Tag Archive: Arthur Mace


In 1924, the hecatomb continues.  It is the turn of Mace, Carter’s assistant, then that of Doctor Archibald Douglas Reed who came to X-ray the mummy.

Tutankhamun's gold mask at the time of its discovery.

In the years that follow, it is impossible for an egyptologist to die without immediately provoking  the resurgence of the curse.  To the point that certain scholars’ nerves are seriously affected.  Doctor Evelyn White has a nervous breakdown while working with Carter on the inventory and classification of the Tutankhamun treasure.  His case gradually degenerates into folly, until the day he writes a farewell letter to his family:

“I succumb to a curse which obliges me to disappear.”

Then he hangs himself.  He was a very pious person.

The Daily Mail titles:

“A shiver runs through England”

when it announces Archibald Douglas Reed’s death.

In 1925, Hall, the necropolis’ sketch artist, dies.  Benedite, Conservator of the Louvre museum, disappears in 1926 from a congestion.  Soon, another name is added to the list:  La Fleur, a vague relation of Carter’s, who dies shortly after having visited the Valley of the Kings.  He was a professor in an American university.

1929 sees the disappearance of numerous people having worked in the Valley of the Kings:  Naville, Carter’s boss, Woolf, an English industrialist, Gould, an American multi-millionaire, Ember and Greenfell, eminent egyptologists, and Lady Almina, Lord Carnavon’s wife.

It is said that an Egyptian Minister, wanting to investigate this series of mysterious deaths, goes to the site, accompanied by a snake charmer named Mussa…  Upon their arrival, a cobra and a viper come out of Tutankhamun’s tomb.  The charm doesn’t work apparently, for the snakes flee.  The Minister, whose name we shall never know – it’s a State secret [!] – dies for no apparent reason, shortly after returning to Cairo.  No-one knows what happened to Mussa.

On the eve of the Second World War, the curse fervents register their seventeenth victim.  The German, Otto Neubert, obligingly enumerates them in his book The Valley of the Kings.  Obligingly and abusively.  He cites, for example, the name of A. Lucas, Director of the Egyptian Government’s chemical laboratory at the Antiques Service.  Lucas is the principal “carer” of the objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, which means that he treats them to ensure their conservation.  Lucas does not die until 1945, at the age of seventy-eight, which is not bad for a man who is supposed to have been pursued for more than twenty years by an implacable curse.

Neubert also prematurely kills off Professor Douglas Derry and the scholar Garries Davis.  Let us examine these two cases a bit more closely.

Douglas Derry is the first to really hold Tutankhamun’s mummy in his hands.  The mummy is taken from the third sarcophage in a state of advanced decomposition.  Derry is given the task of trying to reconstitute it.  For weeks, he works at its restoration, which allows him to affirm that the young king must have measured 1.67 metres at his death.  Derry, far from being incommoded by this long familiarity with the mummy, publishes a book in 1956, thirty years after having finished with Tutankhamun.

As for Garries Davis, a renowned egyptologist who visits the tomb several times – and who is frequently mistaken, by Neubert and others, for Theodore Davis, the man who is the first to find a few articles marked with Tutankhamun’s seal – dies in 1951, at the age of seventy-six.

Others abusively named as victims of the pharaohs’ curse:  Sir Allan Gardiner and Bernard Bruyere, who are both present at the opening of the funeral chamber, and who both live to be more than eighty.

There is a very long list of egyptologists who escape the curse…  Gustave Lefevre, Member of the Institute, successor to Maspero at the Cairo museum, the one who organises the Tutankhamun exhibition in the Egyptian capital, dies in 1957, aged seventy-eight…  Burton, the photographer to whom we owe the photos taken hour by hour during the discovery and exploration of the tomb, dies after the end of the Second World War, as does Jean Capart, the man who recommends Lord Carnavon to Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth…  Callender, the companion of Carter’s last trips, dies very naturally at an advanced age, having been seen lunching gaily for years in the tomb, in Carter’s company.  When Mohamed Zacharia Groncim, Director of Egyptian Antiques, commits suicide in 1959, after having discovered the Sakkarah pyramid, near Cairo, the newspapers again evoke the “curse of the pharaohs”.

Howard Carter obviously constitutes the best example of the resistance that a scholar with a robust constitution can offer to the curse.  He has the habit of saying to his friends and any journalists who ask him about it:

“Look at me.  I’m as solid as the pyramids.”

He dies in England in 1939, seventeen years after his discovery, aged sixty-six.

Among all of these recorded deaths, the majority of them is perfectly explicable medically.  Bethell dies of tuberculosis, an illness from which few escape at this epoch.  Arthur Mace has to leave the Valley of the Kings shortly after the opening of the sarcophages, when the work is far from being finished.  He, too, is suffering from tuberculosis, and leaves for the Riviera – which does not stop him from continuing to collaborate with Carter in writing down the discovery and exploration of the necropolis…  Mace slowly fades away from “consumption” as his contemporaries call it… 

The two cases of suicide (Lord Westbury and Doctor Evelyn White) can’t confirm the curse theory.

There remain of course, out of the fifty or so searchers, egyptologists, scholars and doctors, and their families, who participate in the discovery and study of Tutankhamun’s necropolis, around half-a-dozen deaths in circumstances which can appear strange and which have never been clearly explained.  Other cases are more troubling, like that of the radiologist Reed who dies while not appearing to suffer from any illness.  Apparently a heart attack.  But aren’t there people today, apparently in good health, who collapse with sudden, unforseeable cardiac arrest?

To be continued.

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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.

Lord Carnavon

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.

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