Illustration of a mummified skeleton and a snake turning into dust

The Curse of King Tut

Could a 3,300-year-old mummy really unleash doom on all who come near?

By Spencer Kayden
From the May / June 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will learn about a historic discovery of ancient Egyptian artifacts and consider various characters’ motivations for wanting to explore them or leave them untouched.

Guided Reading Level: U
DRA Level: 50

Characters’ Motivations

As you read, think about why some characters are in favor of unearthing King Tut and others are against it.


N1: Thousands of years ago in Egypt, there lived a pharaoh named Tutankhamen.

N2: Tutankhamen became pharaoh around 1333 b.c., when he was only 9 years old.

N3: Ten years later, he died. Mysteriously.

N1: King Tut was buried in a secret tomb. People said it held exquisite treasures.

N2: Some believed the tomb was cursed—that opening it would release a powerful evil.

N3: Still, for thousands of years, men searched for the tomb—lured by its untold riches.

N1: But the mummy’s tomb was never found.

N2: Until now.

Scene 1

Luxor, Egypt, November 1922

N3: A team of archaeologists and workers is gathered in the Valley of the Kings.

N1: It is a desolate place full of sand and rock.

N2: The men sweat profusely in the heat.

N3: Two workers talk to Howard Carter.

Gerigar: You have been searching in this valley
for years, Mr. Carter. What makes you think this spot will be any different?

Carter: This is the one place in the valley where I have not yet looked.

Moussa: Fair enough.

Gerigar (loudly): Gentlemen, let’s clear away all this debris.

N1: The crew gets to work.

N2: Before long, Gerigar stumbles upon a large, smooth stone under the sand. He keeps digging and uncovers another stone.

Gerigar: I may have found something over here.

N3: Carter brushes off the stones, then gently pokes a stick into the sand around them.

Carter: It seems to be part of a structure.

N1: The crew continues to dig.

Worker 1: Look!

Worker 2: What is that?

Gerigar: It looks like a staircase.

Carter (excited ): Keep going! Keep digging!

Worker 1: The staircase leads to a door!

Worker 2: There are royal symbols on the door!

Moussa: Mr. Carter, what do you make of this?

N2: Carter studies the door carefully.

Carter: I must summon Lord Carnarvon from England before we go any further. He and I should make this discovery together.

Rue des Archives/The Granger Collection

Ancient Treasures

In the 1920s, Americans and Europeans had a fascination with ancient cultures, especially Egypt. Explorers and archaeologists like Howard Carter traveled the world in search of ancient treasures. In this photo, Carter brings up artifacts from King Tut’s tomb. Egyptian law stated that the artifacts had to stay in Egypt. But many still ended up in museums or owned by individuals around the world. Today, most have been returned to the Egyptian Museum in Egypt’s capital, Cairo.

Scene 2

Carter’s tent, later that day

N3: Carter walks into his tent. Moussa is there waiting for him with wide eyes.

Carter: You look as if you have seen a ghost!

Moussa: I just came from your house. A cobra crawled inside and killed your pet canary.

Carter: Oh my. I am quite sad to hear that.

Moussa: The cobra is a symbol of protection for the pharaoh. Don’t you see, Mr. Carter? This is a warning.

Carter: A warning about what?

Moussa: Not to disturb the pharaoh’s tomb.

Carter: My good man, that is nonsense.

Moussa: But, sir . . .

Carter: Just think of it. If we find the tomb of Tutankhamen, we will be able to show the world a perfectly preserved piece of ancient Egypt. And we’ll be famous for doing it! What could be bad about that?

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Scene 3

A few weeks later

N1: Lord Carnarvon stands next to Carter as the crew finishes digging out the staircase.

Carnarvon: You were right to wait for me to arrive from England. Carter, old chap, this is the moment we have been waiting for.

N2: The crew carefully breaks through the door at the bottom of the staircase.

Carnarvon: After you, Carter.

N3: Carter leads the team through the door and into a dark stone passageway.

N1: The men are silent, their faces full of wonder. The sound of their steps echoes off the walls.

N2: At the end of the passageway, they come to another sealed door.

Carnarvon: This door has hieroglyphs on it.

Gardiner: Let me have a look. (leaning in closely with a candle) Tut . . . an . . . khamen!

Carnarvon: By Jove, Carter, we’ve found it!

Carter (in awe): No human being has set foot here in thousands of years.

N3: With trembling hands, Carter makes a small hole in the door. Holding a candle before him, he pokes his head through.

N1: A sudden blast of hot air escapes from the chamber. The candle flickers.

Carnarvon: Can you see anything?

Carter: Yes . . . wonderful things!

N2: The hole is widened. The men slip through.

N3: They find themselves in a room overflowing with glittering treasures: statues, jewelry, and gold—everywhere, the glint of gold.

