Carter Discovers the Tomb of Tutankhamen Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Howard Carter’s discovery of the relatively unspoiled tomb of a pharaoh provided an unprecedented glimpse into the splendor of ancient Egypt.

Summary of Event

Howard Carter began his Egyptological career as a draftsman for the Egypt Exploration Fund. In 1899, he was appointed inspector in chief of the monuments of Upper Egypt and Nubia by the Egyptian government. During his three-year tenure, Carter supervised a number of major restoration projects, including work in the Valley of the Kings, a rich but improperly explored area of royal tombs on the west bank of the Nile River, across from modern Luxor (ancient Thebes). Although there had been despoilers and treasure hunters in this valley in periods throughout its long history, Carter was among the first modern archaeologists to delve into its secrets. He cooperated with others in preparing several of the tombs for tourists by installing electric lights and constructing a system of pathways inside the tombs. Egyptology Tomb of Tutankhamen Valley of the Kings [kw]Carter Discovers the Tomb of Tutankhamen (Nov. 4, 1922) [kw]Tomb of Tutankhamen, Carter Discovers the (Nov. 4, 1922) [kw]Tutankhamen, Carter Discovers the Tomb of (Nov. 4, 1922) Egyptology Tomb of Tutankhamen Valley of the Kings [g]Africa;Nov. 4, 1922: Carter Discovers the Tomb of Tutankhamen[05620] [g]Egypt;Nov. 4, 1922: Carter Discovers the Tomb of Tutankhamen[05620] [c]Archaeology;Nov. 4, 1922: Carter Discovers the Tomb of Tutankhamen[05620] [c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;Nov. 4, 1922: Carter Discovers the Tomb of Tutankhamen[05620] Carter, Howard Tutankhamen Herbert, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux

In January, 1903, under the sponsorship of Theodore M. Davis, Davis, Theodore M. a retired American businessman, Carter discovered the royal tomb of Thutmose IV. Thutmose IV Although forgotten now because of Carter’s more spectacular success with Tutankhamen in later years, Carter’s discovery and excavation of the royal tomb caused a sensation. Carter and his colleagues painstakingly cleared the tomb of its contents and published a lengthy, meticulous account of their work.

In February, 1903, Carter and his assistants found the longest and deepest tomb in Egypt. It belonged to Queen Hatshepsut, Hatshepsut a unique woman in the history of ancient Egypt, given her twenty-year reign as sovereign. Her tomb has been called the most individual and extraordinary one in the Valley of the Kings. Also, Carter worked to clear and illuminate the previously discovered tombs of Merneptah Merneptah (son of Ramses II and perhaps the pharaoh from whom the Israelites escaped) and Seti I. Seti I The latter tomb, with its famous ceiling painting of the constellations, became one of the most visited tombs in Egypt.

Following a disagreement with his superior, Carter (by then recognized as one of the most prestigious Egyptologists in the world) resigned from his government post and spent five years selling his own paintings of the monuments and dealing in antiquities. From 1907 to 1923, however, he returned to archaeology under the sponsorship of George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, an English nobleman who was an amateur archaeologist in his own right, although he was often in poor health. Carter assisted Carnarvon in expanding his unusually fine private collection of Egyptian antiquities and directed his excavations.

In 1914, Carnarvon and Carter were granted a ten-year permit to excavate in the Valley of the Kings. Although it had been customary through much of the New Kingdom period in Egypt to bury pharaohs there, many of the tombs had never been located. Through an antiquities transaction, Carter not only acquired some relics of Amenhotep I but also was led eventually to the pharaoh’s previously unknown tomb. Carter later found additional tombs while continuing to investigate and restore others.

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Delayed by World War I, Carnarvon’s valley excavations did not begin until December, 1917. (With so much excavation, the site began to look like a battlefield.) After several years of relatively unsuccessful effort, Carnarvon became less willing to fund the expensive work. Nevertheless, one promising area remained. Carter successfully persuaded his patron to invest the necessary monetary support. Luck was with them thereafter, because on November 4, 1922, Carter’s workers exposed what appeared to be a rectangular pit cut out of a rock. By the next day, a stairway and sealed door proved to be yet another previously undiscovered tomb. Unlike other tombs, however, this door was still sealed, meaning, perhaps, that no one had entered it since ancient times.

Summoned by a telegram from Carter, Carnarvon hurried to Luxor. In Carnarvon’s presence, the sealed doorway of the tomb was opened. Then, in one of archaeology’s most dramatic moments, Carter looked through a small opening in the last door to see the interior of the tomb for the first time and was rendered speechless with amazement. Carter had, in the culmination of his career, glimpsed the greatest archaeological treasure trove of modern times.

The tomb consisted of six parts. The first two, both less than 2 meters (about 6.6 feet) wide, included a sixteen-step staircase entrance and a descending passage of 7.6 meters (24.9 feet) beyond. Both the staircase and the passage ended in sealed doors. On November 26, 1922, Carter looked through the second door into the tomb’s largest room (8 meters by 3.6 meters, or 26.3 feet by 11.8 feet), which he would call the antechamber. It was the first of the four rooms to be opened and the last to be sealed. A preliminary inspection of the antechamber by Carter and Carnarvon on November 27, 1922, confirmed that many of the objects within the tomb were inscribed with Tutankhamen’s name, thus establishing the identity of the tomb.

