Ever since Lord Caernarfon died shortly after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the “Curse of the Pharaohs” has been a popular theme with newspaper journalists and those optimists determined to find some evidence for mystery and magic in ancient Egypt.
The unfortunate Lord Caernarvon’s death can be attributed to perfectly natural causes: it appears that he sliced the top off a mosquito bite while shaving, a trivial injury that turned septic. In the days before antibiotics, the Egyptian bugs had a field day with the noble lord’s immune system and after a short illness he died. Nevertheless, it does appear that a few archaeologists have come to untimely and unexplained ends in the course of their work in ancient tombs.
Proposed explanations are many and various: ancient bacteria coming to life in the introduced damp after millenia of dehydration is a popular one; ancient fungii run a close second. More prosaic explanations focus on the unhealthy life-style of some archaeologists – particularly those earlier in the century when frequent trips home were impossible and regular supplies of safe water and adequate nutrition were impossible to guarantee. Now, however, a new risk has been uncovered.
Researchers from Egypt’s Atomic Energy Authority recently had the bright idea of measuring levels of radon gas in some of the ancient monuments and discovered levels 25 times above international recommendations!
Radon gas is a naturally occurring form of radioactivity found in association with certain rocks. For example, in Britain, houses built of or on granite from Cornwall are particularly at risk and in that county government health inspectors make regular visits to homes in the granite areas to measure radon levels inside the houses. Radon gas can collect in places that are not properly ventilated, such as basement cellars, and reach dangerous levels in an astonishingly short time. People living in such places are subject to a serious risk of developing lung cancer as they breath in the radioactive air, and if the radioactivity rises above 200 becquerels per cubic metre, fans are installed to disperse the polluted air into the atmosphere.
According to Jaime Bigu of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, the scientists discovered 5809 becquerels of radon per cubic metre in the Sekhemkhet pyramid at Saqqara. This is probably only of academic interest, as that particular pyramid is not open to the public, but the popular Apis tunnels in the Serapeum produced between 816 and 1202 becquerels per cubic metre. No doubt when these monuments were first opened, after several thousand years of being sealed and buried, the levels were vastly higher. Murdoch Baxter, editor of the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, comments, “High radon levels may not have caused the curse of Tutankhamun, but it probably won’t have done those early Egyptologists much good!”
Tourists need not worry unduly. Short periods of exposure to radon gas, even at the high levels recorded by the Egyptian scientists, are probably less dangerous for you than a chest x-ray. Spare a thought, however, for the guides and guards at these places. An eight hour day, five or six days a week, is virtually a guarantee that they will receive radiation doses in excess of the international safety limit of 20 millisieverts per year.
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