The Search for Tutankhamun’s Tomb
This article takes a look at Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. It describes Carter’s exhaustive search for Tutankhamun’s tomb, together with his benefactor Lord Carnarvon, as well as a detailed look at the boy pharaoh’s tomb itself. The curse of Tutankhamun is then briefly discussed, before considering both the media frenzy surrounding the discovery of the tomb throughout the 1920’s and King Tut’s legacy today.
Until 1922, not much was known about Tutankhamun, and the little that was known about the boy pharaoh hinted at a rather uneventful reign. The reason for this lack of knowledge about the thirteenth ruler of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt was in part down to the fact that the fifteenth and final pharaoh of the dynasty, Horemheb, seemed to make it his life’s mission to expunge any record of Tutankhamun from the history books.
It is likely that Horemheb’s actions may well have played a part in keeping Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings relatively intact throughout the years. Although the tomb was broken into by tomb raiders on at least two occasions shortly after the pharaoh’s burial, it seems that perhaps this later animosity may have helped keep away any future grave robbers.
Another pharaoh who played an important role in helping to keep the tomb safe was Ramesses VI. During the construction of his own tomb, workmen’s huts were built on top of the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb, thus hiding the tomb and basically ensuring its safety for the next three thousand or so years.
Now the tomb of Tutankhamun was not only well hidden from grave robbers, but also from nineteenth and twentieth century archaeologists, some of whom were not even convinced that Tutankhamun was in fact buried in the Valley of the Kings. Indeed, the prolific Italian explorer and archaeologist, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who had already discovered several tombs, including those of Ay and Seti I, famously declared in 1819 that all the tombs had been found and nothing of note remained to be found.
Little else was discovered in the Valley of the Kings until the beginning of the 20th Century, when the American archaeologist, Theodore M. Davis, had the excavation permit to dig in the valley. Davis ultimately proved Belzoni’s statement to be incorrect, and he actually discovered several royal and non-royal tombs, including the tomb of the aforementioned, Horemheb. However, in a 1912 publication, Davis himself ruled out the possibility of finding Tutankhamun’s tomb in the valley, when he declared that he feared “… the Valley of Kings is now exhausted”.
However, there was one man who still believed that the tomb of Tutankhamun was waiting to be found in the Valley of the Kings, and his determined search for the boy pharaoh resulted in ensuring Tutankhamun’s place in history as the most well-known of all the pharaohs.
That man was Howard Carter.
Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon
Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon first met in 1907, when the French Egyptologist, Gaston Maspero, who was head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, had recommended Carter to Carnarvon as the ideal man to oversee the Earl’s new-found hobby of archaeology.
Despite coming from totally different backgrounds, Carter and Carnarvon seemed to hit it off straight away. Not only had Lord Carnarvon found the professional he needed for his new hobby, Howard Carter had also found the source of financing he needed to carry out his lifelong ambition.
Son of artist, Samuel Carter, Howard was a talented sketcher in his own right, and at the age of 17 was commissioned by the Egyptologist, Percy Edward Newberry, to help document tombs in Middle Egypt. He then went on to work for Édouard Naville, and recorded wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut.
In 1899, Howard Carter was appointed Inspector of Monuments for Upper Egypt, and as part of this role he oversaw a number of excavations in the Valley of the Kings, including the systematic exploration of the valley by the American archaeologist, Theodore Davis.
During his time working for the Antiquities Service, Carter also headed his own excavation projects, where he was able to develop a grid-block system for searching for tombs. As well as gaining a reputation for improving the protection of existing excavation sites, Carter also became known for his temper, which would get him in trouble on more than one occasion.
In 1904, following a dispute with the locals over tomb thefts, Carter was transferred to the Inspectorate of Lower Egypt. And then, less than a year later, Carter resigned from the Antiquities Service altogether following a violent confrontation between French tourists and Egyptian guards, which became known as the Saqqara Affair.
By 1907, Howard Carter had been without any formal employment for almost three years and was mainly making ends meet through the sale of his own artwork to foreign tourists. Meanwhile, Lord Carnarvon’s road to Egypt was altogether quite different.
George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was already in his late thirties the first time he set foot in Egypt—and it is worth noting that he had visited the country on his doctor’s orders.
