In one of the most famous tales of archaeological history, on 4 November 1922 British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the entrance to the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen.
The quest for Boy King Tut’s tomb
It was Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798 that ignited a European interest in ancient Egypt and its mysteries. When his troops faced an army of Mamelukes under the shadow of the pyramids, he famously called out to them; “from the heights of these pyramids, forty centuries look down on us.”
In 1882, the British seized the country from Napoleon’s grip and the craze for Egyptology intensified. The discovery of a well-preserved royal tomb became an obsession. Ancient Pharaohs were famous for their lavish tombs. Inevitably tales of vast wealth drew grave robbers, who emptied many tombs of their treasure and even their corpses. By the 20th century, only a handful of tombs remained undiscovered, and presumably intact, including that of the little known Tutankhamen.
A boy-King, reigning during a troubled time for the 18th Dynasty, Tutankhamen had died aged just 19. During the early years of the 20th century, American businessman and Egyptologist Theodore Davis discovered some ancient clues hinting at the existence of an undiscovered tomb for the young Pharaoh. They received little attention until his former colleague Howard Carter decided Davis might be on to something.
On examining the clues, Carter decided that Tutankhamen would be found in the famous Valley of the Kings. The Egyptologist was confident enough to approach his old friend Lord Carnarvon in order to procure funds for the dig. Carnarvon, who fancied himself an expert, cast his eyes over Carter’s plans and gave him permission to start digging in 1914. The First World War delayed Carter’s plans and his fateful excavation finally began in November 1922.
The ‘magnificent discovery’
Carter started his excavations next to the already-discovered tomb of Pharoah Ramesses. He met with little success until his local labourers were instructed to clear an old workman’s hut which was getting in the way. As they did so, an ancient step emerged from the sand.
Carter excitedly ordered the step cleared. As the sand was removed, a doorway was gradually revealed. To his astonishment, the entrance still bore the Anubis symbol of the Royal Necropolis, indicating that this tomb was previously untouched.
A telegram was rushed to Carnarvon telling him of the “magnificent discovery.” The Lord and his daughter arrived in Alexandria on the 23 November, and the next day Carter began to drill a hole into the wall of the tomb itself.
Carter held a candle through the hole and illuminated the space, not seen for over 3000 years. As the warm and ancient air rushed out of the room, the candle flickered. Carter’s eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom. The nervous Carnarvon asked “can you see anything?” to which his colleague replied “yes, wonderful things.”
When the team gained entrance they discovered a room full of treasures and insights into the life of a young man who had lived in an indescribably different world. They found chariots, statues, and most famously the young king’s exquisite death mask.
Was the tomb poisoned?
In the years that followed, the tomb was fully excavated, its contents analysed and shown to admiring crowds across the world. The body of Tutankhamen himself was subject to rigorous tests. It became clear that he had suffered numerous genetic disorders due to his parents being closely related, and that this – combined with malaria – had contributed to his premature death.
Tutankhamen’s tomb remains one of the most famous archaeological discoveries of all time.
On one final note, it has often been speculated that the tomb contained an ancient curse. Many of those involved befell strange and unlucky fates. Such is the strangeness of the tale that scientists have speculated the room may have contained radiation or poison. Lord Carnarvon, who died of a poisoned mosquito bite just six weeks later, was the most famous victim.