Carter and his staff spent seven weeks clearing, sorting, and preserving the more than six hundred artifacts found jumbled together in the antechamber. These objects ranged from still intact funerary bouquets, rush and papyrus sandals, royal robes covered with beads and sequins, and various alabaster cups and jars to a masterfully painted wooden casket, two life-size wooden statues of Tutankhamen, three couches, four disassembled chariots, and a spectacular golden throne.

On February 17, 1923, having completed his work in the antechamber, Carter opened another sealed door. Beyond it lay the smaller burial chamber (6.4 meters by 4 meters, or about 21 feet by 13.1 feet), which was almost entirely filled with four nested golden shrines (5 meters by 3.3 meters, or 16.4 feet by 10.8 feet). After much effort, Carter removed each of the four shrines in turn, but in order to get them out, he had to demolish the partition wall between the antechamber and the burial chamber, which clearly had been constructed after the shrines were in place. On February 3, 1924, the magnificent quartzite sarcophagus of the king was exposed to view for the first time. Nine days later, and after some complicated operations, its granite lid was raised on pulleys, revealing the outermost of three finely decorated nested coffins. Within the innermost coffin, which proved to be of solid gold, the royal mummy of Tutankhamen lay, with a spectacular gold mask covering its head and shoulders. Although badly damaged by funerary ointments, the mummy was sufficiently intact to allow experts to determine that Tutankhamen was approximately eighteen years of age when he died.

The other two rooms, a storeroom adjacent to the burial chamber and an annex entered from the antechamber, were cleared from 1927 to 1929, after work in the burial chamber had been completed. Both rooms contained important collections of smaller artifacts, but except for a large canopied shrine in the storeroom, none of the more famous pieces was found there. Further laboratory work at the site was required before the last finds could be transported to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Carter’s years of work in the tomb concluded in 1932.

Significance

Carter’s splendidly disciplined archaeological work set a new standard for others to follow. His discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings was not only the greatest event in the history of archaeological discovery there but also very nearly the last. Although some work has continued in the Valley of the Kings, most of it has been concerned primarily with the preservation of previously discovered tombs. The Valley of the Kings appeared to be exhausted, so archaeologists moved elsewhere—concerned, for example, with the more humble tomb builders as much as with the illustrious dead.

As Carter soon realized, Tutankhamen’s tomb was originally not royal. Atypical in both design and decoration, it was, by all indications, originally the tomb of a noble. Because the young king’s death was unexpected, no royal tomb was ready for him, so this lesser one was converted hastily for his use. Moreover, some of the goods that stocked the grave were intended originally for other people as well. How so many fine objects of art, including the gold coffin and masks, were made ready in such a relatively short time is a subject of speculation and wonder to this day.

The discovery of the tomb made a great impact in the history of art. One has only to open any book dealing with ancient Egypt of the Eighteenth Dynasty to find numerous objects depicted from the grave of Tutankhamen. Although one may be attracted to the gold, as Carter was, the wooden objects found in the tomb are more precious, in some respects, because they are no less unique and even more perishable. More than one-half of all surviving ancient Egyptian furniture, for example, was found in this tomb. Other objects discovered in the tomb had previously been known, if at all, from paintings. Because of these fine museum pieces and the gripping drama of their discovery after years of effort, “King Tut,” as headline writers have long preferred to call him, is the best known of all Egyptian pharaohs. He is, as Carter declared, “the king whose name the whole world knows.”

Despite his youth and premature demise, Tutankhamen also had some historical importance. In particular, he discarded the solar religion of his predecessor (and perhaps father-in-law), Akhenaton, changing his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamen in the process, so as to reaffirm his loyalty to the traditional deity, Amon-Re. With similar intentions, he erected a row of sphinxes and a statue of himself within the great temple of Karnak, on the eastern side of the Nile. The intrigues that preceded and succeeded his reign are among the most written about in the history of ancient Egypt. Theories as to the cause of his death are numerous. The overall result of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, then, was to place this pharaoh’s era firmly within the modern mind by illustrating it with a breathtaking richness of art and undying historical enigma. Brief though it was, the reign of Tutankhamen seems a golden moment in the history of civilization that will never be forgotten. Egyptology Tomb of Tutankhamen Valley of the Kings

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bierbrier, M. L. The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs. London: British Museum, 1982. Provides a brief, informative, and well-illustrated account of how the tombs were built and by whom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tutankhamen. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1972. Abridged edition of Carter’s original three-volume work includes a fine selection of photographs, many in color. Carter’s account of his work includes some clumsy writing, but it is nevertheless occasionally powerful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">David, Rosalie. The Ancient Egyptians: Beliefs and Practices. Rev. ed. Portland, Oreg.: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. Discusses the influence of religious and cultural beliefs on ancient Egyptian society, including funerary practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Cult of the Sun: Myth and Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: J. M. Dent, 1980. A stimulating and somewhat controversial account of Egyptian solar religion, particularly as practiced by the radical reformer Akhenaton. Several passages discuss the return to orthodoxy under Tutankhamen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">El Mahdy, Christine. Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Interesting work, accessible to general readers, is divided into sections on the archaeological, the historical, and the real Tutankhamen. Includes list of suggested reading and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mertz, Barbara. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978. Engrossing evocation of periods and customs makes the ancient Egyptians come alive. Describes a number of archaeological objects, including several from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Romer, John. Valley of the Kings. 1981. Reprint. London: Phoenix Press, 2001. Superb history of treasure hunting and responsible excavation in the Valley of the Kings by a historically minded archaeologist who also worked in the area. Surveys Carter’s entire career and provides an account of his work on Tutankhamen’s tomb that is suitable for a wide audience.

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