Always the keen motor car driver, the Earl suffered a serious car accident near Bad Schwalbach, in Germany, in 1903. And following a lengthy recovery, Lord Carnarvon’s doctor recommended that he spend his winters outside of England, so from then on the Earl began to holiday in Egypt each year.
Having spent a few winters in Egypt, Lord Carnarvon soon caught the Egyptology bug and became a keen collector of Egyptian artefacts. Then, in 1907, the Earl decided to sponsor the excavation of tombs in Deir el-Bahri. And it is at this point that Gaston Maspero first introduces Carnarvon to the Egyptologist, Howard Carter.
The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun
When Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon first met, the concession for digging in the Valley of the Kings was owned by the archaeologist, Theodore Davis. But by 1913, Davis was convinced that the Valley had now been exhausted, and so he eventually gave up his concession to excavate there. This was the moment Carter had long been waiting for, and he quickly convinced Lord Carnarvon to take up the concession.
Carter then began excavating the area which he believed housed the tomb of Tutankhamun, but after only a year into his work, World War One broke out, and he was no longer able to spend much time as an archaeologist, due to his wartime posting as a diplomatic courier.
Following the war, it was decided that Carter would use his own grid block system to methodically search for the tomb of Tutankhamun, literally leaving no stone unturned. Of course, this resulted in several seasons of slow and laborious work.
Mounting costs in the endeavour, meant that Lord Carnarvon’s enthusiasm for the project began to wane. And after much negotiation between Carter and his benefactor, the Egyptologist was made well aware that the 1922-23 season would be his final chance to discover King Tut’s tomb. Fortunately, Carnarvon’s faith in Howard Carter was about to pay off.
On the 4th November 1922, only three days after the new season had begun, the top step of a stairway was discovered. As the staircase was excavated, Carter became confident that it was of the type, which would lead down to the entrance of an 18th Dynasty tomb.
Carter further believed it to be an intact tomb, due to the fact that the ancient workmen’s huts built on top of the entrance dated back to the 20th Dynasty. He told his men to cover up the stairway to the tomb, until the time for its uncovering, and then with great excitement cabled Lord Carnarvon the following telegraph:
At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations
Carnarvon replied to Carter’s telegraph on the 8th, stating that he and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Beauchamp, would arrive in Alexandria on the 20th. But it was not until the 23rd November that they actually arrived in the Valley of the Kings, and only then did work finally begin, by Carter’s colleague Arthur Callender, on uncovering the tomb.
By the 24th November, all sixteen steps had been uncovered and now the whole of the sealed doorway could be seen, together with various seal impressions bearing the Tutankhamun cartouche. It was now possible to open the first doorway, but not before a wooden grill was first made for fixing over it.
The following day, the first doorway was finally open, which led down a descending passage. Unfortunately, strewn along the floor of this passageway, in amongst the rubble, were broken alabaster jars and coloured pottery vases. On seeing this, Carter realised that these items pointed to the likelihood that the tomb of Tutankhamun had in fact been plundered by tomb raiders at some point in the past, most likely just after the pharaoh’s burial.
Undeterred, Carter and his men continued to clear the passage of all the rubble, until finally they reached a second sealed doorway. Now Carter would find out the extent of the plundering and whether or not all his hard work was about to pay off.
For a more in-depth look at Carter and Carnarvon and their search for Tutankhamun’s tomb, go to Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon.
The Tomb of Tutankhamun
On Sunday 26th November 1922, the time had come to break the second sealed doorway open. Present at this monumental event were Carter, Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Beauchamp, Arthur Callender and the two rieses (foremen) of the Egyptian workers. Carter himself made a small breach in the top-left hand corner of the doorway, before putting a candle through the hole to test for foul gasses. Carter then widened the hole and, by means of the candle, looked in.
It was a little time before Carter could see anything. The escaping air from the tomb made the candle flicker and it then took a little time for his eyes to adjust to the glimmer of the light, but slowly Carter was able to see different objects stacked upon one another.
An impatient Carnarvon demanded of Carter, “Can you see anything?”
To which Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things. Wonderful things!”
