The Discovery of King Tut's Tomb

Howard Carter King Tuts tomb
English egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamen in Egypt, 1923. Apic / Contributor / Getty Images

** Update! In March 2016, scientists have radar scans of King Tut's tomb that show the possibility of hidden chambers not yet opened within King Tut's tomb.** 

Howard Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, spent a number of years and a lot of money searching for a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings that they weren't sure still existed. On November 4, 1922, they found it. Carter had discovered not just an unknown ancient Egyptian tomb, but one that had lain nearly undisturbed for over 3,000 years.

What lay within King Tut's tomb astounded the world.

Carter and Carnarvon

Howard Carter had worked in Egypt for 31 years before he found King Tut's tomb. Carter had begun his career in Egypt at age 17, using his artistic talents to copy wall scenes and inscriptions. Only eight years later (in 1899), Carter was appointed the Inspector-General of Monuments in Upper Egypt. In 1905, Carter resigned from this job and, in 1907, Carter went to work for Lord Carnarvon.

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, loved to race around in the newly invented automobile. Enjoying the speed his automobile afforded, Lord Carnarvon had an auto accident in 1901 which left him in ill health. Vulnerable to the damp English winter, Lord Carnarvon began spending winters in Egypt in 1903 and to pass the time, took up archaeology as a hobby. Turning up nothing but a mummified cat (still in its coffin) his first season, Lord Carnarvon decided to hire someone knowledgeable for the succeeding seasons.

For this, he hired Howard Carter.

The Long Search

After several relatively successful seasons working together, World War I brought a near halt to their work in Egypt. Yet, by the fall of 1917, Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, began excavating in earnest in the Valley of the Kings.

Carter stated that there were several pieces of evidence - a faience cup, a piece of gold foil, and a cache of funerary items which all bore the name of Tutankhamun - already found that convinced him that the tomb of King Tut had not yet been found.1 Carter also believed that the locations of these items pointed to a specific area where they might find King Tutankhamun's tomb.

Carter was determined to systematically search this area by excavating down to the bedrock.

Besides some ancient workmen's huts at the foot of the tomb of Rameses VI and 13 calcite jars at the entrance to the tomb of Merenptah, Carter did not have much to show after five years of excavating in the Valley of the Kings. Thus, Lord Carnarvon made the decision to stop the search. After a discussion with Carter, Carnarvon relented and agreed to one last season.

One Last, Final Season

By November 1, 1922, Carter began his final season working in the Valley of the Kings by having his workers expose the workmen's huts at the base of the tomb of Rameses VI. After exposing and documenting the huts, Carter and his workmen began to excavate the ground beneath them.

By the fourth day of work, they had found something - a step that had been cut into the rock.

Steps!

Work feverishly continued on the afternoon of November 4th through the following morning. By late afternoon on November 5th, 12 stairs (leading downwards) were revealed; and in front of them, stood the upper portion of a blocked entrance. Carter searched the plastered door for a name but of the seals that could be read, he found only the impressions of the royal necropolis.

Carter was extremely excited:

The design was certainly of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Could it be the tomb of a noble buried here by royal consent? Was it a royal cache, a hiding-place to which a mummy and its equipment had been removed for safety? Or was it actually the tomb of the king for whom I had spent so many years in search? 2

Telling Carnarvon

To protect the find, Carter had his workmen fill in the stairs, covering them so that none were showing. While several of Carter's most trusted workmen stood guard, Carter left to make preparations. The first of which was contacting Lord Carnarvon in England to share the news of the find.

On November 6th, two days after finding the first step, Carter sent a cable: "At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations."3

The Sealed Door

It was nearly three weeks after finding the first step that Carter was able to proceed. On November 23rd, Lord Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, arrived in Luxor. The following day, the workers had again cleared the staircase, now exposing all 16 of its steps and the full face of the sealed doorway.

Now Carter found what he could not see before, since the bottom of the doorway had still been covered with rubble - there were several seals on the bottom of the door with Tutankhamun's name on them.

Now that the door was fully exposed, they also noticed that the upper left of the doorway had been broken through, presumably by tomb robbers, and resealed. The tomb was not intact; yet the fact that the tomb had been resealed showed that the tomb had not been emptied.

The Passageway

On the morning of November 25th, the sealed doorway was photographed and the seals noted. Then the door was removed. A passageway emerged from the darkness, filled to the top with limestone chips.

Upon closer examination, Carter could tell that tomb robbers had dug a hole through the upper left section of the passageway (the hole had been refilled in antiquity with larger, darker rocks than used for the rest of the fill).

This meant that the tomb had probably been raided twice in antiquity. The first time was within a few years of the king's burial and before there was a sealed door and fill in the passageway (scattered objects were found under the fill). The second time, the robbers had to dig through the fill and could only escape with smaller items.