N1: Gardiner picks up a gilded wooden cobra.

Gardiner: Carter, I can’t help but wonder if these serpents have real power. People have warned me that a curse will be unleashed if we enter this tomb.

Carter (whispering): Keep your superstitions to yourself, Gardiner. If the workers believe there is a curse, they won’t help us excavate. And we can’t do it alone.

Gardiner: You have studied ancient Egypt most of your life. Do you believe the curse is real?

Carter: I think it is hogwash.

Gardiner: I do hope you are right.

Scene 4

Lordprice Collection/Alamy

Lord Carnarvon was obsessed with ancient Egypt. He paid for Carter’s search for the tomb of King Tut.

Cairo, Egypt, April 1923

N2: In a dimly lit room, Lady Evelyn sits at the bedside of her father.

N3: Lord Carnarvon looks thin and frail in the large bed.

Evelyn:  Father, your skin is so pale. And that red mark on your cheek looks like it’s on fire.

Carnarvon: It is nothing. Just a mosquito bite.

Evelyn: Are you sure? You seem to be having trouble breathing.

Carnarvon: There is no trouble. I’m overjoyed!

Evelyn (taking his hand  ): I know, Father. Your archaeology team has just made the discovery of the century. Your name will live forever in history books.

N1: Lord Carnarvon begins to cough. A doctor arrives.

Evelyn (quietly): Doctor, can you help him?

Doctor: I don’t know. This is a very mysterious illness.

Evelyn: He must get well. Haven’t you heard?

Doctor: Ah yes, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. All of Egypt has been speaking of it.

Evelyn: The treasures inside have been hidden for more than 3,000 years.

Doctor: Forgive me, my lady, but perhaps they should remain hidden.

Evelyn: What do you mean?

Doctor: Many believe that the final resting place of a pharaoh is sacred—and that those who enter a pharaoh’s tomb will be cursed.

N2: CLAP! Thunder echoes outside. Lady Evelyn and the doctor both jump.

Evelyn (whispering): Father did fall ill soon after he entered Tutankhamen’s tomb.

N3: Lord Carnarvon’s body begins to tremble. He reaches for his daughter’s hand.

Carnarvon: Evelyn, tell Carter he must . . .

N1: Carnarvon gasps for breath.

Evelyn: Father?

N2: The lights flicker—and go out.

N3: CLAP! Thunder sounds again.

N1: The room is dark, except for a sliver of moonlight peeking in through the window.

N2: The doctor checks Carnarvon’s pulse.

Doctor (to himself  ): It seems the curse has claimed its first victim.

Evelyn: Is he . . . ?

Doctor: I am so sorry, my lady.

N3: Neither the doctor nor Lady Evelyn notices the cobra that slithers out from under Carnarvon’s bed and disappears into the shadows.

Granger, NYC/The Granger Collection (Howard Carter examining mummy); Rosemary Calvert/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images (gold mask)

Spooky, Right?

Ancient Egyptians believed that they would live again after they died and would need their bodies in the afterlife. So wealthy Egyptians had their corpses preserved through mummification—the process of creating a mummy. Above left, Howard Carter examines King Tut’s mummy, which wears a solid-gold burial mask (above right). According to rumors at the time, Tut’s mummy had a mark on its cheek in the same place as Lord Carnarvon’s mosquito bite. Wwwooooooo . . .

Scene 5

King Tut’s tomb, February 1924

N1: Carter and his crew are carefully making a list of everything in Tut’s tomb.

N2: Inside the burial chamber, the workers use pulleys to lift a coffin out of a stone sarcophagus.

Carter: Careful now. Steady. Don’t jostle the mummy.

Mace: Why is it so heavy?

Carter: The coffin seems to be solid gold! Just think—soon we will be looking into the face of an ancient king. If only Lord Carnarvon were alive to see it . . .

Mace: Can someone take this rope? I feel weak.

Gardiner: I’ll get it.

N3: Gardiner takes the rope just as Mace collapses.

Carter: What happened?

Gardiner: I am not sure. One moment he was fine, the next, he fainted.

Carter: He must be overheated. Get this man to a tent and give him water.

Gerigar: Mr. Carter, the Egyptologist from the French museum is here.

N1: Carter follows Gerigar out of the tomb to his tent.

Carter: Good afternoon! I trust this heat has not gotten the better of you?

Bénédite: Ah, it is a small price to pay for such a magnificent find. Carter, what are the chances we can bring some of these marvelous treasures to France?

Carter: People have come from museums all over the world to see Tut’s tomb. Its treasures are marvelous, as you say. But though I want to share this extraordinary discovery with the world, it does not belong to me.

Bénédite: Would it really matter if one or two artifacts were missing?

