A lively new portrait of Tutankhamun—published for the hundredth anniversary of his tomb’s modern discovery
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 sparked imaginations across the globe. While Howard Carter emptied its treasures, Tut-mania gripped the world—and in many ways, never left. But who was the “boy king,” and what was his life really like?
Garry J. Shaw tells the full story of Tutankhamun’s reign and his modern rediscovery. How did Howard Carter come to find the lost tomb of King Tutankhamun? What did he encounter when he first looked into the sealed chamber? Read this extract from The Story of Tutankhamun: An Intimate Life of the Boy who Became King.
The Discovery of King Tutankhamun`s tomb
The work began on 1 November 1922, a Wednesday. Carter’s team started by excavating and recording the workmen’s huts from the reign of King Ramesses VI. From that moment, things moved fast. On 4 November 1922, at 10 a.m., Carter’s excavation team, led by their foreman Ahmed Gerigar, uncovered ancient steps, descending into the bedrock. In his pocket diary, Carter excitedly recorded the discovery diagonally across the page. His team spent the rest of the day, and then the next day too, unearthing twelve steps, and eventually the upper part of a doorway which was stamped with the seals of the ancient necropolis. But who did this tomb belong to? Carter couldn’t see a name.
Beneath the doorway’s lintel, Carter forced a small opening. It was just big enough for him to insert an electric light and see inside. There was a corridor filled with rubble. It was a good sign that whatever lay beyond was intact – but the question remained, what did lie beyond? To Carter, it didn’t appear like a royal tomb. He wondered whether it was made for an ancient courtier, or perhaps it was a cache – a place where mummification material was stored. At this stage, there was no indication that it belonged to a king, and certainly not to Tutankhamun. Nevertheless, that evening, Carter sent a message to Carnarvon in England: he’d found an intact tomb. He’d wait for his arrival before excavating further. Carter’s team reburied the steps. It would be two weeks before Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn disembarked in Egypt. News that a discovery had been made in the Valley of the Kings started to make its way around the country.
By 24 November, Carter and Carnarvon were together again in the Valley of the Kings, and the excavation resumed. The steps were uncovered, and they began to fully reveal the doorway. As they carefully cleared the rubble, dust and sand from the bottom of the door, there was a moment of excitement and relief. The seal imprints, pressed into its mud-plastered surface thousands of years earlier, bore a name: King Tutankhamun.
Carter had been right all along. He’d made history. Or had he?
Doubts about what remained inside the tomb still plagued Carter’s mind. Along the stairway leading down to the door, the team had discovered broken pots bearing the names of Tutankhamun, Akhenaten and Smenkhkare. Other artefacts were dated to the reigns of Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep III. These finds once again raised the possibility that their discovery was a cache, not a tomb. Plus, it was clear that the doorway had been broken through in ancient times. Had the tomb – or whatever he had found – been robbed? Carter’s fears only grew when his workmen removed the doorway’s blocking stones and hauled away the rubble that filled the corridor beyond. In the upper left part of the corridor, a tunnel along its length had been filled with stones that differed from the rest. To Carter, there was only one conclusion: someone had tunnelled through, and their damage had been repaired. Artefacts scattered in the rubble, dropped perhaps, further indicated the presence of ancient thieves.
On 26 November, Carter’s team finished clearing the entrance corridor. It led to another doorway, covered in stamped seals of the necropolis. It too had been pierced at some ancient time – whoever penetrated the corridor had entered the tomb. What would be left inside?
Carter, Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn, archaeologist Arthur Callender and the Egyptian foremen in charge of the excavation gathered in the cramped space at the end of the corridor. They watched as Carter made a small hole in the top left corner of the door and poked an iron rod through into the darkness. There was an empty space beyond. He removed a little more of the doorway, asked for a candle, and leaned inside. Everyone waited for news. The candle flickered. Carter glanced around. Illuminated before him was a treasure trove of ancient artefacts. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Carnarvon was eager to learn what Carter could see. It must have felt like an eternity waiting for the archaeologist’s response.
‘Wonderful things,’ Carter said.
Carter expanded the hole so that Carnarvon could see for himself. An electric light brightened the space. Both archaeologist and sponsor must have felt a sense of wonder. In that small chamber, time had stopped. Despite all the signs of ancient thieves, it appeared almost totally intact. But one question still hadn’t been resolved: was this truly the tomb of King Tutankhamun? Was he buried somewhere inside? Taking turns to peer through the hole in the doorway, the group didn’t find the answer. The day ended, and they sealed the entrance with a wooden grille. Carter sent word to the chief inspector of the antiquities department: they had entered the tomb and made a great discovery.
Garry J. Shaw is an author and journalist covering archaeology, history, and world heritage. He is the author of six books including The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign, The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends, and Egyptian Mythology.