By the following afternoon, the fill along the 26-foot-long passageway had been cleared away to expose another sealed door, almost identical to the first. Again, there were signs that a hole had been made in the doorway and resealed.

Wonderful Things

Tension mounted. If there was anything left inside, it would be a discovery of a lifetime for Carter. If the tomb was relatively intact, it would be something the world had never seen.

With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hold a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment - an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by - I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, "Can you see anything?" it was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things." 4

The next morning, the plastered door was photographed and the seals documented. Then the door came down, revealing the Antechamber. The wall opposite the entrance wall was piled nearly to the ceiling with boxes, chairs, couches, and so much more - most of them gold - in an "organized chaos."5

On the right wall stood two life-size statues of the king, facing each other as if to protect the sealed entrance that was between them. This sealed door also showed signs of being broken into and resealed, but this time the robbers had entered in the bottom middle of the door.

To the left of the door from the passageway lay a tangle of parts from several dismantled chariots.

As Carter and the others spent time looking at the room and its contents, they noticed another sealed door behind the couches on the far wall. This sealed door also had a hole in it, but unlike the others, the hole had not been resealed. Carefully, they crawled under the couch and shone their light.

The Annexe

In this room (later called the Annexe) everything was in disarray. Carter theorized that officials had attempted to straighten up the Antechamber after the robbers had plundered, but they had made no attempt to straighten the Annexe.

I think the discovery of this second chamber, with its crowded contents, had a somewhat sobering effect on us. excitement had gripped us hitherto, and given us no pause for thought, but now for the first time we began to realize what a prodigious task we had in front of us, and what a responsibility it entailed. This was no ordinary find, to be disposed of in a normal season's work; nor was there any precedent to show us how to handle it. The thing was outside all experience, bewildering, and for the moment it seemed as though there were more to be done than any human agency could accomplish. 6

Documenting and Preserving the Artifacts

Before the entrance between the two statues in the Antechamber could be opened, the items in the Antechamber needed to be removed or risk damage to them from flying debris, dust, and movement.

Documentation and preservation of each item was a monumental task. Carter realized that this project was larger than he could handle alone, thus he asked for, and received, help from a large number of specialists.

To begin the clearing process, each item was photographed in situ, both with an assigned number and without. Then, a sketch and description of each item was made on correspondingly number record cards. Next, the item was noted on a ground plan of the tomb (only for the Antechamber).

Carter and his team had to be extremely careful when attempting to remove any of the objects. Since many of the items were in extremely delicate states (such as beaded sandals in which the threading had disintegrated, leaving only beads held together by 3,000 years of habit), many items needed immediate treatment, such as a celluloid spray, to keep the items intact for removal.

Moving the items also proved a challenge.

Clearing the objects from the Antechamber was like playing a gigantic game of spillikins. So crowded were they that it was a matter of extreme difficulty to move one without running serious risk of damaging others, and in some cases they were so inextricably tangled that an elaborate system of props and supports had to be devised to hold one object or group of objects in place while another was being removed. At such times life was a nightmare. 7

When an item was successfully removed, it was placed upon a stretcher and gauze and other bandages were wrapped around the item to protect it for removal. Once a number of stretchers were filled, a team of people would carefully pick them up and move them out of the tomb.

As soon as they exited the tomb with the stretchers, they were greeted by hundreds of tourists and reporters who waited for them at the top. Since word had spread quickly around the world about the tomb, the popularity of the site was excessive. Every time someone came out of the tomb, cameras would go off.

The trail of stretchers were taken to the conservation laboratory, located at some distance away in the tomb of Seti II. Carter had appropriated this tomb to serve as a conservation laboratory, photographic studio, carpenter's shop (to make the boxes needed to ship the objects), and a storeroom. Carter allotted tomb No. 55 as a darkroom.

The items, after conservation and documentation, were very carefully packed into crates and sent by rail to Cairo.

It took Carter and his team seven weeks to clear the Antechamber. On February 17, 1923, they began dismantling the sealed door between the statues.

The Burial Chamber

The inside of the Burial Chamber was almost completely filled with a large shrine over 16 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 9 feet tall. The walls of the shrine were made of gilded wood inlaid with a brilliant blue porcelain.

Unlike the rest of the tomb whose walls had been left as rough-cut rock (unsmoothed and unplastered), the walls of the Burial Chamber (excluding the ceiling) were covered with a gypsum plaster and painted yellow. Upon the yellow walls were painted funerary scenes.

On the ground around the shrine were a number of items, including portions of two broken necklaces that looked as if they had been dropped by robbers and magic oars "to ferry the king's barque [boat] across the waters of the Nether World."8

To take apart and examine the shrine, Carter had to first demolish the partition wall between the Antechamber and the Burial Chamber. Still, there was not much room between the three remaining walls and the shrine.

