Unearthing the Ancients: Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun
The ancient age of Egypt, the enigmatic pharaohs and the rich history of the Nile valley , are without a doubt one of the most exciting and wondrous aspects of modern archaeology. Filled with several millennia of rich history, the fertile Nile valley was the subject of some of the greatest achievements in the world of archaeology and related studies. After many decades and numerous excavations, the world’s finest historians and archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of stunning objects, mummies, and monuments.
One of the finest examples of the excavations of ancient Egyptian history, is the Tomb of Tutankhamun – the finest, pristinely preserved burial of the 18th dynasty’s famous boy king. Discovered in 1922, this tomb was a stunning revelation – it was filled with items of a magnificence never before seen.
To this day, it is still considered among the most important achievements in the world of archaeology. And in that name, we’re revisiting the story of the discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun – and the men who were the first to witness this very special glimpse into ancient Egypt.
The Valley of the Kings: The Hiding Place of the Tomb of Tutankhamun
When we mention ancient Egypt and the related archaeological excavations, most of us quickly think of the pyramids, the sphinx, and all the rest. But little know the history behind it, and the fact that the tomb of the boy king Tut is in a totally different place – the Valley of the Kings .
The pyramid burials are a distinct feature of the so-called ‘Old Kingdom’ – the period of ancient Egypt that spanned from 2685 BC to 2180 BC and is also known as the Age of the Pyramids. This places it almost a millennia before the first burials in the Valley of the Kings, which was a part of the ‘New Kingdom’, the period that was marked by the 18th and 19th dynasties of Egypt and a period of its greatest power.
The burials in the Valley of the Kings were distinctly different than those of the older history. The site was chosen as the resting place for the pharaohs – the rulers, and the most powerful nobles of the time. It is situated on the west bank of the Nile, opposite to the sprawling ancient city of Thebes. The valley contains circa 63 tombs, each one bearing a prefix KV, and the prospect of further finds still remains a distinct possibility.
A map of the Valley of the Kings with locations of tombs marked, the Tomb of Tutankhamun is KV62. (GDK / Public Domain )
Since the end of the 18th century, the valley has been heavily excavated and explored. By 1907 the Valley of the Kings was thought to be thoroughly surveyed and exhausted of finds. But just about a decade later, that claim would prove false, when a British Egyptologist and an archaeologist of some renown, returned to the Valley of the Kings and finally stumbled upon the find that would echo throughout the world – the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
Third Time Lucky: The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun
Howard Carter and his predecessor Theodore Davis, had been searching for Tutankhamun’s tomb for almost a decade up to that point. In fact, Davis found only superficial and scattered items and thought that was all there was to it. But persistence paid off – when George Herber, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, an amateur Egyptologist and the chief financial backer of the whole project, summoned Howard Carter and funded another undertaking in the valley.
At first, some five years passed without any significant new finds being made. Lord Carnarvon’s budget was quickly getting low, and with it his interest. But luck would soon change because Carter and his team would make a thrilling discovery in the place where they never thought to look – their camp.
Each year the excavators would set up their camp at roughly the same spot, not knowing what lay beneath it. And in late September of 1922, a young boy stumbled upon a stone in the ground – a stone that proved to be the very tip of the staircase that led to the tomb of King Tut.
The discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun was made where the team was camped. (Einsamer Schütze / Public Domain )
One of the main reasons that the tomb was so elusive to discover was the fact that roughly two centuries after it was sealed, the tomb was largely covered with rubble – perhaps unintentionally – with the creation of newer nearby tombs. Either way, Carter knew that he had finally stumbled upon something significant – by chance – and he quickly began his excavations in earnest on 1st of November 1922.
Roughly five days later the staircase was fully excavated, and Howard Carter stood before the sealed door of a tomb, complete with an intact plaster seal that carried the original stamp that signified a royal Egyptian necropolis. This was the biggest clue that what they had found was perhaps the finest discovery thus far and he promptly informed Lord Carnarvon of his discovery via telegram.
The telegram message stated: “AT LAST HAVE MADE A WONDERFUL DISCOVERY IN THE VALLEY A MAGNIFICENT TOMB WITH SEALS INTACT RECOVERED SAME FOR YOUR ARRIVAL CONGRATULATIONS”.
Lord Carnarvon and his daughter would arrive promptly, on 23rd of November, but in the meantime Carter made a worrying discovery. The door showed signs of being opened and reclosed again, with the seal being replaced.
This was a possible indication of ancient grave robbery , which sparked a fear within Carter that the tomb would turn out to be empty. Even though it was not, it would later be revealed that the tomb was looted twice in the ancient times and most likely very soon after Tutankhamun was buried there.
But with Lord Carnarvon’s arrival, the excavation began in full swing. Beyond the first door they discovered a long corridor filled with rubble. This was perhaps the result of the ancient tomb looting and was a means to prevent any further attempts.
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Howard Carter and associates opening the shrine doors in the burial chamber of Tutankhamen’s tomb. (Tarawneh / Public Domain )
This took a while to fully clear out and they soon found another sealed door at the end of that corridor. The room behind this door is now known as the Antechamber. Howard Carter first peered into it through a hole on 26th November around 2 pm.
Standing behind him, the enthusiastic Lord Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?”, to which Carter simply replied: “Yes, wonderful things”.
A Wealth of Treasures: Tutankhamun’s Tomb and the Riches Within
And indeed, the room was filled with wonders – a variety of objects, many of them gold, piled up in every way. Carter wrote in his diary that beyond the door lay a marvelous collection of treasures .
