10 things to know about the discovery of King Tut's tomb

Few people believed that it could be found. Here’s how the historic unearthing of Tutankhamun’s tomb changed archaeology and our understanding of ancient Egypt.

Tutankhamun’s tomb, discovered in 1922, is still the most intact pharaoh’s tomb ever found. At the time, King Tut’s exquisite artifacts and his elaborate burial shrine captivated the world and provided new insights about ancient Egypt. A century later the discovery still amazes and has had lasting influence on the field of archaeology as well as Egyptian national identity.

(Graphic: See the enduring power of Tut as never before.)

Why did the discovery of the tomb of this young king, who ruled for less than a decade some 3,000 years ago, have such enduring impact? It had less to do with who he was when alive than with what happened after he died. Most important of all was when and how his tomb was found. Here are ten things to know about the discovery, why it was such a big deal at the time, and why it still matters today.

1. Tut’s tomb was incredibly well concealed.

The tomb of Tutankhamun was near the center of a crowded Pharaoh’s graveyard called the Valley of the Kings, west of the city of Thebes. Unlike pyramid burials that announced the presence of great treasures, these tombs were often covered over to protect them from discovery by looters. Tut’s tomb was eventually found under more than 150,000 tons of rocks, including debris from a tomb dug into the hillside above his. (How ancient Egyptians of all classes strived for eternal life.)

2. Few people thought the tomb could be found.

The search for Tutankhamun was a true believer’s quest. Experts of the day asserted that every tomb in the valley had either been raided in antiquity or uncovered more recently by archaeologists. An unimpressive site misidentified as Tut’s tomb was among those that had been excavated. Tut also seemed to have been a minor pharaoh, with only a few artifacts in the surviving record bearing his name.

3. But Howard Carter refused to give up.

Archaeologist Howard Carter went against the prevailing opinion and kept up the search. Carter dug for years, including during World War I, nearly losing the faith and funding of his English benefactor, the Earl of Carnarvon. Then, in November 1922, just days after starting what was to be the final year of excavations, the team found the top step of a staircase leading down to the tomb. (How grit and luck led to the discovery of Tut's tomb.)

4. Tut’s tomb had been broken into before.

The door the team excavated at the base of the stairs was sealed shut, but the tomb had been broken into twice. The robberies had taken place shortly after the burial, some 3,000 years prior to the discovery by Carter, with thieves stealing mostly smaller objects, such as precious stone beads. Ancient officials had patched the openings in the outer door with plaster and imprinted it with new seals after the last breach. An inner door down a sloping corridor had also been broken and re-sealed.

5. The royal tomb was found somewhat in disarray. 

In the first room Carter opened, called the antechamber, many precious items were arranged precariously, likely re-stacked in a hurry by officials restoring the tomb after the final robbery. The grandeur of the contents were nonetheless far beyond Carter’s expectations. Upon his first glance into the room, he declared it “wonderful.” Once the mist cleared, he could see by flashlight the many “strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.” (Discover King Tut's 5,000 treasures, by the numbers.)

6. It created new standards for archaeology. 

Carter extended techniques he had learned in previous work and set a new bar for meticulousness and comprehensiveness. Electric lighting, at the time an innovative tool, was installed in the tomb before Harry Burton, the world’s most accomplished archaeological photographer, recorded every scene. Numbered cards were placed by individual artifacts in photos before any object was moved, and Carter took detailed notes and sketches before packing up the inventoried treasures.

7. It shaped our understanding of Egyptian history.

Nearly intact, the tomb provided unmatched insight into this moment in Egyptian history. Chariots, weapons, clothing, and artwork reflected methods of warfare and who Egypt saw as its enemies. Murals illustrated religious beliefs, including a restored reverence for Amun, which Tut’s predecessor had diminished. The undisturbed coffins helped archaeologists better understand the elaborate burial practices. (King Tut's mummy hid many treasures. This graphic unwraps them.)

8. “Tutmania” spread across the world. 

Thanks to Burton’s detailed photos of the artifacts and a press more global in nature than ever before, news of the unparalleled find reached a worldwide audience. Even the King and Queen of England were hungry for updates. Egyptian and Tutankhamun motifs appeared in popular music and fashion, architecture and décor, and even in brands of fruit.

9. Egypt retained control of Tut’s antiquities.

Unlike many discoveries found in Egypt, Tut’s treasures didn’t leave the country. Lord Carnarvon had expected to claim a large share of the antiquities, as was customary for most excavations. In part because of Carter’s irascible personality but largely because Egypt was asserting its independence from England at the time of the discovery, the government instead insisted that they all remain in Egypt.

10. Tut is still inspiring a new generation of archaeologists.

At the time of the discovery, Tut quickly became a symbol of Egyptian identity. Now the more than 5,000 treasures from Tut’s tomb will be the centerpiece of a new Grand Egyptian Museum, and more and more Egyptians are directing archaeological work being done in the country. (Go inside Egypt's new billion-dollar museum, deemed fit for a pharaoh.)

Tut was an influential pharaoh, restoring the importance of gods that his predecessor had dismissed, but he had a very short rule and did not feature prominently in the historical record. He’s globally famous 3,000 years after his death because his tomb was so marvelous and so complete.

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