As Carter and his team worked to disassemble the shrine they found that this was merely the outer shrine, with four shrines in total. Each section of the shrines weighed up to half a ton and in the small confines of the Burial Chamber, work was difficult and uncomfortable.

When the fourth shrine was disassembled, the king's sarcophagus was revealed. The sarcophagus was yellow in color and made out of a single block of quartzite. The lid did not match the rest of the sarcophagus and had been cracked in the middle during antiquity (an attempt had been made to cover the crack by filling it with gypsum). 

When the heavy lid was lifted, a gilded wooden coffin was revealed. The coffin was in a distinctly human shape and was 7 feet 4 inches in length.

Opening the Coffin

A year and a half later, they were ready to lift the lid of the coffin. Conservation work of other objects already removed from the tomb had taken precedence. Thus, the anticipation of what lay beneath was extreme.

When they lifted the lid of the coffin, they found another, smaller coffin. The lifting of the lid of the second coffin revealed a third one, made entirely of gold. On top of this third, and final, coffin was a dark material that had once been liquid and poured over the coffin from the hands to the ankles. The liquid had hardened over the years and firmly stuck the third coffin to the bottom of the second. The thick residue had to be removed with heat and hammering. Then the lid of the third coffin was raised.

At last, the royal mummy of Tutankhamun was revealed. It had been over 3,300 years since a human being had seen the king's remains. This was the first royal Egyptian mummy that had been found untouched since his burial. Carter and the others hoped King Tutankhamun's mummy would reveal a large amount of knowledge about ancient Egyptian burial customs.

Though it was still an unprecedented find, Carter and his team were dismayed to learn that the liquid poured on the mummy had done a great deal of damage. The linen wrappings of the mummy could not be unwrapped as hoped, but instead had to be removed in large chunks. 

Unfortunately, many of the items found within the wrappings had also been damaged, many were almost completely disintegrated. Carter and his team found over 150 items - almost all of them gold - on the mummy, including amulets, bracelets, collars, rings, and daggers.

The autopsy on the mummy found that Tutankhamun had been about 5 feet 5 1/8 inches tall and had died around the age of 18. Certain evidence also attributed Tutankhamun's death to murder.

The Treasury

On the right wall of the Burial Chamber was an entrance into a storeroom, now known as the Treasury. The Treasury, like the Antechamber, was filled with items including many boxes and model boats.

Most notable in this room was the large gilded canopic shrine. Inside the gilded shrine was the canopic chest made out of a single block of calcite. Inside the canopic chest were the four canopic jars, each in the shape of an Egyptian coffin and elaborately decorated, holding the pharaoh's embalmed organs - liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines.

Also discovered in the Treasury were two small coffins found in a simple, undecorated wooden box. Inside these two coffins were the mummies of two premature fetuses. It is hypothesized that these were Tutankhamun's children. (Tutankhamun is not known to have had any surviving children.)

World Famous Discovery

The discovery of King Tut's tomb in November 1922 created an obsession around the world. Daily updates of the find were demanded. Masses of mail and telegrams deluged Carter and his associates.

Hundreds of tourists waited outside the tomb for a peek. Hundreds more people tried to use their influential friends and acquaintances to get a tour of the tomb, which caused a great hindrance to work in the tomb and endangered the artifacts. Ancient Egyptian style clothes quickly hit the markets and appeared in fashion magazines. Even architecture was affected when Egyptian designs were copied into modern buildings.

The Curse

The rumors and excitement over the discovery became especially acute when Lord Carnarvon became suddenly ill from an infected mosquito bite on his cheek (he had accidentally aggravated it while shaving). On April 5, 1923, just a week after the bite, Lord Carnarvon died.

Carnarvon's death gave fuel to the idea that there was a curse associated with King Tut's tomb

Famous

In all, it took Howard Carter and his colleagues ten years to document and clear out Tutankhamun's tomb. After Carter completed his work at the tomb in 1932, he began to write a six-volume definitive work, A Report Upon the Tomb of Tut 'ankh Amun. Unfortunately, Carter died before he was able to finish. On March 2, 1939, Howard Carter passed away at his home Kensington, London, famous for his discovery of King Tut's tomb.

The young pharaoh, Tutankhamun, whose own obscurity during his own time allowed his tomb to be forgotten, has now become one of the most well-known pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Having traveled around the world as part of an exhibit, King Tut's body once again rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Notes

1. Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamen (E.P. Dutton, 1972) 26.
2. Carter, The Tomb 32.
3. Carter, The Tomb 33.
4. Carter, The Tomb 35.
5. Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990) 79.
6. Carter, The Tomb 43.
7. Carter, The Tomb 53.
8. Carter, The Tomb 98, 99.
 

Bibliography

Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tutankhamen. E.P. Dutton, 1972.

Frayling, Christopher. The Face of Tutankhamun. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992.

Reeves, Nicholas. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990.