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Is the "King Tut Curse" Caused by Toxins Produced by
Microorganisms?
The tombs of Ancient Egyptians are famous for their "curses" that call for death and destruction to those who
enter.
"Death Shall Come On Swift Wings To Him Who Disturbs The Peace Of The King". This warning
phrase was supposedly engraved on the exterior of King Tutankhamen's tomb.

The Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen became King at the age of 9 years old. He ruled Egypt from 1370 BC until
he in 1352 at the age of 18. He was believed to have been killed by a close associate and his team of
conspirators. He was given a Pharaoh's burial in the Vally of the Kings in Upper Egypt.

Stories of "The Mummy's Curse" or "King Tut's Curse" excited the world after the discovery in 1922 of the
ancient pharaoh's tomb in Egypt. Lord Carnarvon, a british sponsor of archaeology in Egypt, died shortly after
attending the tomb's opening, inspiring speculation that supernatural forces were at work.

In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter and his team discovered King Tut's burial chamber. They found riches
beyond belief. After about 5 years, eleven of the people who had entered the tomb were dead. Again rumors
were saying that King Tut's tomb was cursed. This theory persisted until the 1990's.

Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. Wealthy Egyptians performed careful preparations for their dead
by mummifying their bodies and providing them with food. meats, fruits, vegetables, clothing, ornaments,
furniture, statues of their Gods and everything else they would need in their new lives during their trip to eternity.
These materials inside the tomb have been there for thousands of years and certainly may have attracted
insects, fungi and bacteria.

In recent years a scientific mummy's-curse theory was offered for Carnarvon's death. Several people have
suggested that illnesses associated with the Ancient Egyptian tombs may have a rational explanation based in
microorganisms.

Many people believed the curse of King Tut to be true, until 1986. A French medical doctor, Caroline
Stenger-Phillip, found an explanation for the mysterious deaths. This explanation depeded on the fact that the
food offerings left in tombs, before they were sealed, created ideal mold growing conditions. Dr. Stenger-Phillip
stated that since there were fruits and vegetables in the tomb, it was very likely that they grew mold and formed
organic dust particles. These particles may have had a high allergenic potency. Dr. Stenger-Phillip also
claimed that the archaeologists that had opened the tomb for the first time had an allergic reaction after
breathing and inhaling these particles which led to their death. He did not believe that the curse of King tut was
the cause for the mysterious deaths. Dr. Stenger-Phillip claimed that the archaeologists were victim to an
allergic shock reaction after breathing these particles and it was this, not and ancient curse, which led to their
death.

Recent laboratory studies have revealed that some ancient mummies do indeed carry mold, including at least
two potentially dangerous species,
Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus.
These molds can cause allergic reactions ranging from congestion to bleeding in the lungs. The toxins can be
particularly harmful for people with weakened immune systems.

Dr. Ezzeddin Taha, of Cairo University in Egypt, examined the health records of some museam workers at Cairo
Museum and noticed that many of them had been exposed to
Aspergillus niger which produces Ochratoxin A
and causes fever, fatigue and rashes. He suggested that the fungus might have been able to survive in the
tombs for thousands of years and then was picked up by archaeologists when they entered the tombs.

Dr. Nicola Di Paolo, and Italian physician, identified another possible fungus,
Aspergillus ochraceus, at
Egyptian archaeological sites, which suggests it might also have made visitors to the tomb sick, or even those
that just handled artifacts from the tombs. Aspergillus ochraceus has been shown to produce some
mycotoxins including Penicillic acid, Ochratoxin A, Xanthomeginin, Viomellein and Vioxanthin.

In 1999 A German microbiologist, G. Kramer, from the Univerity of Leipzig believes that the cause of the curse is
some type of mold spores. Kramer analyzed 40 mummies and identified several potentially dangerous mold
spores. Mold spores are tough and can survive thousands of years even in a dark, dry tomb. Although most are
harmless, a few can be toxic. There were also mold spores in the dirt samples collected from the tomb. Kramer
thinks that when the tombs were first opened and fresh air gusted inside, these mold spores could have been
blown up into the air. When spores enter the body through the nose, mouth or eye mucous membranes, they
can trigger severe and sometimes fatal illnesses of the lungs, organs and intestines and lead to organ failure
or even death particularly in individuals with weakened immune systems. For this reason archaeologists now
wear protective gear (such as masks and gloves) when unwrapping a mummy, something explorers from the
days of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon didn't do.

Dr. Hans Merk, a dermatologist at the University of Aachen, Germany, performed similar research and agrees
with Kramer's conclusions. Merk analyzed dust and rock samples from tombs and found primarily three types
of mold:
Aspergillus flavus, Aspergillus terreus and Cephalosporium (Acremonium) species. All of these
species are toxic, particularly to the elderly and immune deficient people.

Some other researchers reported that bats inhabit many excavated tombs, and their droppings carry a fungus
that can cause the influenze-like respiratory disease Histoplasmosis. Under the right conditions such hazards
could prove deadly.

Some other findings showed that bacteria on the walls of the tomb might have been the cause of the curse.
Some tomb walls may also be covered with respiratory-assaulting bacteria like Pseudomonas and
Staphylococcus.  Gottard Kramer also stated that the bacteria would release spored into the are when the tomb
was opened allowing the spores to be breathed in and causing illness.

A recent mummy tombs visitor names Ron pointed out an article from 1998 that wondered if anthrax might have
caused the curse of King Tut's tomb. The actual cause of Lord Carnarvon's death is open to question.

