A scene of organized clutter in 1922.

How was King Tut’s tomb discovered 100 years ago? Grit and luck

The 1922 discovery became a global media sensation—and captured the imagination of millions.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter peered into Tutankhamun’s tomb on November 26, 1922, he beheld a scene of organized clutter. Writing in his journal, he described the tangle of treasures as a “strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another.”

Lady Fiona Herbert, the eighth Countess of Carnarvon, turns the folio pages of a leatherbound guest book, pointing out the signatures of illustrious visitors who frequented her famous home a century ago. We are high in Highclere Castle, the grand country estate some 50 miles west of London that in recent years became the setting for the popular period drama Downton Abbey. Now every table, chair, and much of the floor in Lady Carnarvon’s small study is stacked with books and original documents from the 1920s: letters, diaries, and yellowed photographs mounted in albums or rolled up like ancient papyrus scrolls. The guest register contains the cast of characters for a book Lady Carnarvon is writing about her husband’s forebear, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. “The Fifth Earl,” as she refers to him, famously sponsored British archaeologist Howard Carter in his dogged search for the lost tomb of King Tutankhamun. Lord Carnarvon also hosted lavish parties at Highclere that brought together an eclectic mix of explorers, diplomats, socialites, and—a bit surprising for an English aristocrat—leaders of Egypt’s independence movement.

Lady Carnarvon stops at July 3, 1920, and introduces the guests as if she’d been at the soiree herself. “Here is Howard Carter, of course, who spent weeks here each summer planning the excavations with the Fifth Earl … British High Commissioner Lord Allenby … Alfred Duff Cooper and his beautiful wife, Lady Diana Cooper.” She indicates a noble who signs only one name, Carisbrooke—a grandson of Queen Victoria: “A minor member of the royal family, to give the gathering a little street cred.”

She points out a series of signatures, some in Arabic script. “And look there … Saad Zagloul, Adly Yeghen, and other fathers of the modern Egyptian state.” Zagloul, a national hero in Egypt, had been arrested and exiled for his opposition to British occupation. Yet here he was, hobnobbing with British bigwigs.

“I can see what he was doing, because I do it myself,” Lady Carnarvon says of the earl. “The Fifth Earl was putting people together informally, where they could develop a measure of personal trust, maybe even friendship, before negotiating a treaty or solving a political crisis.”

I notice that Zagloul signed his name next to Carter’s and wonder if they conversed about the fate of Egypt’s ancient treasures. Zagloul decried foreign control of Egyptian antiquities as a pernicious form of colonialism—an issue over which he would soon clash with Carter and the archaeologist’s blue-blooded benefactor.

Lord Carnarvon began spending winters on the Nile in 1903, on the advice of his doctor. He suffered congenitally poor health, made all the worse by a near-fatal car accident that left him with badly injured lungs. (An avid “automobilist,” Carnarvon owned one of the first cars in England.) Breathing Egypt’s desert air was, he said, like drinking champagne.

Soon Lord Carnarvon was relishing Egyptian antiquities as much as Egypt’s air. In 1907 he hired Carter to search for artifacts for his growing collection at Highclere and to supervise the excavations he was funding.

Carter had left England for Egypt at 17 with no formal training in archaeology but with marked talent as an artist. He developed a keen eye for artifacts and in 1899 was appointed one of two chief inspectors of antiquities in the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

Carter’s fortunes took a sharp turn in 1905, after what he called a “bad affray” with a group of French tourists. (They were drunk and abusive, Carter claimed, although he later admitted to having a “hot temper.”) To avoid a diplomatic incident, his superior told him to express his regrets. He refused, feeling that his only honorable option was to resign, which he did several months later.

Carter had been scratching out a living selling watercolors to well-heeled tourists when he was introduced to Lord Carnarvon two years later. The two men stood far apart in the social pecking order, but they shared a passion for ancient Egypt. Their partnership would lead to the discovery of a little-known boy king who had been laid to rest with a staggering store of treasures, then largely forgotten for more than 3,000 years. The find was one of archaeology’s greatest triumphs, offering the world a dazzling vision of ancient life on the Nile and instilling in modern Egyptians a new sense of national pride and self-determination.