Carter: The contents of the tomb must stay in Egypt. Say, are you quite all right? You look rather flushed.

N2: Bénédite suddenly collapses. Gerigar takes his pulse.

Gerigar: Mr. Carter . . . he is . . . he is dead.

Scene 6

A market in Cairo, the next day

N3: Gerigar sees Moussa in the market.

Gerigar: Mr. Moussa, why haven’t you been working at the tomb?

Moussa: I will not go back there.

Gerigar: Why not?

Moussa: I heard that a tablet was found in the tomb that says, “Death will come to those who disturb the sleep of the pharaoh.”

Gerigar: That is a rumor. And if such a thing were found, it would probably have been written to scare away tomb robbers.

Moussa: Did you not hear about Sheik Abdul Haman?

Gerigar: No.

Moussa: He went to visit the tomb. The next day, he got a high fever. Now he is dead. So is the Frenchman and Lord Carnarvon. And what of Mace?

Gerigar: He just got overheated. He is fine now.

Moussa: We have not seen the end of this curse.

Gerigar: Mr. Carter works in the tomb every day. He is perfectly healthy.

Moussa: Others are paying for his greed with their lives. Entering the tomb was bad enough, but Mr. Carter is removing every last one of the 5,000 artifacts that have been found inside.

Gerigar: Mr. Carter is taking them to the museum in Cairo. Is that so wrong?

Moussa: If Mr. Carter is willing to dishonor Tutankhamen’s tomb, he does not truly respect the pharaoh or our people.

Gerigar: Our ancestors believed that their souls were kept alive when their names were remembered. You must admit: Because of Mr. Carter, Tutankhamen will live forever.

CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images (Mummy); KENNETH GARRETT AND ELISABETH DAYNES/National Geographic Creative (King Tut face)

Explanation for the Curse

Experts have been studying Tutankhamen for decades. They’ve created a model of what he may have looked like (left) by studying his mummy (right). They’ve also found a few possible explanations for the so-called curse. One is that there was toxic mold inside Tut’s tomb. This can be deadly for someone with a health problem—someone like Lord Carnarvon, who had an infected mosquito bite.

Scene 7

California, 2018

N1: A man and a woman drive down a dark and empty highway in an 18-wheeler.

Tony: Thanks for giving me a ride to Arizona. What are you hauling tonight?

Angela: Ancient treasure. I’m bringing it to a museum in Los Angeles.

Tony: Are you kidding me?

Angela: Nope. It’s stuff from the tomb of that mummy guy, King Tut.

Tony: Doesn’t that give you the creeps?

Angela: What do you mean?

Tony: Would you want someone digging you out of the ground years after you died? Whatever happened to “rest in peace”?

Angela: It’s funny you should say that. When I took this job, they told me that a bunch of other drivers had already turned it down.

Tony: Why?

Angela: People say there’s a curse on anyone who disturbs King Tut or anything that was buried with him. They believe that what’s in the back of this truck should never have been taken from his tomb.

Tony: What do you think?

Angela: I think it’s time to stop for some coffee.

N2: Angela steers the truck onto the exit ramp.

N3: Just then, the truck’s headlights catch something stretched across the road.

Angela: What is that?

N1: Angela and Tony see a flash of yellow eyes.

Tony: Watch out!

N2: Angela hits the brakes.

Angela and Tony: Aaaaah!!!

N3: The truck skids into a ditch and comes to a violent stop.

Angela: What was that?

N1: They peer out the window.

N2: An enormous cobra slithers across the road. It turns its head and flicks its tongue at them before slinking away into the night. 

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

Learn more about the life of King Tut and the speculation surrounding his death with this National Geographic Kids article. It even includes a rendering of what the King may have looked like. If your students are eager to learn more about Egypt, take a look at this article for some more information about the country’s history.    

Take your class on a virtual tour of King Tut’s tomb with this exciting video!    

More About the Story


Characters' motivations, fluency, vocabulary, inference, mood, compare and contrast, text features, author’s craft, critical thinking, opinion writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

Historical fiction, this play is based on events surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and the debate over what should be done with its contents. It examines this issue from the different points of view of various characters and explores the concept of a curse associated with the tomb. 


The play is chronological and has seven scenes as well as a prologue. Most of the play takes place in Egypt during the years 1922-1924, but the prologue focuses on ancient Egypt and Scene 7 jumps forward to 2018 in California. Text features provide additional information about Egyptology and a probable explanation for the deaths associated with the curse.


They play contains challenging domain-specific vocabulary, such as pharaoh, hieroglyphs, sacred, and sarcophagus. A cobra appears throughout as a symbol of the tomb’s curse.

