The Curse of the Open Tomb

Aspergillus flavus

Perhaps the most notorious case of a deadly but unwitting mummy's curse occurred not in Egypt, but in Poland. Casimir IV (Casimir Jagiellonian, b. Nov. 30,1427 - d. June 7, 1492) was the grand duke of Lithuania (1440-92) and king of Poland (1447-92). Casimir was the second son of Wladyslaw II Jagiello and his fourth wife, Zofja Holszanska. He took office in 1440, when the grand duke of Lithuania, Sigismund, was murdered. He was crowned king of Poland on June 25, 1447. In 1454 he married Elizabeth of Habsburg (who, as the daughter of Albert II of Habsburg, had claims to Bohemia and Hungary). Casimir and Elizabeth had six sons and seven daughters (born between 1456 and 1483), and Elizabeth became known as the "mother of Jagiellons." The eldest son, Wladyslaw, became king of Bohemia (1471) and of Hungary (1490); three others were his successors on the thrones of Lithuania and Poland; one became an archbishop and, later, a cardinal; five of his daughters were married to German princes, as a result of which the Polish name Casimir became a familiar one among German dynasties. When he died he left a dynasty renowned among the courts of Europe.

The remains of King Casimir IV and his wife Elizabeth were interred in a tomb situated in the chapel of Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland. With the consent of Cardinal Wojtyla (Archbishop of Krakow, today better known as Pope John Paul II), a team of scientists was given permission to open the tomb and examine the remains, with restoration as the ultimate objective.

Casimir's tomb was opened on Friday, April 13, 1973. Twelve researchers were present. Inside the tomb they found a wooden coffin that was heavily rotted. It contained what was left of the king's decayed corpse. Little did anyone know that a real "mummy's curse" had been initiated.

Within a few days, four of the twelve had died. Not long after, there were only two survivors: Dr. Boleslaw Smyk, a microbiologist, and Dr. Edward Roszyckim. Smyk was to suffer problems with his equilibrium for the next five years. In the course of his microbiological examinations, Dr. Smyk found traces of fungi on the royal insignia taken from the tomb. He identified three species: Aspergillus flavus, Penicillim rubrum, and Penicillim rugulosum. These fungi are known to produce aflatoxins B1 and B2.

It has been speculated that these fungi may have been responsible for Lord Carnarvon's ill-health and, ultimately, his death. When the mummy of Ramesses II was taken to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris in 1976, examination revealed that 89 different species of fungi (including Aspergillus) were growing in and on the mummy. 370 separate colonies of fungi were found. Fortunately, the researchers wore surgical masks.

In 1999, Gotthard Kramer, a German microbiologist from the University of Leipzig, analyzed 40 mummies and identified several potentially dangerous mold spores on each one. Mold spores are stalwart and are able to survive for thousands of years. Kramer speculates that the flow of fresh air into a newly opened tomb can blow the spores into the air where they may be inhaled. "When spores enter the body through the nose, mouth or eye mucous membranes," he wrote, "they can lead to organ failure or even death, particularly in individuals with weakened immune systems."

It is evident that tiny organisms -- airborne spores -- pose much more of a threat to archaeologists and Egyptologists than curses found inscribed on tomb walls. Indeed, they are a known risk and may yet kill again.

Aspergillus flavus

The Suspects:

Aspergillus flavus (aw 0.78; conidia dimensions 3-6 microns). Some strains are capable of producing a group of mycotoxins in the aflatoxin group (aflatoxins are known animal carcinogen but there is limited evidence to suggest that this toxin is a human carcinogen). The toxin is a poisonous to humans by ingestion, and occupational disease via inhalation can result. It is toxic to the liver and is reported to be allergenic; its presence is associated with reports of asthma. This fungus is associated with aspergillosis of the lungs and/or disseminated aspergillosis. It is occasionally identified as the cause of corneal, otomycotic and nasoorbital infections. Experiments have indicated that it is teratogenic and mutagenic. Aspergillus flavus can be found in warm soil and is sometimes found in water damaged carpets. The production of the fungal toxin is dependent on the growth conditions and on the substrate used as a food source.

Aspergillus ochraceus (aw 0.77; conidia dimensions 2.5-3 microns). Can produce a kidney toxin, ochratoxin A, which may produce ochratoxicosis in humans (this is also known as Balkan nephropathy). The toxin is produced at optimum growth conditions at 25 degrees C and high moisture conditions. The ochratoxin may also be produced by other Aspergillus and Penicillium species. Other toxins which can be produced by this fungus include penicillic acid, xanthomegnin and viomellein. These are all reported to be kidney and liver toxins. Aspergillus ochraceus is found not only in soils, but also in grains and salted food products. It is not usually associated with decaying vegetation.

Penicillium species (aw 0.78-0.88). Includes a wide number of organisms, and identification to species is difficult. It may cause hypersensitivity pneumonitis and allergic alveolitis in susceptible individuals. It is reported to be allergenic to the skin. Some species can produce mycotoxins. It is a common cause of extrinsic asthma (immediate-type hypersensitivity: type I). Acute symptoms include edema and bronchiospasms; chronic cases may develop pulmonary emphysema. Penicillium is often found in aerosol samples. In addition to being present in soil, it can exist in food (cellulose and grains) and in compost piles. Penicillium species are sometimes found in carpet, wall paper, and in interior fiberglass duct insulation.

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2000 by Larry Orcutt.