Opening the tomb

David Tresilian , Tuesday 10 Jan 2023

In the second in a three-part series on the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun, David Tresilian describes the opening of the tomb

Opening the tomb
Opening the tomb


Visitors to Luxor today may well be struck by the impressive development work that has taken place in the city in recent years, with the renovation of the corniche, the construction of a network of new roads on both the east and west banks of the river, and the building of new bridges allowing easier access to the archaeological sites on the other side of the Nile.

All of this was very much in evidence on a recent visit to Luxor for the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun by the British Egyptologist Howard Carter in November 1922.

Luxor was celebrating the centenary, and arriving at the city’s airport in early November and enjoying an afternoon visiting the Luxor and Karnak temples and then the tomb itself in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile, Al-AhramWeekly party was struck by the neat streets and clean air of the city and the new roads lined by flowering trees.

There was even time for a spot of hot-air ballooning. This meant getting up before dawn in order to see the sunrise over the Nile, with the sunlight illuminating the green fields laid out along the river and then the desert and the mountains housing the Valley of the Kings beyond. Our balloon men expertly handled the hot air balloons, and rising up into the air beside and then above the mountains in the early morning light, the party was able to appreciate the close connections between the river and the surrounding landscape.

Such memories will be shared by many visitors to Luxor today, but the city would have looked very different when Carter first visited it at the turn of the last century. Many visitors in those days would have arrived in the city by boat, though commuters to Cairo would have taken the train, of course still available today. The city then would not have been much more than a large village, though one already boasting a significant tourist industry together with a full complement of hotels.

The Luxor and Karnak temples would have been cleared of sand, and the Valley of the Kings could have been visited as it still can be today by taking a ferry across the Nile. Some of the valley’s empty tombs would have been standing open as they had since at least late antiquity as early visitor accounts and in some cases graffiti in the tombs makes plain, but arguably the most important tomb of all, that of Tutankhamun, would still have lain buried waiting to be discovered.  

By the time of the discovery on 4 November 1922, Carter had been visiting Luxor during the excavation seasons since shortly after he had started working for his British sponsor Lord Carnarvon, an amateur Egyptologist, in 1907. His earlier career in the Egyptian government’s Antiquities Service had come to an abrupt halt in 1905, as described in the first article in this series, and following a period of freelance work he had agreed to help Carnarvon with his excavations.

Both men wanted to work in the Valley of the Kings, being convinced that there were still major discoveries to be made. When the American businessman Theodore Davis gave up his concession to excavate in the valley in 1914 on the grounds that all the major tombs had been found, Carter and Carnarvon immediately took it over.

They were convinced that the valley still held out the possibility of major discoveries, with one of the most likely being the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun. While the outbreak of World War I in Europe in August 1914 dashed their plans for an early start, all the more so once the war had spread to Egypt and the wider Middle East, Carter and Carnarvon remained focused on their plans.

Despite the atmosphere of wartime crisis, Carter hired a large number of workers in autumn 1917 and started work on clearing the area of the valley between the already excavated tombs of Ramses II and Ramses VI.

“The difficulty was to know where to begin,” he wrote later in his account of the discovery, “for mountains of rubbish thrown out by previous excavators encumbered the ground in all directions and no sort of record had ever been kept as to which areas had been excavated and which had not.

“It was rather a desperate undertaking… but I had reason to believe that the ground beneath had never been touched and a strong conviction that we should find a tomb.” Even three years later when a vast amount of rock had been removed from the valley floor with little or no result, Carter was still convinced that the area would eventually yield a major discovery.

“My own feeling was that so long as a single area of untouched ground remained the risk [of continuing] was worth taking,” he wrote. There was still an area at the foot of the tomb of Ramses VI to be investigated, “and I had always had a kind of superstitious feeling that in that particular corner of the valley one of the missing kings, possibly Tutankhamun, might be found.”


TUTANKHAMUN:The consensus among Egyptologists today is that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten, one of ancient Egypt’s most intriguing Pharaohs. He replaced the country’s traditional panoply of gods with a single god, Aten, thus instituting an early form of monotheism, and he moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna where new modes of worship and styles of art were instituted.

