curse’… when there was a series of mysterious fires at his home, where some of the priceless finds from Tutankhamun’s tomb were stored”), while Bethell’s father committed suicide in 1930. 

Hugh Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist who helped excavate the site, took his own life in 1924, writing, allegedly in his own blood, “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear”

The supposed curse didn’t end with those directly involved with the excavation, either. When Sir Bruce Ingham was gifted a mummified hand paperweight by his friend Howard Carter, his house burnt down. Then, when he tried to rebuild it, it was hit by a flood. Similarly, wealthy American businessman George Jay Gould visited the excavation site in 1923, before immediately falling sick and later dying of pneumonia. Hugh Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist who helped excavate the site, committed suicide in 1924, writing, allegedly in his own blood, “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear” as he did so. It was even said that, at the exact moment Carnarvon died in Cairo, his dog Susie let out a great howl and died back in their family home in England. 

Now, we’re never ones to let the facts get in the way of a good story, but it is worth pointing out a few things. Firstly, it has been widely proven that no curse was ever written above the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb – that came as a result of the work of best-selling novelist Marie Corelli’s speculations. Secondly, there were far more people involved with the expedition – including Carter himself – who lived to a ripe old age, undisturbed by the supposed curse. Thirdly, many of the incidents linked to the curse were either erroneously linked to the excavation, wildly exaggerated or the result of panicked speculation. Simply put, like all conspiracy theories, the curse existed because people wanted to believe it, and shoehorned in whatever evidence they could to support it. But, as the Nottingham estate owner lay dying of a blood infection in that dark, humid Cairo hotel, you can’t help but wonder whether some part of Lord Carnarvon regretted stirring up the wrath of those ancient, powerful gods.

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