Important clues to the whereabouts of Tutankhamun’s tomb came to light in the early 1900s in the Valley of the Kings, a complex of rugged canyons across the Nile from modern Luxor, site of the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. Unlike earlier pharaohs who were interred in towering pyramids that became easy targets for looters, Theban royals were buried in tombs dug deep into the secluded valley’s rocky hillsides.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Theban necropolis was Egypt’s most productive and prized archaeological site. Excavations sponsored by Theodore Davis, an American businessman, produced a string of important discoveries. Among them were a few artifacts bearing the name of the mysterious Tutankhamun.

Carter had developed an intimate knowledge of the Valley of the Kings during his years as chief inspector. But before he and Lord Carnarvon could start digging there, they had to acquire the excavation permit, called a concession, which was jealously held by Davis.

Archaeologists and treasure hunters had been digging in the valley for decades, and many believed the heyday of discovery had come and gone. After years of funding successful excavations, Davis was coming to the same conclusion. “I fear the Valley of the Tombs is now exhausted,” he wrote in 1912. When he relinquished his concession, Lord Carnarvon, at Carter’s urging, snapped it up in June 1914.

Later that same month, the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke plunged Europe and the Middle East into World War I, delaying a full-on search for Tutankhamun’s tomb until the fall of 1917, when improving news from the war allowed resumption of excavations. Over the next five years, Carter and a team of Egyptian laborers moved an astonishing 150,000 to 200,000 tons of rubble. The work was hard, dusty, and sweltering under the desert sun.

Those five years of pain produced little gain, and Carter’s benefactor grew disillusioned. Perhaps the valley was indeed picked over and played out. In June 1922 Lord Carnarvon summoned Carter to Highclere and announced he was giving up on the valley. Carter pleaded for one more season of digging, even offering to pay for it himself. Lord Carnarvon reluctantly agreed. When Carter arrived back in Luxor on October 28, 1922, the clock was ticking down. Seven days later, a chance discovery lifted his hopes—and soon upended his world.

On November 4, a member of Carter’s team whose name is lost to history stumbled upon a carved stone, the top of a buried stairway. In his pocket diary, Carter wrote just five words: “First steps of tomb found.”

The next day, the team uncovered 12 steps and descended to a doorway that had been plastered over and stamped with pharaonic seals. The seals were too indistinct to be read but were clearly unbroken. Convinced he’d discovered an intact royal tomb, Carter cabled Lord Carnarvon in England: “At last have made wonderful discovery in valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact ... congratulations.”

News of the discovery spread quickly, and reporters raced to the valley to witness the opening of the tomb. Lord Carnarvon arrived on November 23, and by the 24th, Carter and his team had exposed the entire doorway and found seals that were more easily read. Several contained the long-sought-after name: “Nebkheperure,” the throne title of Tutankhamun.

Carter and his companions were elated, but a second discovery cast a shadow over the celebration: The doorway bore evidence of forced entry. Someone had been there before them.

The door was cut away, revealing not a treasure-filled tomb but a sloping passage filled with rubble. Two more days of digging brought them to the tomb, more than 20 feet underground. Another plastered doorway bore more seals naming Tutankhamun. Carter made a small hole in the masonry, held up a candle, and looked in. In what would become one of the most famous exchanges in the annals of archaeology, an impatient Lord Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” to which Carter replied, “Yes. It’s wonderful.” (See the enduring power of King Tut as never before)

The objects he spied were indeed wondrous: golden beds, life-size guardian effigies, disassembled chariots, a richly decorated throne, all in a jumble. Carter wrote later, “At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.”

Tutankhamun’s tomb, Carter soon learned, included four rooms, now known as the antechamber, annex, treasury, and burial chamber. The tomb was unusually small for a pharaoh, but the rooms were packed with everything he would need to live like a king for all eternity—some 5,400 objects in all.

