Silent and secret for 33 centuries, the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun, buried underground Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, finally revealed a wealth of golden treasure that dazzled the world. The tomb was virtually untouched add guaranteed universal fame for its discoverer. Dust and darkness surrounded Howard Carter, the British archaeologist, and his patron Lord Carnarvon as they stood facing a sealed doorway deep beneath the Valley of the Kings.
This post depicts the journey of the aforementioned Egyptologist and archaeologist who became world famous after his prolonged decade long journey culminated into the successful discovery of the intact tomb of 14th-century BC pharaoh Tutankhamun, as originally seen in Strange Worlds Amazing Places: A Tour of Earths Marvels and Mysteries.
Would this door reveal the treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun, who rule Egypt around 1361 BC? For eight exhausting years the pair had explored this valley – a principal burial ground for the pharaohs – on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor, in the hope of finding the elusive tomb, but without success. By the summer of 1922, Carnarvon was ready to give up the search and withdraw his patronage, but Carter had persuaded him to continue for another year.
Carter’s team had already combed nearly every crevice in the valley, with the exception of one small area near the excavated tomb of Rameses VI. The Egyptian Antiquities Service had requested that he stay away from this area, since his excavations would block the path of tourists visiting the tomb. However, Carter was convinced that here was the place where he would find the prize he had sought for so long. Under Carter’s directions, the Egyptian workmen started digging and, on 4th November 1922, a worker uncovered a shallow step clearly carved into the valley floor. Further digging revealed many more steps, until finally the top of a mud-plastered door, bearing the seals of the ancient necropolis guard, was uncovered.
The presence of the seals indicated that the tomb might contain the funerary objects of a high-ranking official, or even a king. When the entire stairway of 16 steps was excavated, carter found to his delight that the door also bore seals with the name Nebkheprure (Tutankhamun). The lower part of the door, however, had been rebuilt, which meant that the tomb could have been raided and might be empty.
The doorway was unblocked and the rubble and stone cleared away, exposing a long, sloping passage. At the end of it stood a second sealed door. A shiver of anticipation must have passed through the two Egyptologists as they stood before it, for this doorway would reveal either the fulfilment or the futility of their long-cherished dreams. Three weeks later, on 26th November, Carter started his investigations. First he carefully chiseled a hole in the top left-hand corner of the door and poked through an iron rod to check for obstructions. Then he enlarged the hole, inserted a candle and peered inside.
At first he could discern nothing in the murky gloom. But as his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, the glint of magnificent riches began to emerge from the shadows. “Strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere gold…. For the moment… I was struck dumb with amazement.” Waiting behind him in the darkness in almost unbearable suspense, Lord Carnarvon asked “Can you see anything?” and Carter managed to gasp out “Yes, wonderful things!”
The room before them was the tomb’s antechamber filled with the pharaoh’s funerary objects to be used in his afterlife. Thieves had broken in – Carter could even see their footprints in the dust – but they had evidently been disturbed by the necropolis guards – who had put back the objects any way they could. A gold-plated throne inlaid with jewels, gilt furniture including three couches, two golden chariots, statues of gold and alabaster and faience vases lay amid the chaos. However the one object Carter had most hoped to find, the pharaoh’s mummy, was not there.
The priceless objects in the antechamber and annexe (a small room to the south-west of the antechamber) were recorded, photographed and prepared for the journey to Cairo Museum for safekeeping. This painstaking task, conducted inside the airless, cramped confines of the tomb, made great demands on Carter, and he was further hampered by the hordes of visitors and members of the press outside, constantly crowding around the entrance.
By February 1923 the antechamber had been cleared and Carter turned his attention to the third sealed door in the north wall. In front of an invited audience, Carter chipped away at the plaster to make an opening; he then inserted a light and peered inside. Less than 3ft (90cm) from the door, what appeared to be a solid wall of gold stretched as far as he could see, Carter quickly dismantled the door and discovered that the wall was not a wall but part of a huge rectangular shrine.
“It was, beyond any question, the sepulchral chamber in which he stood”, wrote Mervyn Herbert, the brother of Lord Carnarvon, “For there, towering above us, was one of the great gilt shrines beneath which kings were laid. So enormous was this structure that it filled within a little the entire area of the chamber”. Fortunately Carnarvon lived to see this great find – he died later that year. Rumor had it that anyone who disturbed Tutankhamun’s tomb would be cursed thereafter. The curse seemed to be fulfilled when Lord Carnarvon died in 1923 of an infected mosquito bite.
Beyond the burial chamber lay a fourth room which Carter subsequently dubbed ‘the treasury’ since it housed the most valuable objects: caskets of precious jewels, vases, miniature boats, shrines, statuettes, a model granary and the gilded head of a cow representing the goddess Hathor. The entrance to the Treasury was guarded by the jackal-headed god Anubis, covered in a linen cloth and mounted on a shrine equipped with carrying poles. Anubis was revered by the ancient Egyptians as the patron of embalmers. Carter had discovered the only tomb in the Valley of the Kings to have been preserved almost intact.
Inside the shrine was a gilded wooden frame, covered with linen, which enclosed three more heavy wooden shrines, coated in gold and richly inscribed. And within the last of these lay a yellow quartzite sarcophagus with a pink granite lid painted to match the base. Once again an audience assembled, this time to watch the lifting of the lid. “The contents were completely covered with linen shrouds”, Carter wrote. “As the last shroud was removed, a gasp of wonderment escaped our lips, so gorgeous was the sight that met our eyes; a golden effigy of the young boy-king, of most magnificent workmanship, filled the whole interior of the sarcophagus”.
Carter had not yet uncovered the most precious of the tomb’s ancient secrets. Within the sarcophagus nestled three coffins, each one so tightly fitted inside the next that separating them posed more difficulties. When the delicate lid of the second coffin was eventually removed, it revealed a third coffin made entirely of solid gold. And inside this final coffin was discovered the most dazzling treasure of all. Wrapped in linen, sprinkled with protective charms and draped with fabulous jewels, lay the mummy of the boy-king, his face enclosed in a priceless funeral mask sculpted from beaten gold.
Today, most of Tutankhamun’s treasures are on display at the Cairo Museum, but the tomb itself still houses one of the golden coffins that held the king’s body. But is it the king? To Carter’s everlasting disappointment, no carving scroll or inscription was ever found to confirm the identity of the body, although subsequent tests proved that the dead person was between 17 and 19 years old when he died. His rank and wealth was confirmed by the value of the fabulous objects surrounding him.
Carter spent ten years unearthing Tutankhamun’s many treasures, and his work provided later Egyptologists with a vast amount of new information about Egyptian life during the 18th Dynasty. His discoveries captured the imagination of people worldwide and immortalized both Carter’s own name and that of the mysterious boy-king.