In fact, there were so many of them that Carter and his team meticulously catalogued them for three full months. Although piled up, the items in this antechamber were among the finest they had ever seen. There were almost 700 different items there, some common, some rare and exquisitely rich.
Among them were alabaster vases, several funeral couches with golden heads of Hathor, lions and crocodiles, piled up elements of four chariots – both for war and parade – with many parts done in gold. King Tut’s chest was also recovered – filled with a variety of personal items and clothes, including the oldest functioning instrument in the world – a copper alloy trumpet.
Treasures from the Tomb of Tutankhamun. (Gellinger / Public Domain )
They also discovered a very mysterious object – an iron dagger made from an iron meteorite. The particularly unique fact is that this iron dagger was made in the Bronze Age , some 600 years before the onset of the Iron Age in Egypt.
After the cataloging was done, Carter could finally prepare to open the next door that was discovered inside – the door to the burial chamber. This door was opened on February 16th, 1923 and within was an enormous shrine that housed Tutankhamun’s remains, as well as more stacked objects.
The enormous shrine was in fact a set of four gilded wooden chambers one on top of the other, each one smaller than the preceding one, which covered the Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. The massive sarcophagus was made from granite and elaborately carved like everything else.
Within it, the mummified body of the boy king Tutankhamun lay in three coffins , one inside the other. The first two coffins were exquisite gilded wood, while the final one that housed the remains was made from pure solid gold. It weighed 245 pounds (111 kilograms).
King Tutankhamun in his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings. (Nasser Nouri / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
But the coffin itself could not be opened. Legal issues arose and the team had to wait for almost two years in order to finally glimpse the mortal remains of Tutankhamun. In October of 1925 they finally opened the coffin – it was the first time in circa 3,250 years that people had seen what lay inside. The wrapped, mummified body of King Tut, his face adorned with an elaborate death mask.
The mask itself is perhaps the crowning find of the entire excavation. Pristine, elaborately crafted, this mask was made from pure gold and bears the depiction of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. It weighs 24 pounds (11 kilograms) and is adorned with numerous highly valuable precious stones. Up to this day, the mask remains one of the finest pieces of art to come from ancient Egypt.
Eventually, the team unwrapped the mummy with great care, revealing the fragile remains of Tutankhamun. These became a subject of much research and debate. Tutankhamun died young – perhaps just 22 years old, and his remains showed many signs of ailments and deformities. This can possibly stem from the ancient Egyptian custom of marriage of brothers, sisters, and cousins.
Tutankhamun’s parents were Akhenaten and his own sister. And Tut himself married his own half-sister Ankhesenamun. Their incestuous marriage resulted in the birth of two children – both of which were highly deformed and promptly died. They had various genetic and physiological disorders. This perhaps gives us the proof that Tut and those in his family carried a variety of congenital defects due to interbreeding, and this could have led to his early death.
The Curse of the Pharaohs: Real or Not?
The era of Egyptology gave rise to some very widespread urban myths. They are all centered around the belief in ancient curses, the so-called Curse of the Pharaohs , which would befall those who disturb ancient remains.
A string of mysterious events and tragic deaths that happened to Carter’s team in the wake of excavating Tut’s tomb widely popularized this legend and made headlines around the world. In fact, soon after the opening of the tomb, odd events began happening. At first, the team was made aware of the belief in ancient curses – the tombs were guarded by the jackal statues of Anubis, the god of death, and the pharaohs were protected by the Wadjet and Nekhbet – the cobra and the vulture.
The statue of Anubis which guarded the entrance to Tutankhamun's treasury room. (Jeff Dahl / Public Domain )
The first documented occurrence that made headlines at the time, happened soon after the door was unsealed. Carter sent an errand boy back to his house, most likely in Thebes or somewhere nearer. Once there, the boy was gripped with fear – he heard a human cry and saw a cobra in of the birdcage that Carter owned. It was devouring the bird inside.
This event carried great symbolism. The cobra, or Wadjet, was the symbol of the Egyptian royalty. It was as if the cobra broke into Carter’s home the very same day that he broke into Tut’s tomb. Soon after, rumors of a curse spread like wildfire.
But the first death to occur was that of Lord Carnarvon himself. On 19th of March 1923, he was bitten by a mosquito. The bite proved serious after it was reopened by a razor cut. This caused a blood infection, and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon died on April 5th in a Cairo hospital. He would never live to see the mummy of Tutankhamun revealed.
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The death of Lord Carnarvon occurred six weeks after the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain )
This event caused a flood of rumors. Everyone said that a curse has befell them – a punishment for the disturbance of the ancient tomb. And one of the most intriguing facts was the discovery of a healed cut on Tutankhamun’s left cheek – possibly corresponding to the cut mosquito bite on the lord’s face.
Another such case relates to Sir Bruce Ingram, a close friend to Howard Carter. The latter gifted Ingram with a mummified hand that had a bracelet. The hieroglyphics on it translated to: “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water, and pestilence”. Bruce Ingram’s house burned down shortly after and after he rebuilt it, it was flooded.
Close to a century later, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb remains one of the crowning achievements in the history of archaeology. With determination, skill, and perseverance, the team made a discovery that would yield some of the finest pieces of historical art in the world. And their legacy will always be remembered.
Top image: The discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun is one of the greatest archaeology achievements in history. Source: merydolla / Adobe Stock.
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Cline, E. 2017. Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology . Princeton University Press.
Howard, C. and Mace, A. 1977. The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen . Dover Publications.
Woods, M. and Woods, M. 2008. The Tomb of Tutankhamen: Unearthing Ancient Worlds . Twenty-First Century Books.