Carter was peering into what would become known as the Antechamber of the tomb and among the wonderful things that he himself described were:
… two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness; gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal; exquisitely painted, inlaid, and ornamental caskets; flowers; alabaster vases, some beautifully executed of lotus and papyrus device; strange black shrines with a gilded monster snake appearing from within; quite ordinary looking white chests; finely carved chairs; a golden inlaid throne; a heap of large curious white oviform boxes; beneath our very eyes, on the threshold, a lovely lotiform wishing-cup in translucent alabaster; stools of all shapes and design, of both common and rare materials; and, lastly a confusion of overturned parts of chariots glinting with gold, peering from amongst which was a mannikin.
The very next day, Carter, Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Beauchamp and Callender entered the Antechamber with electric lighting, in order to make a careful inspection of the room. Such was the number of items crowded into the chamber, they had to be especially careful not to disturb or damage anything.
The result of this initial inspection was that it was clear that they had discovered a pharaoh’s tomb and not merely a cache, and also that they had found a royal burial that was almost intact, except for some hurried plundering from ancient grave robbers. It was also clear that this antechamber was not the only room in the tomb.
It was discovered that there was a second smaller room attached to the Antechamber, which was accessed through a small door cut between the legs of one of the three couches in the chamber. This room, or the Annexe as Carter referred to it, contained many items such as oils, wines, pottery, dishes, stools and baskets, which appeared to have been left in rather a disorderly manner. Due to this disarray, which was almost certainly caused by ancient tomb raiders, Carter decided that the Annexe would be the final room to be documented.
An interesting item found within the Annexe was an elegant looking game board, made of ebony, ivory, lapis, and gold. The game was called, Senet, which was a very popular game in Ancient Egypt, based on the movement of draughts across a board consisting of 30 squares arranged into three parallel rows of ten squares each.
Of even more interest than the Annexe, was the second room leading off from the Antechamber, on the right-hand wall. This chamber was still sealed and was actually guarded by two sentinels. This room especially excited Carter as he immediately believed it to be the sepulchral chamber (or the burial chamber). However, before any official openings of that room could take place, Carter made the decision for the Antechamber to be carefully cleared, photographed and meticulously processed.
Carter soon realised that this was going to be a huge project and that he was in desperate need of assistance. He immediately set about recruiting experts in the different fields that he felt were needed to successfully make an historic record of this incredible discovery. Amongst the new recruits were Harry Burton, who joined the team as the official photographer, Alfred Lucas, responsible for the chemical preparations to preserve objects and textiles, and Arthur Mace, who became Carter’s invaluable right-hand man.
His team assembled, Carter began the arduous job of clearing the Antechamber. This painstaking work would take up most of the rest of the season. However, by the middle of February 1923, every object had been cleared from the Antechamber and removed to the laboratory, except for the two sentinel statues, who still stood there guarding the sealed door. And it was to this sealed doorway that Carter and his team now turned their attention.
According to Carter’s own notes and the photographic evidence, it would appear that he, Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Beauchamp actually entered the burial chamber shortly after the tomb’s discovery and quite a long time before its official opening. It is quite understandable to think that Carter and Carnarvon would want to have a quick peek to satisfy their curiosity as to whether there was a sealed sarcophagus awaiting them, housing the mummy of Tutankhamun, on the other side of the sealed doorway.
However, the official opening of the Burial Chamber did not take place until the 16th February 1923, where it was opened to some fanfare. At 2pm, Carter, Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Beauchamp, and the main members of the excavation team, namely Mace, Callender, Lucas, and Burton, met with a total of ten officials of various description. By 2.15pm, the privileged seventeen were all gathered around the entrance to the tomb, ready to be led down the passageway and into the empty Antechamber below.
The sentinel guards had been screened with a wooden boarding, so as to protect them from any possible damage and a small platform was erected between them in order to enable access to the upper part of the doorway, as Carter had considered it safest to knock through the doorway from the top down, thus causing the least amount of damage. Then, before the watching eyes of the guests, Carter proceeded to chip away at the plaster of the sealed doorway.
Once Carter had made a hole big enough to look into the chamber, he inserted an electric torch and, to his surprise, saw a solid wall of gold only a yard away from his face, which stretched as far as he could see. Now, with the help of Mace and Callender, Carter very carefully chipped away at the hole, stopping only to remove the uneven slabs from the wall and pass them back to be extracted from the tomb. Before long, it became apparent that the solid gold wall was actually part of a huge gilded shrine, which had been built to cover and protect the sarcophagus.
