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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
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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!    

When Carter and his team entered King Tut’s tomb, they discovered hundreds of valuable artifacts. Your students can also head to the Discovery of King Tut Exhibition website for videos, pictures of artifacts, and even an interactive map of the tomb itself.

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!