Close Call: How Howard Carter Almost Missed King Tut's Tomb

British backer Lord Carnarvon wanted to call off the search for the lost tomb of Tutankhamun after six fruitless years of searching, but Howard Carter convinced him to stick it out for one more season—resulting in the 20th century's most famous find.

Before becoming world famous, Tutankhamun rested in obscurity, undisturbed for thousands of years. This photograph captures the early moments after Howard Cartered opened the king's solid gold coffin.
HARRY BURTON/THE GRIFFITH INSTITUTE

A hush fell on the group of British and Egyptian observers standing at the sealed doorway on November 26, 1922. Three weeks earlier, British archaeologist Howard Carter and his team had stumbled on a rubble-filled stairway in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Following the excavations of the late 1800s, many archaeologists thought the valley had yielded all its secrets. However, Carter had a hunch that there was still more to find. Egyptians began to bury their royalty in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 B.C.). Carter was searching for the tomb of an obscure king from the 18th dynasty. The boy king has since become Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, but when Carter was digging, his name—Tutankhamun—was only spoken in scholarly circles.

Having cleared the debris from the stairs, Carter’s team revealed the top of a doorway, sealed with plaster. Upon it were the undisturbed seals of the royal necropolis, a sight that made Carter’s heart race with excitement. After ordering the staircase filled in, Carter sent a cable to his patron—the wealthy Lord Carnarvon—that said: “At last have made wonderful discovery in valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact.”

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