Knowledge Demands 

Some background knowledge of Ancient Egypt will aid comprehension. Cobras and 18-wheelers are mentioned.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Activate Prior Knowledge; Preview Vocabulary and Text Features (30 minutes)

  • Tell students they will be reading a play about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt. (Point out Egypt on a map.) Ask them what they already know about this pharaoh or about ancient Egypt.
  • Preview domain-specific vocabulary by showing our vocabulary slideshow. Follow up with the vocabulary Skill Builder. Highlighted words: pharaoh, archaeologists, hieroglyphs, gilded, excavate, sacred, sarcophagus, Egyptologist, artifacts
  • Have students open their magazines to the play on page 20 and read the title. Ask: What is a curse? Why might some people believe in curses?
  • Ask students to look at the play’s photos and read their captions in pairs or small groups. Regroup as a class to discuss what students predict might happen in the play.
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box for the class.

2. Reading the Play

Close-Reading Questions (20 minutes)

  • Based on what you read in the Prologue, what can you infer Gerigar and Carter have found in Scene 1? (inference) You can infer they have found King Tut’s secret tomb.
  • In Scene 2, why does Moussa want Carter to stop exploring the pharaoh’s tomb? Why does Carter wish to continue? (characters’ motivations) Moussa believes that the death of Carter’s canary is a warning of the curse: Disturbing the pharaoh’s remains will unleash evil. Carter is not concerned. He wants the world to be able to see the treasures inside the tomb.
  • What details in Scene 3 help you understand the excitement of the moment when the tomb is opened? (mood) Carter makes a hole in the door “with trembling hands,” which shows how excited he is to open it. He also says, “No human being has set foot here in thousands of years,” which adds to the drama. The description of what the group finds makes the moment thrilling: “a room overflowing with glittering treasures.”
  • Reread the conversation between Carter and Gardiner. What is each man’s attitude toward the curse? (compare and contrast) Carter thinks the curse is “hogwash.” He is practical: He doesn’t want the workers to hear about it because he is afraid their superstitions will make them afraid to work in the tomb. Gardiner seems uncertain about it.
  • What is the mood of Scene 4? How does the author create this mood? (mood) The mood is eerie. The author sets the scene in a “dimly lit room.” Thunder claps and the lights flicker and go out. Carnarvon is suffering from a “mysterious illness.” After he dies, a cobra slithers out from under his bed and “disappears into the shadows,” suggesting this symbol of protection for the pharaoh had something to do with Carnarvon’s death.
  • How does the caption “Ancient Treasures” on page 22 help you understand Scene 5? (text features) The caption explains that Egyptian law stated that their artifacts had to stay in Egypt, but many still ended up in collections around the world. In Scene 5, Carter explains to Bénédite that the artifacts must stay in Egypt, according to the law. Bénédite asks whether it would matter “if one or two artifacts were missing,” which gives a clue about how Egyptian treasures ended up outside Egypt, despite the law.
  • What arguments do Gerigar and Moussa give in Scene 6 for removing King Tut’s treasures or leaving them in the tomb? (supporting an argument) Moussa cites a warning he heard was found in the tomb that death would come to those who disturb the pharaoh. He then lists the people who have died or fallen ill after entering the tomb. Gerigar replies that the warning was a rumor, and that Carter works in the tomb every day without suffering. Gerigar says that the workers are honoring the pharaoh by sharing his treasures with the public.
  • Why do you think the author included Scene 7? (author’s craft) She probably wanted to show that people today still talk about King Tut’s curse and, more seriously, what to do with ancient treasures. The scene also gives the play a fun and current ending.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • Tutankhamen’s treasures are now displayed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and they have toured the world, drawing huge crowds. What do you think people gain from seeing these artifacts? (critical thinking) Answers will vary but may include that people gain an understanding of the ancient world and the beliefs of ancient Egyptians, especially concerning death; awe at beautiful objects created more than 3,000 years ago; and so on.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Characters’ Motivations

  • Distribute the characters’ motivations Skill Builder and have students complete it in class or for homework.
  • As a class, read the Write Now! box on page 25. Put students in pairs to complete the activity. They can use what they wrote in the Skill Builder to help them.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Aside from the highlighted domain-specific vocabulary, the play contains a number of other challenging words, including exquisite, desolate, profusely, debris, and pulleys. Pause as they arise to make sure students understand them.

For Advanced Readers

Invite students to do research to find out more about the curse of King Tut. How did the story of the curse get started? How did it spread? What have different scientists said about it? Have them present their findings to the class.

For ELL Students

Support students’ understanding of this play by providing visuals to help them. Start with our vocabulary slideshow. You can find more visuals having to do with Tutankhamen and ancient Egypt at and other websites.

For Small Groups

Divide the class into seven groups and assign each group a scene from 1 to 7. Have students choose parts within their groups, then practice reading the scene with drama and expression or even act it out!