The path to the discovery

David Tresilian , Tuesday 6 Dec 2022

This year marks the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun in what is still the most famous achievement of modern Egyptology, writes David Tresilian in the first of a series of articles

centenary of the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun
centenary of the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun


Keen Egyptology watchers and others have long been aware that November marked the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor on 4 November 1922.

Howard Carter, the tomb’s British discoverer, contacted his sponsor, the British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon, as soon as the discovery was confirmed. Carnarvon arrived in Luxor on 23 November, and the two men entered the tomb together on 26 November 1922, the first to do so since the ancient Egyptian priests sealed it in 1323 BCE.

The discovery of the tomb crowned Carter’s career as an Egyptologist and had intended and unintended consequences for Carnarvon. Both men became international celebrities, with the discovery of the tomb and the fabulous treasures it contained obsessing the world’s press for months and years afterwards.

Carter dined out on the discovery for the rest of his life, spending a decade cataloguing and studying the contents of the tomb and then a further decade writing about the discovery and travelling the world on lecture tours. Carnarvon also entered the history books not only as the man who had funded the excavations leading to the tomb’s discovery, but also as the first and most famous victim of the so-called “curse of the Pharaohs”. He died from septicemia in Cairo at the age of 56 in early 1923 just months after the tomb’s opening.

Though Tutankhamun was a comparatively unimportant Pharaoh — he ascended the throne when he was only nine years old and reigned for less than a decade — today he has become one of the most important, perhaps even the most important, since his was the only one of the ancient Egyptian royal tombs that was not robbed in antiquity and survived intact into modern times.

While there is evidence that attempts were made on at least two occasions to rob the tomb shortly after its construction in antiquity, these seem to have been foiled by attentive guards. When Carter and Carnarvon finally entered the tomb millennia later, they noticed the hurried attempts of the ancient Egyptian priests to re-arrange damaged tomb furniture and seal up the tunnels made by the robbers.

However, the rest of the tomb was intact, with its fabulous contents bearing witness not only to the wealth and sophistication of ancient Egyptian civilisation, but also suggesting the even more fabulous objects that the tombs of much greater Pharaohs must once have contained. If Tutankhamun, a relatively insignificant ruler, had been given such a tomb, the tombs of Pharaohs like Ramses II or Amenhotep III, whose much larger empty tombs can also be visited in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor today, must once have contained wealth that can only be dreamed of.

Much of the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb can be viewed in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square today pending their reinstallation at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on the Pyramids Plateau and its opening to the public. Some of the contents have already been moved to the new museum. Individual items from the tomb have also achieved iconic status worldwide, with the boy king’s gold face mask being immediately recognisable as one of the best-known artefacts of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Originally this solid gold mask, as perfect today as when it was crafted more than three thousand years ago, was placed over the face of the mummy of Tutankhamun as a sign of incorruptibility and immortality. It was found by Carter in the innermost coffin of the nested set placed within Tutankhamun’s stone sarcophagus, itself placed within a set of gilded box-like shrines.

While the shrines and other items are on display at the Egyptian Museum, the sarcophagus and mummy are still in situ in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings where they can be viewed by visitors today.


CARNARVON’S HOBBY: So famous has the story of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb become that the circumstances behind it have tended to sink out of view, with the result that the curious double act of Carter and Carnarvon, respectively a jobbing artist’s son and a member of the English aristocracy, has not always received the attention it deserves.

Yet, their association, begun in 1907 and sealed with the discovery of the tomb 14 years later, can tell us much about the state of Egyptology on the eve of what may still be its single greatest discovery. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Tutankhamun’s tomb would not have been discovered without the two men’s contributions, it is possible that the ancient Egyptian boy king would have had to wait at least a few more years in millennial darkness before being plucked out into the light of day.

Both Carter and Carnarvon, persuaded that the Valley of the Kings had yielded up its most spectacular secrets by the time they came on the scene at the beginning of the last century, were nevertheless convinced that further efforts could reveal the major prize of Tutankhamun’s then still-undiscovered tomb.

They had no reason to suppose that this would have been preserved undisturbed — all the other tombs in the valley without exception had been robbed in antiquity — but they thought that somewhere beneath the valley floor the tomb must lie hidden, even though the scholarly consensus at the time was uncertain.

As a result, they persevered, and of course eventually that perseverance paid off. But there were many moments when Carnarvon, a late convert to Egyptology after an earlier life spent collecting racehorses and motorcars, had been tempted to throw in the towel. Worried that he was throwing good money after bad in a quixotic search for what in all likelihood would be an empty tomb, if it could be found at all, he told Carter in 1921 that the 1922 season would be the last to receive his funding.

While Carnarvon was immensely rich, his fortunes having recovered as a result of his marriage to a wealthy heiress in 1895, the family was probably not in the front rank of British aristocratic fortunes or of the newer wealth that set the tone for the early 20th-century plutocracy. Carnarvon’s title came with the family seat of Highclere Castle in southern England — later made famous for many as the setting for the UK television series Downtown Abbey — and it was to Highclere that he summoned Carter to discuss his Egyptian concession when it was awarded to him as a result of a recommendation from the then British high commissioner in Egypt Lord Cromer.

Carnarvon had taken to wintering abroad following a motoring accident in 1901, and from 1903 onwards like some other members of his class he took to spending time in Egypt. According to British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, author of a standard work on the tomb and its discovery, Carnarvon “took to Egyptology as a congenial way of passing the interminable winter days” in Egypt, a country he found himself in almost by accident as a way of restoring his health.

