In the early 1900s, digging in the sands of Egypt in search of ancient treasure was very much in vogue. American businessman Theodore Davis was just one man sponsoring excavations in the Valley of the Kings, and together with archaeologist Edward Ayrton, he found many tombs. In 1914, he told Egyptologist Howard Carter and his benefactor Lord Carnarvon, ‘The Valley of the Tombs is now exhausted.’ This turned out to be entirely wrong.
Carter, who had been building a career in Egyptology since the late 19th century, had teamed up with George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who had developed a passion for Egyptology over winters spent in Egypt for the good of his health. Objects found in the Valley of the Kings were believed to be from the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun, and Theodore Davis had concluded that he had found the tomb, but Carter was not convinced. He kept looking.
By 1921, the tomb was still lost, and Carnarvon was ready to stop funding excavations, but Carter talked him into one more season. And then, on 4 November 1922… the gods smiled on them. A water boy working for the excavation team tripped on a stone, which was revealed to be the first of a flight of steps. Carter and his team uncovered the steps and found a mud-covered doorway on which were ancient seals with hieroglyphic writing that showed the tomb was intact. At once he telegrammed Carnarvon:
At last we have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.
Carnarvon travelled to Egypt with his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, arriving on 23 November 1922. The door was revealed, and on it was Tutankhamun’s cartouche.
Carnarvon, Evelyn and Carter at the steps to the tomb (source)
On 26 November, Carter got his first glimpse of the tomb itself, when he made a hole in the inner door and held a candle inside. He wrote: ‘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’. Carnarvon asked, ‘Can you see anything?’, to which Carter replied, ‘Yes, wonderful things!’
The first chamber was officially opened on 29 November, and the burial chamber was opened on 17 February 1923 – although some sources suggest that Carter and Carnarvon viewed both secretly at night, so that they would be the first to see the treasures. And what treasures! Though the tomb had been robbed and resealed twice in antiquity, so many amazing artefacts remained. Over the next eight years, the contents of the tomb were meticulously catalogued, more than 5,000 items, including statues, jewellery, chariots, canopic jars, thrones, paintings, shrines and chests. And, of course, the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun himself.
King Tut’s sarcophagus was made of stone, and within were three mummiform coffins, one inside the other like Russian dolls. The innermost one was made of pure gold. It was on 28 October 1925 that this coffin was opened and the mummy was finally revealed. Imagine how Carter must have felt upon laying eyes on Tutankhamun’s death mask, now famous the world over.
Tutankhamun’s death mask (source)
Meanwhile, as I mention in my novel Song of the Nile, the press were camped out at Luxor’s Winter Palace, the opulent Victorian-style hotel where Carnarvon was a regular guest. Carter would post updates on the noticeboard there and the press would hurriedly write up their stories for eager readers all over the world.
It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the Tutankhamun find for Egyptology and for Egypt itself. People the world over have visited touring exhibitions to see artefacts from the tomb and some impressive re-creations have been built, such as that in Dorchester, England (https://www.tutankhamun-exhibition.co.uk/). Of course, many people have also visited the actual tomb at Luxor (so much so that its condition deteriorated; the tomb is just reopening after a decade-long preservation project by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and the Getty Conservation Institute).
Now, with the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza Pyramids, for the first time the entire contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb will be on display, bringing together artefacts from all over Egypt, many of which have never been seen by the public before. The museum is expected to open later this year (for updates, see https://grandegyptianmuseum.org/). I, for one, will be keen to visit and see for myself all of those ‘wonderful things’ that Carter and Carnarvon discovered a century ago and that have captured our imaginations ever since.