Theodore Davis and His Attempts to Discover Tutankhamun’s Tomb

From the Lecture Series: History of Ancient Egypt

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

Until the beginning of the 20th century, nobody had even heard of King Tutankhamun. But when the first signs of his presence appeared in the Valley of the Kings, different excavators aimed at finding his tomb. Howard Carter, the uneducated excavator, was the one who ultimately discovered it. But before that final discovery, many excavators thought they were close to finding it. One of them was Theodore Davis.

Close-up of an Egyptian hieroglyphic in the Valley of the Kings.
At the turn of the 20th century, hardly anybody knew about Tutankhamen. (Image: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock)

Howard Carter-Theodore Davis Partnership

Theodore Davis was a well-to-do American from Rhode Island, who got involved in excavating not because of experience or knowledge but for money. Howard Carter arrived in Egypt as an uneducated 16-year-old artist. There, he accompanied and assisted famous archaeologists and experts. He taught himself excavating techniques and himself became a famous excavator. That’s how he came in contact of Davis, who hired him to supervise his excavations in the Valley of the Kings. This partnership, where Carter did the excavations and Davis paid for it, led to many findings. The most important one was Tuthmosis IV’s tomb, which was already robbed.

Howard Carter Is Fired

But then Carter was transferred to another area, Saqqara, to supervise excavations. There, an incident happened, known as the French incident, due to which he was fired. In the Saqqara area, where Carter was the chief inspector, some French tourists wanted to go in without tickets. The Egyptian guard refused to let them in. The French, who were drunk, got aggressive and pushed him. In his defense, the guards pushed them back. This angered them and they made a complaint. It was the colonial times, and it was quiet unheard of that an Egyptian worker could push a Frenchman.

The incident created a political problem. The head of the Antiquities Service, who was French, asked Carter to have the guard apologize to the French. Carter refused, and then he was fired.

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

Theodore Davis’s Discoveries

Meanwhile, Theodore Davis had made a big discovery with the help of a new excavator, Edward Ayrton. He had found a ceramic cup under a rock in the Valley of the Kings. The cup, called faience, had the name of Tutankhamun on it. It was the first clue that linked Tutankhamun to the Valley of the Kings, probably indicating he might be buried there. Before that, Flinders Petrie had found some objects with Tutankhamun’s name at Amarna.

In 1907, Davis discovered a small pit in which a weird collection of objects were placed: Mummy bandages with Tutankhamun’s name on them, animal bones, floral collars, which were festive objects made of flowers sewn to papyrus.

Davis hoped these objects might belong to Tutankhamun’s tomb and that he might be close to discovering it. He thought maybe the tomb had been robbed, and those things were thrown in it. But as it turned out, those objects were the remains of the last meal eaten by Tutankhamen’s family and friends when they placed him in the tomb. The meal was part of a sacred ritual where they ate certain animals, drank wine, and wore floral collars.

He also found a small tomb that was robbed entirely and plundered. There was nothing in it, but Davis was sure it was Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Davis published a book titled The Tomb of Tutankhamun, in which he made a famous statement: “I fear the Valley of the Kings is now played out.” He meant he had found Tutankhamun’s tomb, and now there was nothing left to be found. But he was wrong as he hadn’t discovered the tomb.

Learn more about being a dead Egyptian.

The Discovery of Tomb 55

A photo of an Egyptian hieroglyphic.
The Valley of the Kings, is a valley in Egypt where, for a period of nearly 500 years, rock-cut tombs were excavated for the tombs of pharaohs and powerful nobles. (Image: George Nazmi Bebawi/Shutterstock)

Another great historic discovery was made during that period. In 1907, the famous Tomb 55 was discovered, which was robbed, but there was a curious collection of things in it. There was a big wooden gilded shrine that belonged to Queen Tiye, Amenhotep III’s wife and Akhenaten’s mother. They also found human internal organs put in a jar for mummification. On the jar, there was the head of a royal person with no name on it. The name had been polished off.

Inside the tomb, there was a beautiful wooden anthropoid coffin with a royal mummy in it. But the name was removed too. Some people thought that the mystery tomb belonged to Tutankhamun while the general feeling was that it belonged to another king from the same time.

So, the tomb of Tutankhamun was still hidden despite the attempts that excavators made to discover it. This mystery has made King Tutankhamun arguably the most famous king in the Valley of the Kings.

Learn more about what mummies tell us.

Common Questions about Theodore Davis and his Attempts to Discover Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Q: What was inside Tomb 55?

Inside Tomb 55, there was a gilded shrine made of wood that belonged to Queen Tiye. She was the great wife of King Amenhotep III and Akhenaten’s mother. There were also curious jars with human organs inside them kept for mummification. On the jar, there was the head of a royal person whose name had been polished off.

Q: Who was Theodore Davis?

Theodore Davis was a wealthy American from Rhode Island. He did not have any experience in excavation, but because he had money, he got permission for excavation. He hired Howard Carter to supervise his excavations in the Valley of the Kings and find the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

Q: What was the first sign of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings?

The first sign that connected Tutankhamun with the Valley of the Kings was when Edward Ayrton discovered faience cups with the name of Tutankhamun on them. Before that, Flinders Petrie had found some objects with Tutankhamun’s name at Amarna.

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