It was an archaeologist’s dream—and nightmare. Unpacking, cataloging, preserving, and moving the hoard of artifacts—many of which were damaged and fragile—would take a decade of painstaking work and involve an interdisciplinary team of specialists, including conservators, architects, linguists, historians, experts in botany and textiles, and others. The project signaled a new era of scientific rigor in Egyptology.

Carter’s friend Arthur “Pecky” Callender, an engineer, built a pulley system to lift heavy objects, installed electric lights, and, when necessary, sat at the tomb entrance with a loaded gun to fend off intruders.

Alfred Lucas, a chemist and forensics expert, analyzed the tomb as a crime scene and concluded that two break-ins had occurred in antiquity, soon after Tut was laid to rest. The robbers ransacked some rooms but managed to get away only with smaller, portable items. (Scholars now believe the thieves made off with more than half the royal jewelry.)

Harry Burton, who, like Carter, had been an English country lad of modest background, was by 1922 widely recognized as the world’s preeminent archaeological photographer. He set up a makeshift darkroom in a nearby tomb, and his evocative images helped make the discovery and excavation a global media event.

Egypt had bewitched its invaders ever since Roman legions conquered the Nile and hauled Egyptian obelisks, hieroglyphs, and deities back to the Eternal City. But the new power of media in a world desperate for diversion after the draining horrors of World War I unleashed a modern wave of Egyptomania that made the boy king a pop-culture celebrity.

Soon there were King Tut lemons from California, King Tut cigarette cards and biscuit tins, even a board game called Tutoom in which little metal archaeologists on donkeys searched for treasures. Songs such as “Old King Tut” were Jazz Age hits danced to by flappers wearing cobra headpieces and eye of Horus kohl eyeliner. Egyptian symbols flowed into art deco. Hieroglyphs and cartouches invaded wallpaper, clothing, and furniture fabrics. Egyptian-themed movie theaters opened in some 50 U.S. cities, adorned with gods and sphinxes, papyrus columns, and faux tomb frescoes.

When Lord Carnarvon returned to England, he was invited to Buckingham Palace for a personal audience with King George V and Queen Mary, so eager were the royal couple for Tut news. Carnarvon gave the London Times exclusive rights to the unfolding story in return for 5,000 pounds sterling and a percentage of future sales. The deal enraged Egyptian journalists and the international press, whose reporters had to scramble for any scrap of news.

Nowhere was Tutmania more powerful than in the pharaoh’s homeland. Egyptians flocked to the Valley of the Kings to see the excavation. Schoolchildren performed plays celebrating the young pharaoh, with props inspired by Burton’s photographs. Political leaders and poets greeted Tutankhamun as a national hero.

“He reminds them of their past greatness,” says historian Christina Riggs, “and what their new nation, which only months before had won its independence from Britain, may achieve in the future.”

Egyptians saw Tutankhamun’s return to the world as a message from their glorious past. Ahmad Shawqi, the muse of Egyptian independence, addressed Tutankhamun in his poems as the spiritual leader of the Egyptian people. “Pharaoh, the time of self-rule is in effect, and the dynasty of arrogant lords has passed,” Shawqi wrote. “Now the foreign tyrants in every land must relinquish their rule over their subjects!”

Egyptians were claiming sovereignty not only over their laws and economy but over their antiquities as well. Archaeology and empire had long been tightly interwoven, with major excavations funded by European and North American museums, universities, and wealthy collectors such as Lord Carnarvon. In return, funders expected to receive up to half the antiquities discovered, in keeping with a decades-old tradition known as partage, from the French partager, “to share.”

But Egypt’s new leaders would soon insist that all of Tutankhamun’s treasures were part of Egypt’s patrimony and would remain in Egypt. “The new Egyptian government’s decision to keep the collection of Tutankhamun all in Egypt was an important statement of cultural independence,” says Egyptologist Monica Hanna. “This was the first time that we the Egyptians actually started to have agency over our own culture.”