The shock of this can still be registered today by looking at the statues and other images of Akhenaten, those that survived the purges after his death, such as the famous statue in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square that shows him with an elongated face and a body very different from the block-like limbs of the kings that preceded and succeeded him. There is also his famous wife, Nefertiti, the subject of a famous bust that is now in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

Very little is known about Tutankhamun’s reign, aside from the fact that he came to the throne very young, probably at no more than nine years old in around 1332 BCE, and reigned for a decade or so before dying at the age of no more than 19. It seems that government was in the hands of others during Tutankhamun’s reign and that the main event associated with his rule was the overturning of Akhenaten’s new religion and the restoration of the old gods and the centres of power associated with them.

Modern authors, such as UK Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves in his standard work on Tutankhamun, are not able to add much to what Carter wrote in his account of the discovery of the boy king’s tomb when he said that “the mystery of his life still eludes us — the shadows move but the dark is never quite dispersed.” While Reeves is able to point to many discoveries made since Carter’s time that bear on the reign of Tutankhamun, he says that the “hard facts” are still very few.

“For most of his reign Tutankhamun was the pawn of others, but inevitably as he grew older, the boy’s pliability will have lessened,” Reeves says. “X-rays of Tutankhamun’s skull reveal damage consistent with the king’s having received a blow to the head”— an accident or an intentional blow? — and shortly after his death in around 1323 BCE he was buried in a “hastily adapted private sepulchre in the Valley of the Kings”. This small and largely undecorated tomb was probably “pressed into service only because work on Tutankhamun’s intended place of burial had scarcely begun” when he died.

Barring the possibility of new discoveries relating to Tutankhamun’s reign, there are thus more questions than answers about him. Tutankhamun seems to have dropped the name of Akhenaten’s monotheistic god Aten from his name in the second year of his reign, substituting the name of the major god of the old pantheon, Amun, in its stead. The work of scrubbing out and overturning Akhenaten’s new religion took off during his rule.

He seems to have died suddenly, or at least unexpectedly, accounting for the relatively modest size and uncharacteristic lay-out of his tomb. But this does not explain why he was later so thoroughly forgotten, with later Pharaohs even omitting his name from lists of Egypt’s rulers. That forgetting turned out to be a blessing, however, since as Reeves says, “it was the very oblivion to which Tutankhamun had been consigned that would ensure the survival of his burial,” the only ancient Egyptian royal tomb that survived into modern times.

“With time, the very site of the tomb began to blend in perfectly with its surroundings — to be missed not only by Ramses VI who quarried a tomb for himself within a few metres of it, but more importantly when the royal tombs were dismantled following the abandonment of the Valley of the Kings by Ramses XI” in the 11th century BCE. It was obvious to Carter when he entered the tomb for the first time that tomb-robbers had been at work shortly after the burial, since there was evidence both that the tomb had been broken into and the burial goods riffled through and that it had then been resealed.  

Once again, though, there were mysteries, and these struck Carter when he entered the tomb in 1922, the first man to do so in over 3,000 years. Grave goods had been thrown around by the robbers, doubtless in a hurry and in search of easily portable items rather like burglars today. But before the tomb was resealed, only perfunctory attempts were made to repair the damage, with items stuffed back into broken boxes and other pieces simply swept into corners and left in jumbled piles where they lay.

“Gold was the natural quarry” of the robbers, Carter wrote. “But it had to be in portable form, and it must have maddened them to see it glinting all around them on plated objects which they could not move and had not time to strip… What valuables they found and made away with we may never know, but their search can have been but hurried and superficial for many objects of solid gold were overlooked.”

The second mystery was the reason for the survival of Tutankhamun’s tomb. As Carter notes, the very magnificence of the ancient Egyptian royal tombs sealed their fate, and despite the measures employed to protect them, none of them could save the mummy of the Pharaoh lying underground. “The entrance passage was plugged; false passages were constructed; secret doors were contrived; everything that ingenuity could suggest or wealth could purchase was employed. Vain labour all of it, for by patience and perseverance the tomb robber in every case surmounted the difficulties that were set to baffle him.”

