The Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb

From the Lecture Series: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

The 20th century saw a race among excavators to discover Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Several discoveries were made that first seemed to be related to Tutankhamun’s tomb, but were just false alarms. But finally, in 1903, an automobile accident happened, which eventually led to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. How?

Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert and Howard Carter at the top of the steps leading to the newly discovered tomb of Tutankhamun.
Lord Carnarvon (left) and excavator Howard Carter partnered to find Tutankhamun’s tomb. (Image: Harry Burton (Photographer)/Public domain)

Lord Carnarvon-Howard Carter Partnership

Lord Carnarvon, whose car was the second car ever to be registered in England, had the first car accident in history. And like most wealthy Englishmen, he went to Aswan in Egypt to recover. He found the country quite fascinating and decided to stay and conduct excavations there.

That’s how he ended up hiring Howard Carter, an unemployed excavator who was trying to survive by selling paintings. But they couldn’t excavate in the Valley of the Kings because the concession belonged to Theodore Davis then. So they then excavated in other places. But after five years, they gave up because they hadn’t found much.

Things turned in 1917. The Carter-Carnarvon team got permission to excavate the Valley of the Kings because Theodore Davis had given up the concession. Davis thought the Valley was exhausted, and there was nothing left to be found. Carter and Carnarvon took the concession with one aim: looking for Tutankhamun’s tomb.

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The Great Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Carter had comprehensive knowledge about the Valley of the Kings due to his long experience in excavation and being the chief inspector in the area. He made an accurate map of the valley and determined every spot that had to be excavated. They planned to excavate every inch of the valley, right down to bedrock, to find the long-searched-for tomb of Tutankhamun.

Tutankhamun's golden mask.
Tutankhamun’s tomb was finally discovered in 1922. (Image: Roland Unger/CC BY-SA 3.0/ Public domain)

Although WWI put a break to their mission, they were finally able to make a breakthrough in 1922. The team had been excavating the valley for several years with no significant gains. Finally, Lord Carnarvon got frustrated and decided to give up. But Carter insisted and asked him to give him one more season. He even pledged to pay for it, although he didn’t have the money. Lord Carnarvon accepted, and they went back to excavation.

The first thing Carter found was a step that he thought would lead to a tomb. When they uncovered all the steps, they found a wall at the end of the steps. The wall was sealed, which made Carter certain that he had found an intact tomb. He wired Carnarvon in England and asked him to come to Egypt immediately.

When Carnarvon arrived, they cut a small hole in the wall. Carter looked through the hole into the tomb and said he saw wonderful things. He said he saw the glint of gold everywhere. That was just the beginning of the discovery of a tomb full of objects gilded with gold.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Upon entering, the first room was full of furniture like ritual beds on which Tutankhamun was laid. It took them almost an year to clear out the room. An enormous gilded shrine had taken up the entire burial chamber. The wooden shrine was difficult to dismantle because the wood was 1,000 years old, and they had to be very careful. When Carter finally dismantled it, he found another shrine inside it. And then, there were two more shrines inside it.

Howard Carter examining the mummy of Tutankhamun.
It took Howard Carter’s team almost an year to clear out the tomb and reach Tutankhamun’s mummy. (Image: Exclusive to The Times/Public domain)

Inside the fourth shrine, Carter found a spectacular thing—a beautiful sarcophagus. Inside it there were coffins nested inside each other. Finally, he got to a stone sarcophagus, which was very difficult to open. But he finally managed to open it. They were finally able to discover the mummy of Tutankhamen, the first pharaoh whose mummy was still in the tomb, which was also found intact.

Tutankhamun: A Mystery

After discovering the tomb, Carter said several times that Tutankhamun eluded him. What did he by this? Up until then, Tutankhamen, a king, was just a mystery, just a name. But Carter wasn’t just a treasure hunter. He was looking for knowledge, and what had eluded Carter and everybody else was that they still didn’t know anything about Tutankhamun. There were no papyri in the entire tomb. There was nothing that gave more information about his parents. In fact, to this day archaeologists continue to debate about Tutankhamen’s lineage.

It seems strange, doesn’t it? A pharaoh is buried in his tomb with literally thousands of objects, no expense spared, and there is nothing historical to tell us about who he was.

There were other things about the tomb that were rather puzzling. For example, no crown was found inside the tomb. Yet he was the king of Egypt. They had his throne and his baby sandals. They even had his baby throne when he was a baby and when he was a boy-king. But where was his crown? A possible explanation to this can be that perhaps the crown was a magical object, passed from king to king. So that was the one object that the pharaoh could not take with him to the next world. But Tutankhamen sure tried to take everything else to the next world.

The discovery that Carter made was, no doubt, a highly valuable one, but it didn’t tell much about Tutankhamun—a mystery that remains unsolved.

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Common Questions about the Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Q: Who was Lord Carnarvon?

Lord Carnarvon was a wealthy Englishman who went to Egypt for recovery after an accident. He developed an interest in excavations and funded Howard Carter’s excavations to discover Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Q: When was Tutankhamun’s tomb discovered?

Tutankhamun’s tomb was first discovered in 1922. However, since the tomb was intact, it took the excavators an entire year to reach the burial chamber.

Q: Why is Tutankhamun significant?

Tutankhamun is one of the most significant kings in the Valley of Kings. His importance comes from the way his tomb was discovered. His tomb was entirely intact, unlike other royal tombs, which were robbed.

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