Shortly after Lord Carnavon’s death, Tutankhamun’s tomb is re-opened. In defiance of the “curse”, Howard Carter organises lunches in the access corridor, where he eats heartily in the company of Arthur Mace, Callender and the many egyptologists who take turns in helping him in his work.
In October, six months after Lord Carnavon’s death, Carter is ready to open the second catafalque chest where Tutankhamun’s mummy should lie. This chest, which is like a miniature chapel, is covered by an extra-fine linen veil, studded with gilded bronze daisies. For fear that it might fall apart, Carter has it imbibed with a special chemical solution which gives it sufficient suppleness for it to be removed. Under the veil, Carter finds alabaster vases and a series of rods, in gold or silver, whose pommels represent the head of a very young man, wearing royal ornaments. He doesn’t know it yet, but Carter has Tutankhamun’s face in front of him for the first time.
And the deaths continue: Colonel Aubrey, half-brother to Lord Carnavon, six months after the Earl; Ali Fahmi Bey, Governor of the province, and the archaeologist Goodyear.
It takes Carter another two years to get to the mummy itself. Under the second chest, there is a third, surrounded by hunting accessories, bows, arrows, fly-swatters; then a fourth chapel containing a sandstone tub in the form of a bath, decorated at each corner by the statuette of a goddess, similar to those which were against the walls of the first chest. On this “bathtub”, a granite lid, broken in two (probably during the funeral) and painted in yellow to recall the colour of gold.
Inside the tub, Carter now sees a sarcophage in gilded wood which appears to be moulded on the mummy, it so faithfully reproduces its form and features. The young king, who wears the pharaoh’s traditional headdress, surmounted by the heads of a vulture and a cobra, is holding in his hands, crossed on his chest, the sceptre and the flail, emblems of his power, in gilded wood incrusted with blue and red glass. The face and hands glow more feebily than the body: they are covered with an almost matt gold leaf. One curious thing, the feet seem to have been filed down, the sarcophage being too big for the tub.
The cover removed, there appears a second sarcophage exactly inserted inside the first. More richly decorated than the first, this second sarcophage is entirely gold-plated and garnished with glass of every colour. On the breast, a necklace of olive and willow leaves and blue lotus flowers has been placed.
Under this sarcophage, a third, covered by a red linen veil, except for the face. Carter and Mace, having removed this veil, stop, absolutely astounded: this sarcophage is in solid gold. 1,85 metres in length, it weighs more than 1,000 kilogrammes. An expertise will reveal that its weight in pure gold, whose thickness varies between 2.5 to 3.5 millimetres, is exactly 1,110.4 kilogrammes. More than one tonne of gold!
The oils and balms abundantly poured onto the sarcophages by the priests have formed, in drying, a sort of glue which maintains the lid tightly welded. Probably by design. Carter and Mace have to spend several days dissolving this glue. On 28 October 1925, eighteen days after the opening of the sandstone tub, the mummy is exposed. Carter immediately notes that it is not in a very good state of conservation. It is a sort of blackish magma, made from a substance resulting from the decomposition of the balms and diverse products destined to protect the body. The mummy is entirely surrounded by linen and gold bandelettes covered in inscriptions. Here is the text:
“I am your mother [it is the ancestor of the gods, the goddess Nut, who is speaking], it is I who has created your beauty, oh Osiris, King, Master of the Countries, Neb Cheprut-Ra, your soul lives and you are strong, you breathe the air and you go like a god as you enter into Amon, oh Osiris Tutankhamun, you leave us and you are united with Ra [the sun-god], how great is your nobility, how powerful your throne. Your name is in the mouths of all of your subjects. Your immortality will remain in the mouths of all of the living, oh Osiris, King Tutankhamun, your heart remains immortal in your body. It is at the head of the living, like Ra will remain in the sky.”
This hymn to Tutankhamun’s immortality will later constitute one of the best answers to those who still refuse to believe in the famous “curse”.
Three years after the tomb’s discovery, the myth of the curse continues to grow and be embellished, fed by deaths.
The nurse who had assisted Lord Carnavon in his last moments, at the Continental Hotel, soon joins him. Then a certain Richard Bethell, whom Carter had employed as secretary for a while. And Bethell’s father, Lord Westbury, who commits suicide at the age of seventy-eight, three months after his only son’s death, by jumping from the seventh floor window of his London apartment. Understandable despair. During the funeral, the hearse hits two adolescents; one of whom dies while being taken to hospital.
A great part of public opinion cannot help but see the pharaohs’ vengeance in this. Some do not hesitate to question the well-known circumstances of Lord Carnavon’s death. They say that he wasn’t stung by a mosquito, but by a scorpion, and that he wanted it to be believed that it was a mosquito because, in Ancient Egypt, the scorpion was considered a sacred creature, the “guardian of the secrets of the mountains”, just like the cobra was the “guardian of the secrets of the plains”. These “mystics” claim that Carnavon preferred not to mention the scorpion, for fear of giving credit to the pharaohs’ vengeance theory.
“Curse” believers cite the Egyptian doctors who examined Lord Carnavon. They had said that the sting could have been from either a scorpion or a mosquito.
To be continued.