A French scientist, Sylvain Gandon, studying the apparent long lifespan of deadly spores published an article in
which he wondered if Lord Carnarvon's death "could potentially be explained by infection with a highly virulent
and very long-lived pathogen". Did Carnarvon die after a mosquito bite became infected (as has been thought)
or could he have inhaled anthrax spores in the tomb?

A Canadian doctor, James McSherry, agreed with the French scientist: "A malignant pustule in the
oropharyngeal area could well produce and illness similar to the tragic event that caused Lord Carnarvon's
demise". He went on to explain that "anthrax certainly existed in ancient times and is often assumes to have be
responsible for the fifth and sixth plagues of Egypt, which are described in chapter 9 of the Book of Exodus in
the Old Testament. Anthrax spores could well have been present in the tomb, and there would have been a real
risk of exposure once the ancient dust was stirred.

Mold spores are not limited only to Ancient Egyptian tombs. The most notorious case of the mummy's curse
occurred with the opening of King Casimir's tomb in Poland in 1973. A team of 12 research scientists were
given permission to open the tomb of Casimir IV, King of Poland (1447-1492), to examine the remains with
restoration as the ultimate objective. King Casimir's tomb was opened on Friday, April 13, 1973. Twelve
researchers were present at the time. They found a wooden coffin that was heavily rotted inside the tomb.
Within a few days of opening the tomb, four of the twelve had died. Shortly thereafter, six more died. Not long
after, there were only 2 survivors. One of them was Dr. B. Smyk, a research microbiologist. He suffered from
problems with his equilibrium for the next five years. He was able to perform some detailed microbiological
examinations of the tomb to determine if there were any correlations between his illness and anything found in
the tomb. In the course of his Microbiological examinations, Dr. Smyk found some types of fungi on the artifacts
that had been removed from the tomb. He identified three species:
Aspergillus flavus, Penicillium rubrum, and
Penicillium rugulosum. These fungi produce different mycotoxins and are believed to have caused the deaths
of the other 10 researchers. It has also been speculated that these fungi may have been responsible for the
death of Lord Carnarvon, who died a few months after exploring King Tut's tomb in 1922.

When the mummy of Ramesses II (King of Egypt between 1304 and 1237 BC who built many monuments) was
taken to the Musee de l'Homme in Paris in 1976, over 370 fungal colonies belonging to 89 different fungal
species (including Aspergillus sp.) were found growing in and on the mummy.

We can see that the most detected fungi from mummies and tombs are the following:

Aspergillus flavus: This fungus is associated with aspergillosis of the lungs and/or disseminated aspergillosis.
        It is occasionally identified as the cause of corneal, otomycotic and nasoorbital infections.

Aspergillus ochraceus: This fungus produces a kidney toxin, Ochratoxin A, which may produce ocratoxicosis in    
             humans. The ochratoxin may also be produced by other
Aspergillus and Penicillium species. Other          
             toxins which can be produced by this fungus include Penicillic acid, Xanthomegnin and Viomellein.           
             These are all reported to be kidney and liver toxins.

Penicillium species: These fungi may cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis and allergice alveolitis in susceptible
             individuals. Some species can produce mycotoxins. It is a common cause of extrinsic asthmas                 
             (immediate-type hypersensitivity: type I) Acute symptoms include edema and brochiospasms. Chronic     
             cases may develop pulmonary emphysema.

Aspergillus terreus: This fungus produces the toxin Patulin and Citrinin that  maybe associated with disease in   
            humans and animals. This fungus is associated with aspergillosis of the lungs and/or disseminated       
            aspergillosis. It is found as an isolate from otomycosis (ear infection) and enychomycosis (infection of      
            the finger or toe nails).

Aspergillus niger: This fungus is the third most common species associated with invasive pulmonary                   
            aspergillosis. It is also often a causative agent of aspergilloma and is the most frequently encountered     
            agent of otomycosis.

Cephalosporium (Acremonium) species: Some of this species are recognized as opportunistic pathogens of
humans and animals, causing mycetoma, onychomycosis, and hyalohyphomycosis. Clinical manifestations of
hyalohyphomycosis caused by Acremonium include arthritis, osteomyelitis, peritonitis, endocarditis,
pneumonia, cerebritis and subcutaneous infection.

Recent findings might clear up some of the mysteries surrounding mummy curses. These findings are clear
evidence that microorganisms (fungi and bacteria) produce airborne spores that pose much more of a threat to
archaeologists and Egyptologists than curses found inscribed on tomb walls. Mold spores are protected by a
tough, waterproof wall made of chitin, which allows mold to survive for thousands of years, even in unfavorable
conditions. Prolonged exposure to toxic molds in a closed area, such as a mummy burial chamber, can cause
serious health problems. They can irritate, infect and ulitimately damage the eyes, skin, lungs, mucous
membranes, respiratory tract, stomach and intestines.

Recent media coverage leads us to believe that molds and bacteria are a new problem in air quality and
buildings, but these tomb toxin examples show that molds and bacteria may have played an important part in
the explanation of the death of Lord Carnarvon, who died a long time ago. To many, the curse of King Tut is still
a mystery, to others it is just superstition, but there are yet others who truly believe in the curse. Does the curse
truly exist or at least did it exist? Do you believe in the "Curse of King Tutankhamen"?
Sources:

  1. Ancient Egypt, David Silverman, 1997
  2. Egypt's "King Tut Curse" Caused by Tomb Toxins? National Geographic News. May. 2005
  3. Mummies, Myth and Magic, Christine El Mahdy, 1989
  4. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt, Salima Ikram, 1998
  5. The Curse of the Open Tomb, www.catchpenny.org
  6. Was the Curse of King Tut's Tomb Caused by Anthrax?, www.mummytombs.com