Curse it was! A new series of Find My Past digs up the real story behind Tutankhamun's tomb
17:26 GMT, 4 November 2012
Exactly 90 years ago, in November 1922, two Englishmen and a woman stood at the entrance to a tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
As the hot air, undisturbed since the tomb had been sealed 3,000 years earlier, made the candle held by one of the men flicker, his eyes adjusted to the darkness within.
‘Well,’ barked his aristocratic companion, George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, impatiently, ‘Can you see anything’ ‘Yes,’ breathed archaeologist Howard Carter in awe, ‘wonderful things.’
Evie Leatham with Find My Past presenter Chris Hollins
Carnarvon, his daughter Lady Evelyn, and Carter were standing at the threshold of the 20th century’s most sensational archaeological discovery: the treasure-filled tomb of the Egyptian boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun.
But the mummified king’s marvellous golden mask and the other priceless artefacts buried with him were to bring tragedy as well as glory to the men who found them.
Watching them as they descended into the tomb was Arthur Weigall, an archaeological rival who was covering the excavation as a journalist. ‘Arthur was a professional archaeologist and he deeply disapproved of Carter and Carnarvon, who he regarded as amateurs,’ says Arthur’s grandson, London schoolteacher Peter Weigall, 64.
Peter features in a new series of Find My Past, which meets the descendants of famous historical figures who took part in such dramatic events as the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Fire of London, the Battle of Trafalgar, and the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches, and introduces them to each other.
In the Tutankhamun episode, Peter meets Evie Leatham, 32-year-old great-great-granddaughter of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, whose wealth financed Carter’s excavations. It was Arthur Weigall who, according to legend, ‘cursed’ Lord Carnarvon for disturbing the sacred tomb.
In the Tutankhamun episode, Peter meets Evie Leatham
Explains Peter Weigall, ‘Arthur was horrified when he saw Carter and Carnarvon running around the tomb laughing. He didn’t like the fact they’d given exclusive rights to the story to the Times – although he himself had a similar contract with the Daily Mail.
He thought the tomb belonged to the world – and especially to Egypt. Carter and Carnarvon shut the Egyptians out and Arthur was so annoyed he’s supposed to have predicted their deaths. He whispered to a nearby journalist, “I give him six weeks.” Sure enough, within six weeks Carnarvon was dead.
'That was the origin of the curse of Tutankhamun.’ Carnarvon died of blood poisoning in Cairo after a mosquito bite became infected. Oddly, the postmortem on Tutankhamun found a lesion on the Pharoah’s left cheek, in the exact spot where the mosquito had bitten Carnarvon.
Evie Leatham paid many childhood visits to a house that has become familiar to us as Downton Abbey – Hampshire’s Highclere Castle, the seat of the Carnarvon family since the 1690s. ‘I remember running through the endless rooms as a child and being caught up in the romance and mystery of it all,’ she recalls. Did she have any worries, meeting Peter Weigall, that the curse would skip a few generations and hit her ‘I have no idea if there really was a curse,’ she says, ‘but Peter thought his grandfather had an intuition Carnarvon would die. Perhaps that’s as close to a curse as he would go.’
Find My Past, Tuesday, 9pm, Yesterday.