After two hours work, a space had been fashioned large enough for Carter to enter the burial chamber. There was a drop of about four feet from the Antechamber and quite a tight space between the chamber wall and the gold shrine housing the mummy of Tutankhamun, but Carter was able to take a portable light and lower himself down. Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Beauchamp then joined him, and they made their way along the narrow passage between the wall and the shrine.
It soon became apparent that the huge golden shrine took up most of the space in the room, leaving only a few feet between each of its four sides and the walls of the chamber, while the roof of the shrine almost reached up to the ceiling. Meanwhile, unlike in the Antechamber, the walls of the burial chamber were decorated with brightly painted scenes and inscriptions.
Howard Carter opened the doors of the outermost shrine, only to find on the doors of the second nested shrine the unbroken seal on King Tutankhamun’s tomb. At this point, it was decided to leave the seal intact until the following season.
Treasury (housing the treasure of Tutankhamun)
As they made their way to the far right side of the Burial Chamber from the Antechamber, another surprise was awaiting them. There was an entrance to yet another chamber and this time the doorway was not sealed, so Carter was able to look through and get a clear view of the contents of the room. Just from that first glance, it was clear to Carter that this was the room where all the treasure of Tutankhamun had been placed.
At the centre of the chamber, which became known as the Treasury, stood a large shrine shaped chest, completely overlaid with gold, which Carter later described as the most beautiful monument that he had ever seen. In front of the shrine, at the entrance to the Treasury, stood the figure of the jackal god, Anubis, while immediately behind him was the head of a bull – these were both emblems of the underworld.
The Treasury also included an array of other wonderful things, such as black shrines and chests, the funerary statuettes of the king, caskets of ivory, ostrich feather fans and a number of model boats, with their sails and rigging complete. Unlike the Antechamber and the Annexe, there was a lot more order to this room and most of the boxes in the chamber still had their seals intact.
After Carter, Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Beauchamp returned to the Antechamber, the other members of the team and distinguished guests were allowed to see for themselves the marvels that had been discovered. A process that took until past 5pm. Once the initial joy of this incredible discovery had passed, Carter’s thoughts turned to how best to record and process what they had found, so that history would always remember it. The hard work was just about to begin.
Such was the extent of the painstaking work, which Carter undertook to ensure that the discovery of the tomb was properly processed and photographed, including the delicate attention to the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun (see photo below), that he remained in Egypt working on the site until the excavation was completed in 1932.
When asked why he was so methodical and exact in his methods, Carter replied that “it had been our privilege to find the most important collection of Egyptian antiquities that had ever seen the light, and it was for us to show that we were worthy of the trust”. And thanks to Carter’s thoroughness and attention to detail, it was also possible to put together more information about who Tutankhamun actually was.
The King Tut Tomb Curse
A few months after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Lord Carnarvon died from pneumonia. The press were quick to pounce on this unexpected death and before long there was a media frenzy about the curse of Tutankhamun.
Although ancient tombs have long been associated with curses, and many Egyptian pharaohs attempted to protect their tomb from grave robbers in this way, it is worth noting that no such curse was found inscribed in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Local superstitions added fuel to the fire of a possible curse, as did speculation back in Britain from the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who told the press that the earl’s death had been caused by “elementals” created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb.
However, it is almost certain that the driving force behind the idea that Carnarvon and others working on the excavation were allegedly cursed by Tutankhamun’s tomb was the press themselves, who were desperate for a story they could control, given the fact that Lord Carnarvon had made the decision to give exclusivity of the story of the discovery of the tomb of Tukankhamun to the Times newspaper.
Whatever the reasons, it wasn’t long before the notion of a curse became almost as big a story as the tomb of Tutankhamun itself. And over the following years was very much a part of the legacy of the boy pharaoh.
For a more in-depth look at King Tut’s Curse, go to The Curse of Tutankhamun.
The supposed curse that surrounded the tomb of Tutankhamun was only one aspect of a world-wide media frenzy about the pharaoh during the 1920s. Suddenly King Tut was a household name and the craze for all things Tutankhamun had an impact on the arts, culture, fashion and even travel.