A second great discovery came in February 1923. Carter chipped a hole in the wall of Tut’s burial chamber, held up a flashlight, and peered through. “An astonishing sight its light revealed,” he later wrote, “a solid wall of gold.” The golden wall was, in fact, part of a large, gilded box, or funeral shrine, inside of which were three more shrines and a quartzite sarcophagus. Inside the sarcophagus, Carter would later discover, were three mummy-shaped coffins nested one within the other.

Lord Carnarvon joined Carter in the tomb for the much anticipated opening of the burial chamber. Less than two months later, the Fifth Earl was dead from an infected mosquito bite that led to blood poisoning and pneumonia. His sudden demise gave rise to rumors—and many imaginative newspaper articles—of a mummy’s curse that brought death or misfortune to those who disturbed the pharaoh’s resting place. (Meet the mummies you've never heard of.)

Undaunted, Carter pressed ahead with the excavation, now supported by Lord Carnarvon’s widow, the Dowager Countess Almina Carnarvon. But when Egyptian authorities began taking a more active role in the excavation, Carter stopped work in protest—spurring his new overseers to bar him from the tomb. It would take nearly a year for him to regain access, and only after he and his patroness had renounced all claims to Tut’s burial goods.

When work resumed in 1925, Carter focused on disassembling the nested coffins, a herculean task that required clever engineering. The innermost coffin was made of solid gold and weighed almost 250 pounds. Inside lay Tut’s mummified remains, with a stunning mask of gold covering his head and shoulders—an artifact destined to become the symbol of Egypt’s proud past. Yet the man behind the mask would be slow to give up his secrets.

A series of autopsies, x-rays, CT scans, and DNA tests performed over the past century have sought to shed light on Tutankhamun’s parentage, life, and death. Yet time and again, the evidence uncovered points several ways and is open to interpretation.

Tut’s father—most likely King Akhenaten—and his mother (whose identity is still debated) were brother and sister, leaving their children vulnerable to genetic defects. In Tut’s case, a congenitally deformed foot may have been the legacy of royal incest—a not uncommon practice in his time and place.

His birth name wasn’t Tutankhamun but Tutankhaten, “living image of Aten.” His presumed father—often referred to as the “heretic pharaoh”—had spurned the traditional pantheon of Egyptian gods, Amun supreme among them, and worshipped a single deity known as Aten, the disk of the sun. Akhenaten, “servant of Aten,” shuttered temples, seized the power and wealth of priests, and elevated himself to the status of a living god.

After his radical father died, Tutankhaten ascended to the throne at eight or nine years old. He would later oversee a restoration of the old ways—no doubt under the direction of advisers and priests eager to restore their standing. His name became Tutankhamun, “living image of Amun,” and he wed a daughter of Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti named Ankhesenamun (presumably his half sister). Two mummified fetuses discovered in Tut’s tomb were likely his stillborn daughters.

Objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb have led scholars to contradictory conclusions about his short life. Noting the numerous throwing sticks and chariots, some experts have claimed that the young pharaoh led a physically active life of hunting and warfare. Other observers, pointing out the large number of walking sticks and his clubfoot, imagine him as an invalid.

Causes of the king’s death proposed over the years have included a chariot accident, a hippopotamus attack, a fatal bout of malaria, and murder. One thing is clear: The young ruler’s death was sudden and unexpected, and his officials had to quickly appropriate a courtier’s cramped, unfinished tomb and round up an ample supply of grave goods, some of which appear to have been made for other royal figures.

His successors would try to erase from history nearly every trace of the heretic Akhenaten and his associates, including the birth name Tutankhaten. And so, for Carter and others, searching for the boy king was like chasing a ghost. “The mystery of his life still eludes us,” Carter wrote. “The shadows move but the dark is never quite uplifted.”

Longtime contributor Tom Mueller has lived or worked in 48 countries. Widely regarded as the finest archaeological photographer of his time, Harry Burton (1879-1940) carefully documented the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. 
Quotes from Howard Carter © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford
This story appears in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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