The Real Origins of Tomb Raider Curses

Archaeologists exploring the "City of the Monkey God" recently contracted a flesh-eating disease, which is quite similar to a number of horrifying tales of woe to befall archaeologists.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

International treasure hunters face a number of practical challenges: unfriendly locals, hostile international trade agreements that frown on grave robbing, inclement weather, dangerous travel conditions in unfamiliar terrain, and, of course, the vengeful curses of ancient deities. I jest, but a pervasive theme in popular stories of archeological discovery and exploration is the idea of tomb raider curses: curses that afflict those who dare disturb the peace of the ancient dead. But what lies behind stories of ‘the Mummy’s Revenge’?

The best-known story of tomb raider curses is the curse of the pharaohs. The curse is so well-known that it inspired a horror movie, a video game, and an episode of The Twilight Zone. The alleged curse afflicts anyone who disturbs the final resting place of an ancient Egyptian, in particular an ancient Egyptian pharaoh.

The most famous example is the discovery of the final resting place of Tutankhamun in 1922. When Howard Carter and his team opened the undisturbed final resting place of the boy-pharaoh, they not only initiated a new era in archaeology, they also (allegedly) unleashed a millennia-old curse. Following the tomb’s discovery a slew of unexplained deaths plagued those associated with it. Some months after the discovery of the tomb, Lord Carnarvon, one of the financial backers of the exploration and one of the first to enter the tomb, died from blood poisoning caused by an infected mosquito bite. The unusual death prompted a flurry of media interest. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speculated that Carnarvon had died from “elementals” left by ancient priests to protect the royal tomb.

Other deaths attributed to the curse of Tutankhamun include those of Carnarvon’s half-brother, the radiologist who x-rayed the boy-king’s mummy, a member of the excavation tomb who died of arsenic poisoning, and even Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt, who was shot to death by his wife on July 10, 1923. For all the speculation, there was no curse on the lintel or walls of the tomb itself. And we should note that Howard Carter himself lived a full decade after the opening of the tomb.

But more than popular folklore and sensationalism forms the basis for the idea of funerary curses. While extremely rare, some Old Kingdom-era tombs do promise vengeance against those who disturb them. The tomb of the 10th-9th century BCE ruler Khentika Ikhekhi contains an inscription on the wall that reads, "As for all men who shall enter this my tomb... impure... there will be judgment... an end shall be made for him... I shall seize his neck like a bird... I shall cast the fear of myself into him."

In his book Valley of the Golden Mummies, archeaologist Zahi Hawass says that the tombs of the builders of the Great Pyramid of Giza included the warning “All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it may the crocodile be against them in water, and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion against them on land." Hawass declined to disturb those remains, but later participated in the excavation of the mummified remains of two children in Bahariya Oasis, and reported being haunted by the children in his dreams.

Tomb raider curses are not exclusively associated with ancient Egyptian mythology and pyramids. A number of fourth- and fifth-century CE Coptic Christian martyrdom stories included appendices that warn against the destruction of those who seek to steal the remains of the martyr. These curses were directed against other Christians who, for religious reasons, wanted to acquire the holy relics of the saints for themselves.

Tomb raider curses persist all the way into the present day. Recently a team of archaeological explorers and documentary filmmakers, joined by author Douglas Preston, set off in pursuit of ‘the City of the Monkey God,’ also known as the ‘White City,’ an long-lost urban settlement buried deep in the Honduran side of the Mosquitia rainforest. The site lies on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua in the midst of a dense 20,000-square-mile rainforest inhabited by venomous snakes. The intrepid group hoped to rediscover the city, which had been abandoned since the sixteenth century.

Modern technology, including laser imaging and 3D models, allowed the group to discover the site, which would otherwise have been concealed by the dense wildlife. The foliage was so thick that it was impossible for them to uncover the foundations of the large pyramid that had once stood there. It was only when they ran across artifacts that they were sure that they had found the city. One of the first artifacts they discovered was the snarling head of a jaguar buried in the ground and peeking out of the undergrowth. It was so remarkable that the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández Avarado, himself insisted on removing it from the ground.

But the removal of the jaguar head was not without controversy. Some commentators remarked that the item and site were so sacred that they should be left intact. It seemed to them that the monkey god agreed, because it wasn’t just knowledge that the explorers found in the forest. They also contracted a rare life-threatening disease.

The flesh-eating disease is caused by Leishmaniasis, a parasite spread by the sand fly. The parasite eats away at the mucous in the mouth and nose and causes them to fall off. Around half the group contracted the parasite and underwent some rather uncomfortable treatment to cure the condition. The experience, while undeniably horrendous, is currently serving as lurid marketing material for Preston’s book City of the Monkey God. The story of the Western intruders suffering the revenge of the Monkey God makes for excellent copy.

In general, the reason for attaching curses to holy sites is a practical one: they form a last line of defense against grave robbers. Practically speaking the dead are helpless: they cannot defend themselves against determined treasure or relic hunters who want to exploit their remains or burial goods. If one cannot rely on a sense that graves are sacred, then the threat of supernatural vengeance, unlikely though it may be, is the last shot at warding off intruders.

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The irony here is that in the vast majority of cases of grave robbing, it is not the ancient peoples or artifacts, but the explorers themselves that constitute the major threat. In the sixteenth century, occupants of the City of the Monkey God fled the site because they believed that it was cursed. In actual fact, historians believe that they were suffering from the effects of colonization, which brought the slave trade and new diseases to the region. Not only was the ancient city lost to the world because of the effects of European intruders, the colonizers themselves were the real plague.