Egypt, and especially Luxor, became the must-see tourist destination, with many tourism posters created to advertise this exotic land. Some tourist agencies even sold holidays to see Tutankhamun’s tomb, much to the chagrin of Howard Carter, who felt that tourists visiting the excavation site really hampered his work of clearing, processing and photographing the objects discovered in the tomb.
Meanwhile, Egyptian motifs began to appear on jewellery, architecture, furniture, fabrics and clothes, with outfits such as the “Luxor Frock” becoming a popular new fashion range. Even replicas of items found in the tomb were made, such as a ritual couch created for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, in 1924, which was made in Hull of all places.
Companies were also quick to jump on the Tutankhamun bandwagon, with advertisements for all manner of things taking advantage of the media frenzy, such as the Johnston Fruit Company’s brand of “King Tut” Lemons. Local businesses also got in on the act, with bars, restaurants and clubs springing up all over the USA.
There were also a number of books, plays, songs and movies that were inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, including the book, “The Kiss of the Pharaoh: The Love Story of Tut-Ankh-Amen” by Richard Goyne, in 1923, and the song, “Old King Tut”, sung by Billy Jones and Ernest Hare and also released in 1923. Meanwhile, movies included “The Mummy”, starring Boris Karloff, and “We Want Our Mummy”, a film about the tomb of the midget King Rutentuten and starring the Three Stooges.
Howard Carter’s Legacy
At the height of Tutankhamun fever in 1924, Howard Carter visited the United States, where he gave a series of illustrated lectures in cities throughout the USA, which were attended by enthusiastic audiences and helped spark Egyptomania in America. However, interest in Tutankhamun had died down considerably into the 1930’s, and by the end of the decade interest was such that, when Howard Carter died in 1939, he did so in relative obscurity.
Surprisingly, Carter did not receive many plaudits in his lifetime for his great achievement. Not only did he find the greatest archaeological discovery in history, he also meticulously recorded it for the benefit of mankind and then published a very well written account of his find. Yet Carter received no honours, no knighthood, not even an OBE, as one might have expected, given his immense contribution to archaeology.
Revival in Interest
In the late sixties and early seventies, there was something of a revival in the interest surrounding the tomb of Tutankhamun. This may partly have been down to the aforementioned X-rays that were carried out around this time, and which shed new light on the boy pharaoh, but mainly it was due to two major exhibition tours, which were carried out during this period.
The first exhibition tour, “Tutankhamun Treasures”, which ran from 1961 – 1967, mainly took place in the United States, but also included dates in Japan and France. This was the first time that a substantial number of the original artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb had left Egypt and it proved to be incredibly successful.
A second exhibition tour, entitled the “Treasures of Tutankhamun”, began in 1972, to mark the fifty year anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery. Queen Elizabeth II opened the exhibition on the 30th March 1972, at the British Museum, and the public reaction to the exhibition was overwhelming, with a total of 1.7 million visiting during the nine month run in London. The tour then moved to Russia, the USA and finally Germany, where it concluded, in 1981.
Tutankhamun was also popular in the media at that time. Films included a number of Mummy movies in the sixties and seventies and “The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb”, in 1980. King Tut was even one of the characters in the popular sixties series, Batman.
Towards the end of the 20th Century, there was a bit of a hiatus in the popularity of Tutankhamun, but by the beginning of the 21st Century he was as popular as ever. New world tours of the original artefacts included “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs”, which ran from 2004-2011, and “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs”, which ran from 2008-2013.
There has also been a world-wide tour showing an exhibition of replicas, entitled “Tutankhamun: His Tomb and Treasures”, which has proved to be extremely popular and has allowed visitors from many more countries to find out all about Howard Carter and his wonderful discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Quiz, WebQuest Worksheet, Lesson Plan and Jigsaws
Below are links to a number of FREE fun and educational resources (and a premium lesson plan), which are intended to help students gain a better understanding of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s Search for the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
Click on the link to play The Search for Tutankhamun’s Tomb Quiz
Click on the link for the FREE Search for Tutankhamun’s Tomb WebQuest Worksheet (Coming soon)
Premium Lesson Plan
Click on the link for The Search for Tutankhamun’s Tomb Worksheet and Activity Packs (Coming soon)
Click on a link below to solve one of our Search for Tutankhamun’s Tomb Jigsaw Puzzles.