Howard Carter and the Tomb of Tutankhamun

On 4 November 1922, Howard Carter made one of the most remarkable and important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. In the Valley of the Kings, he unearthed the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, a boy king named Tutankhamun. Unlike every other tomb excavated in modern times, it quickly became apparent that Tutankhamun’s resting place had not been entirely ransacked by grave robbers soon after it was sealed. An unparalleled wealth of extraordinary treasures, that had lain buried for over three millennia, were about to be revealed to the world.

Years of Searching

Howard Carter was born in Britain in 1874 and developed a passion for Egypt in his youth. He first journeyed to the Land of the Pharaohs at the age of seventeen and in 1907 began working for Lord Carnarvon, a British aristocrat who often passed the winter in Egypt due to ill health. Carnarvon provided funding for excavations and was granted a license to dig in the Valley of the Kings, where Carter believed the tomb of Tutankhamun was located.

Work was put on hold during World War One, but Carter maintained that several funerary items he had uncovered, all bearing the name Tutankhamun, constituted strong evidence that there was a tomb to be found. Excavations continued from 1917 to 1922, but after five years no significant discoveries had been made. Carnarvon was losing faith and interest in Carter’s endeavours, but granted him funding for one last season in the Valley of the Kings. On 1 November 1922, Carter’s men set to work.

The First Step

Howard Carter was both methodical and meticulous in his techniques, dividing the area into rectangles and marking them off one by one. On 4 November, his patience and logic were finally rewarded, as a stone step was uncovered in one of the final spaces to be excavated. Removal of sand soon revealed fifteen more steps, at the bottom of which stood a sealed doorway.

On 23 November, Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn, arrived in Egypt. Carter had resisted opening the door until they were present and it was now removed, giving way to a long passage filled with rubble. Disturbances to these stones suggested the presence of ancient grave robbers, but once the passage was cleared, another door bore seals demonstrating that the attempted pillaging had not been entirely successful. The anticipation of what might lie beyond this doorway was immense.

‘Everywhere the glint of gold’

On 26 November, with Lord and Lady Carnarvon by his side, Carter broke a small hole in the top left corner of the doorway and held a candle to it. At first he saw only darkness, but as his eyes adjusted to the dim light provided by the flickering flame, shapes of statues and animals began to emerge. He later described ‘being struck dumb with amazement’ as he saw ‘everywhere the glint of gold’. As the tension mounted, Carnarvon asked Carter if he could see anything, to which the archaeologist gave the famous response ‘Yes, wonderful things’.

The following day the second doorway was removed and the treasure of this antechamber was fully revealed, including life-sized statues, alabaster vases, couches, dismantled chariots and a golden throne. It took until February 1923 to clear this space of the hundreds of items it contained, after which Carter and his team were able to access the other rooms in the tomb, which had been named KV62.

Tutankhamun’s Mummy

On 17 February 1923, Carter broke through the door on the right of the antechamber, which had been ‘guarded’ by two large statues. He was confronted by what appeared to be a solid gold wall. He had reached the pharaoh’s burial chamber and the gold was one side of an enormous shrine, over five metres in length and nearly as high as the ceiling. This would turn out to be the first of four nesting shrines, in which lay Tutankhamun’s quartzite sarcophagus.

As had been the case in the antechamber, removal and conservation of other items had to take place before the shrines and then the sarcophagus could be opened. Within the quartzite lay three further coffins, the last of which held the preserved mummy of Tutankhamun, undisturbed for over three thousand years. The solid gold death mask of the boy king, inlaid with lapis lazuli and other precious stones, remains one of the most iconic and fabulous items to be recovered from the tomb. There were two further rooms filled with ancient Egyptian treasures and the process of emptying KV62 and carefully categorising and conserving every artefact was not completed until 1932.

A Curse of the Pharaoh?

In April 1923, Lord Carnarvon died unexpectedly as the result of an infected mosquito bite. This event combined with the intense media interest in the tomb to fuel rumours of a curse and speculation that ill fortune would befall others who had ‘desecrated’ the pharaoh’s resting place. Although several people associated with the excavation of KV62 died in freak accidents or mysterious circumstances, Carter thought the media furore ridiculous and there were many others involved with Tutankhamun’s discovery who lived long and healthy lives.

When Howard Carter died on 2 March 1939, aged 64, Lady Evelyn Carnarvon was one of the very few people to attend his funeral. Sceptics argue that Carter’s death from natural causes is conclusive proof that a curse does not exist, however his last years were lonely, his health poor, and he was never formally recognised for his monumental discovery by his own country. It was, ultimately, a sombre end for a passionate man, without whose tenacity and belief the tomb of Tutankhamun and its marvellous treasures might still be hidden in the Valley of the Kings.

Jemma Saunders

See also articles on Tutankhamun – a brief summary, Ramses the Great, the Great Pyramids of Giza and the process of mummification.

Read more in Ancient Egypt: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.