“One can imagine the plotting for days beforehand, the secret rendez-vous on the cliff by night, the bribing or drugging of the cemetery guards, and then the desperate burrowing in the dark, the scramble through a small hole in the burial chamber, the hectic search by a glimmering light for treasure that was portable, and the return home at dawn. We can imagine these things, and at the same time we can realise how inevitable it all was.”

Probably the ancient Egyptian officials “buried the whole entrance to the tomb deep out of sight,” Carter says, after the first attempt to rob it. “Better political conditions in the country might have prevented it for a time, but in the long run nothing but ignorance of its whereabouts could have saved it from further attempts at plundering.”


INTO THE TOMB: While Carter was keen to continue with the excavations despite the early failures, certain that they would eventually yield something of value and possibly the undiscovered tomb of Tutankhamun, his sponsor Carnarvon was becoming restless.

After multiple seasons during which nothing was found, the decision was taken that the season beginning in October 1922 would be the last. “We had almost made up our minds that we were beaten,” he wrote, “and were preparing to leave the valley and try our luck elsewhere.”

According to Carter’s later account, work started on clearing the area in front of the tomb of Ramses VI on 1 November 1922, and on the morning of 4 November a step cut into the rock below was uncovered, the first indication of a previously undiscovered tomb. “There was always the horrible possibility that the tomb was an unfinished one, never completed and never used,” Carter wrote, “and even if it had been finished there was the depressing possibility that it had been completely plundered in ancient times.”

“On the other hand, there was just the chance of an untouched or only partially plundered tomb, and it was with ill-suppressed excitement that I watched the descending steps of the staircase as one by one they came to light.” Eventually, a doorway appeared at the bottom of the steps, blocked, plastered over, and sealed. “I made a small peephole just large enough to insert an electric torch, and discovered that the passage beyond the door was filled completely from floor to ceiling with stones and rubble.”

Carter then stopped the excavation, sending a telegram to Carnarvon in London to inform him of the discovery. “At last have made wonderful discovery in valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival. Congratulations.”

Carnarvon arrived in Luxor accompanied by his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert on 23 November, and work recommenced on 25 November with the removal of the blocking. “This disclosed the beginning of a descending passage, the same width as the entrance stairway and nearly seven feet high… It was completely filled with stone and rubble, probably the chip from its own excavation.” On 26 November, the workers came upon a second door, blocked like the first and bearing the seals of Tutankhamun. “Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of the passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway were removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us.”

There then followed Carter’s first glimpse of the contents of the tomb. “With trembling hands, I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner” of the door, he later wrote. “Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening, the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in.

“At first, I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but 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. For the moment — an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by — I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’”

What Carter had seen was the first and largest room in the tomb, called the Antechamber on plans drawn up later and filled with tomb furniture. Almost opposite the main door was another smaller door leading to an annex, also containing grave goods and furniture, and to the right there was a larger sealed door leading into what turned out to be the burial chamber containing the nested coffins of Tutankhamun and leading into a further smaller room called the Treasury also containing tomb furniture.

Carter spent the decade after the discovery meticulously documenting and clearing the objects from the tomb. In his own account of the discovery, Carter stresses the sense of responsibility he felt as the only known discoverer of an ancient Egyptian royal tomb. “This was no ordinary find, to be disposed of in a normal season’s work; nor was there any precedent to show us how to handle it.

“There were numberless things to be done before we could even begin to think of the work of clearing. Vast stores of preservatives and packing material must be laid in; expert advice must be taken as to the best method of dealing with certain objects; provision must be made for a laboratory; a careful plan to scale must be made and a complete photographic record taken.”

For the time being, though, the mood was one of dazed celebration. “We decided on two things,” Carter wrote. “First, to invite [British High Commissioner] Lord Allenby and the various heads of departments to come to pay a visit to the tomb, and second, to send an authoritative account of the discovery to the [London] Times.”

A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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