He “little realised that this new hobby would come to dominate his life,” Reeves says, having started, following Cromer’s intervention, with “an unpromising site convenient for the Winter Palace Hotel” in Luxor where he was staying, to which he would be brought each day to sit “in a large screened cage to watch the men work on the excavations” and sometimes be joined by his wife “dressed for a garden party rather than the desert”.

The concession to excavate in the Valley of the Kings was held at the time by Theodore Davis, an American businessman, who had himself funded the discovery of several tombs in the valley after the award of the concession in 1902 including the important tombs known as KV46, KV55, KV57, and KV54 in the standard numbering system. All of them were entirely empty apart from a few smashed or damaged fragments of tomb furniture. When Davis decided to abandon the concession in 1914, dying less than one year later, it passed to Carnarvon and his employee Carter.

Carter started working in the valley in 1917 at a time when World War I was entering its final phase in Europe with the entry of the US into the war on the French and British side in April 1917 and when Egypt, commandeered by the British in their war against the then Ottoman Empire, was awash with British Empire forces campaigning against the Ottomans in neighbouring Palestine and Hejaz as well as up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the then Ottoman city of Baghdad.

While the war meant that Carnarvon could not visit Egypt to inspect the excavation work he was funding, Carter began the search for the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. Unbeknownst to Davis, his workmen had come within metres of the tomb’s entrance in the flat bottom of the valley before he had abandoned the concession in 1914.

Three years later, Carter began the search again in earnest, with Reeves writing that “he proceeded to clear the Valley down to the bedrock in the search for [this] single tomb. Countless boys and men laboured to move thousands upon thousands of tons of limestone rubble,” though still with initially disappointing results.


HOWARD CARTER: Carter’s name is now so closely linked to that of his aristocratic employer Lord Carnarvon, as well as with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, that it can seem as if their relationship was the most important of his career and the discovery of the tomb its defining moment.

In fact, however, neither of these things is entirely true, since Carter was not an obvious choice of partner, even if his lengthy association with Carnarvon before the discovery of the tomb showed that he was able to establish at least a working relationship with his socially distant patron. He had already established himself as a hands-on Egyptologist before Carnarvon came on the scene, and his association with him came about as much as a result of a series of accidents as any planning for a meeting.

Moreover, while Carter’s name would probably not be remembered today had it not been for the tomb’s discovery, he had earlier managed to build a career for himself in Egyptology that suggested a certain level of determination and professionalism at a time when much of the field was still subject to aristocratic dilettantism and adventuring.

Born into shabby genteel circumstances in London in 1874 and the youngest son of an intermittently employed commercial artist, Carter came from the late Victorian lower middle classes, and his early life suggested that he was destined for a career similar to those of the protagonists of the novels of the contemporary English novelist H G Wells as a retail clerk or office worker, rather like Wells himself who worked in a drapery store before reinventing himself as a writer. Having received only an inadequate education, Carter was employed by the British Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), a voluntary organisation, to copy scenes on the walls of the ancient Egyptian tombs at Beni Hassan, arriving in Egypt at the age of just 17.

It must have taken Carter, not more than a boy when he first came to Egypt, much determination to impress himself on the then grandees of the profession, such that he was appointed inspector-general of the monuments of Upper Egypt by no less a person than the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, then head of the Egyptian government’s Antiquities Service, in 1899 while still in his early 20s and later transferred to the same but more prestigious post at Saqqara outside Cairo.

Writing of this period in Carter’s life, his biographer T G H James intimates that while Carter’s prospects in England at the time would have been limited owing to his generally grim class background and lack of education, in Egypt there were more possibilities open to him, especially if he could provide evidence of talent. However, he was still rejected as a potential peer by the members of the EEF, who would only employ him as a copyist.

His recognition by a Frenchman, Maspero, and appointment to the senior position of inspector-general of the monuments of Upper Egypt must have come as sweet revenge. “At the start of his time at Deir Al-Bahari,” where he was copying images on the walls of tombs, Carter “was socially unreliable… not hesitat[ing] to pick his hollow tooth with a matchstick during dinner, bite bread that is so hard you can hardly cut, and help himself to whisky in an absent-minded fashion,” with “such displays of gaucherie” being unacceptable to his employers, James comments.

Once out of British hands, Carter seemed to flourish, at least until a still-obscure episode at Saqqara in 1904 caused him to lose his employment with the Antiquities Service. Reeves says that the problem started when a group of French tourists refused to pay for tickets to see the Sacred Bulls at the Serapeum, verbally abusing the Egyptian guards as they did so. When Carter was sent for, he took the side of the guards, and in a subsequent interview with Lord Cromer was asked to resign from the service. James’ account, more substantial, reveals that Cromer accused Carter of “setting natives against Europeans” in the affair and suggested that “resignation might be the only honourable course.”

“Nothing is known about the company Carter kept in Cairo at the time, [but] it may be concluded, on the basis of his known way of life at other times, that he had few if any intimate friends to whom he could turn to discuss matters. He was a brooder, and the Saqqara affair provided ample material for brooding,” having led to a reprimand and then enforced resignation, James comments.

Carter was in a difficult situation. “He was still just 30 years old; his future had seemed secure in the Antiquities Service; he had substantial archaeological achievements behind him; he was respected by his colleagues and trusted by Maspero. Now he has seriously blotted his copybook. His judgement, not as a professional archaeologist but as an official and a man, had been seriously tested.”

Fortunately, the subsequent introduction to Carnarvon provided Carter with a new career and one that led to the discovery that made him famous. “While he never subsequently suggested that his departure from the Antiquities Service provided him with the chance to work for Carnarvon,” James says, “he would surely have thought in later years that in his earlier misfortune lay the seed of his later success.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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