Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun

The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 was one of the great moments in the history of archaeology. It had everything: a treasure spectacular enough to capture the imagination of even the most ardent materialist, but also a wealth of historical material to significantly advance our knowledge of ancient Egypt and, above all, human drama in the lives and deaths of the discoverers and the discovered alike. This one archaeological discovery has commanded attention for several generations now in a way that has not happened before or since.

The force behind this discovery was without doubt the determination, if not obsession, of Howard Carter. Carter, the son of an artist, began his career as an illustrator, and it was in that capacity that he came to Egypt in the first place. While he had no formal training in Egyptology, he received a first-class introduction to the subject with the groundbreaking Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie in the latter’s excavations at Tell el Amarna.

The origin of Carter’s dream came from his years as Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt, serving under the famous, and highly supportive, Gaston Maspero. Shortly before Carter’s appointment in 1899, a lengthy moratorium on excavation in the Valley of the Kings had been lifted, and Carter was free to dig as he would— provided that he could secure the appropriate funding. This became available in the form of a wealthy American, Theodore Davis. Carter induced Davis to finance excavations in the Valley of the Kings, and Davis proceeded to do so for 13 years; Carter himself was not to be the primary beneficiary of Davis’ largesse, however, as he would be transferred two years later.

Still, those two years were not uneventful, as Carter would excavate the tombs of Tuthmosis IV and Hatshepsut with Davis’ help. Carter persuaded himself that there had to be a tomb somewhere in the valley that had heretofore escaped notice, and waited intact for a lucky shovel. After Carter’s departure, Davis made a series of discoveries that pointed to the prospect of that tomb being that of Tutankhamun.

Tutankhamun had previously been unknown. Most of his monuments had been taken over by Horemheb as his own, and his name became lost to the Egyptians’ own history because of the desire to efface the entire Amarna period. The official king lists jump from Amunhotep III to Horemheb without acknowledging the passage of intervening time. There was, however, no mistaking of the significance of the finds that Davis made between 1905 and 1909. In three separate discoveries, artifacts that identified a link to a pharaoh named Tutankhamun were found. One was a cup, another was a deposit of supplies from the funeral preparations, and the last included gold leaf from tomb furnishings that included Tutankhamun’s name, as well as that of his successor, Ay. The last discovery is noteworthy in that Tutankhamun’s name is inside the royal cartouche, while Ay’s is not, indicating that the objects predated Ay’s accession.

Davis liked to think that the pit in which the last discovery was found was to be interpreted as the final resting place of Tutankhamun, itself, but this claim met with widespread skepticism. Regardless, Davis considered the matter closed, and while the years leading up to that point had been filled with numerous and sometimes unprecedented successes, such as the discovery of the tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu, subsequent years were disappointing, and Davis gave up work in the Valley of the Kings in 1915, thinking that everything had at last been found.

For his part, Carter had had a difficult time, resigning his post a year after his transfer, and spending several years living off his drawing alone. Even then, however, he retained contacts in the archaeological world, including with Davis, who called Carter in to paint some of the finds made in the tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu. By 1911 he had made the most significant contact in his professional life, George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. Carter acquired some pieces for Carnarvon that were believed to come from the tomb of Amunhotep III; as that tomb had never fully been examined, Carnarvon was willing to finance some further investigation.

Carter’s successes there induced Carnarvon to bankroll further excavations, although work was haphazard before the First World War ended. Privately, the two were very consciously on the hunt for the tomb of Tutankhamun, and Carter proceeded to outdo Davis in the thoroughness with which he combed the Valley. It was a long and difficult process, however, without intermediate successes to bolster morale. Such artifacts as Carter was able to find, such as broken pieces of pottery, were unglamorous and therefore uninteresting to Carnarvon; the Earl almost cut Carter off.

Carter persuaded Carnarvon to give him one more season of digging; there was a portion of the Valley that he had not yet covered, and he wanted to dig there before giving up. And then, on November 4, 1922, in the shadow of the tomb of Ramesses VI, a slab of cut stone was found by a boy bringing water to the excavation. Further digging revealed a staircase leading down into the face of the hill, and at the bottom, was a door marked with intact seals.

At first, the level of success was by no means apparent. Firstly, the seals did not identify the name of tomb’s tenant; seals marking it as the resting place of Tutankhamun were only at the bottom of the door, which had not yet been cleared of sand. Secondly, a further examination of the top of the door revealed that it had been opened in the distant past and subsequently been resealed. Much as he wanted to press on, Carter had the stairway covered again and cabled Carnarvon with word of his discovery.

Carnarvon and his daughter arrived at the site on the 24th of November, and work resumed. The staircase, and then the rubble-filled hall beyond the outer door were cleared, and on the 27th, Carter and Carnarvon stood before a second door. A hole was made in the upper left-hand corner, and after checking the air quality with a candle, Carter peered in. As his eyes got used to the gloom, Carter beheld for the first time the jumble of the Antechamber. Then followed that most famous exchange, with Carnarvon asking, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Productive work would have to wait almost a month. The nature of the find required the assistance of more trained  Egyptologists and other specialists. Such giants in the field as Sir Alan Gardiner and James Henry Breasted were among those consulted. The climax of the season’s work came on February 16, 1923, when the Burial Chamber was revealed. Ten days later, the excavation was closed until the following October. Sadly, Carnarvon was not to see the resumption of work; he died on April 5, inadvertently laying the foundation for claims of a curse.

The rest of the tale is anticlimax, for it took years to complete work in the tomb, a process that was artificially extended by political complications. The find had brought a sufficiently spectacular story to the outside world, however, to spark a renewed interest in Egypt; among the manifestations of this was the Egyptian flavor reflected in the Art Deco movement. The rumors of the Mummy’s Curse only served to inflate public interest; so too did a series of traveling exhibitions that brought the Boy-King’s treasures to a world hungry to see them firsthand. In this way, a forgotten and ephemeral Pharaoh became the greatest ambassador of ancient Egypt to the modern world.


© 2008, 2013.  All rights reserved.