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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 recent years a scientific mummy's-curse theory was offered for Carnarvon's death. Was he killed by exposure to ancient, toxic pathogens from the sealed tomb? Did they prove too much for his immune system, which was weakened by a chronic illness he had experienced before he went to Egypt?
"When you think of Egyptian tombs, you have not only dead bodies but foodstuffsmeats, vegetables, and fruits" interred for the trip to the hereafter, said Jennifer Wegner, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. "It certainly may have attracted insects, molds, [bacteria], and those kinds of things. The raw material would have been there thousands of years ago."
Recent laboratory studies have revealed that some ancient mummies do indeed carry mold, including at least two potentially dangerous speciesAspergillus 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.
Some tomb walls may also be covered with respiratory-assaulting bacteria like Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus.
Scientists have also detected ammonia gas, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide inside sealed sarcophagi. In strong concentrations they could cause burning in the eyes and nose, pneumonia-like symptoms, and in very extreme cases, death.
Bats inhabit many excavated tombs, and their droppings carry a fungus that can cause the influenza-like respiratory disease histoplasmosis.
Under the right conditions such hazards could prove deadly.
"Safer in the Tomb Than Outside"
But experts who have examined the case of Lord Carnarvon believe that tomb toxins played no role in his not-so-untimely demise.
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